An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy makes his way into the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi August 9, 2007. Reuters/Yannis Behrakis

JERUSALEM -- It took a miracle for Moses to part the Red Sea's water.

Now, a mammoth multinational project to do pretty much the same thing may need a comparable level of divine intervention.

The proposed $10 billion Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit -- a joint Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian project touted by its supporters as the solution to Jordan’s water deficit and the Dead Sea’s environmental degradation, as well as the catalyst for regional peace -- is facing hurdles as immense as its lofty goals.

“It’s way too complicated,” said Munqeth Mehyar, director of the Jordanian arm of Friends of Earth Middle East or FoEME, a trinational Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian organization dedicated to making peace through environmental projects.

Proponents say the conduit would stabilize the depleting Dead Sea by piping each year 2 billion cubic meters of seawater from the Gulf of Aqaba into the inland body of water. Along the way, the water would be pumped through hydropower plants to generate electricity and desalination plants to produce drinking water. The by-product would be up to 800 million cubic meters of fresh water when the desalination plants run at maximum capacity. The lion’s share of fresh water would go to water-poor Jordan, and the leftover brine to the Dead Sea, which is receding at a rate of 1 meter, or more than 3 feet, a year.

It sounds like a dream come true. But the science is far from certain and the financing is shaky -- and then, there’s the politics.

The last two weeks have seen stormy discourse at public hearings in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman between the project’s staunch proponents and those not quite so convinced that the World Bank’s $16 million feasibility study and an environmental and social assessment of the project, released in January, hold water.

Critics say the project would require international donations totalling $4.5 billion, while the world still grapples with the aftermath of a global economic crisis. Three billion dollars more would come mostly from private business investment in Israel. Cash-strapped and heavily indebted Jordan would have to secure an extra $2.5 billion. Israel would have to recognize the riparian rights of Palestinians to the West Bank portion of the Dead Sea. None of these things are easy.

But the biggest concerns stem from the possible environmental impacts. Israel’s Ministry of the Environment released a statement in early February in light of the reports and of a $500,000 alternatives study, also conducted by the World Bank.

"The Dead Sea is a unique and a rare natural resource, and hasty decision -- devoid of real data and tests -- may destroy it completely and with it the tourism,” said Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Ardan.

It’s hardly a “hasty decision,” though. Talk of a canal or conduit between the Red Sea and Dead Sea has been around for decades, and the World Bank has worked on the project since 2005. Now that the international body’s reports are out and the public hearings are complete, it’s decision time for the governments of Israel and Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s Ministry of Regional Development, headed by Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, leads the conduit project in Israel. Maya Eldar, who advises Shalom on the project, said the ministry remained in favor of the conduit. “We are going to … check whether it’s going to work economically and environmentally. But it should be something that’s going from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. To leave the Dead Sea like this is to let it die. This is trying to prevent it,” she said.

The Jordanian government supports the conduit, so long as money promised by some Gulf states actually appears, as does the Palestinian Authority, at least in principle.

Three Goals

The project’s three objectives are to save the Dead Sea from environmental degradation; to generate electricity and desalinate water at affordable prices for Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority; and to build a symbol of peace and cooperation in the Middle East.

The degradation of the Dead Sea -- which is actually a hypersaline lake -- is due to the stemmed flow of the Jordan River and to the extraction of valuable minerals and potash from the water, by companies that evaporate between 280 and 350 million cubic meters of it each year.

Environmentalists say that trying to replace it with water pumped in from an actual sea 200 km (130 miles) away is a jump into the unknown. And in any case, it may not be enough: the Dead Sea needs 1 billion cubic meters of new water each year to reach a stable state, according to the Word Bank’s feasibility study.

What is known is that adding Red Sea water to Dead Sea water will change the chemical composition of the latter, particularly the first 50 meters (about 160 feet) of depth. What remains a mystery -- in the absence of a pilot study or full 3-D modeling -- is how much, and whether it would alter the Dead Sea permanently.

The surface layer will certainly dilute and may reach the critical value where the biological phenomena of red algae blooms occur. According to the reports, the algae blooms would result “in changes of water color, turbidity and possibly floating slimy deposits in the waters.”

Mixing the two waters will also produce gypsum, a mineral that could have the beneficial effect of curbing the algae. Or, it could turn the Dead Sea white.

FoEME has opposed the project since it was first proposed in its current form at the Earth Summit 2002 in Johannesburg.

The chief complaint from the group has to do with the Dead Sea’s attraction as a natural spa, due to its unique mineral composition, said FoEME's Israeli director, Gidon Bromberg. Tourists invariably get photographed floating belly-up in the warm water, buoyed by a salinity more than eight times the ocean average. The impact on the Dead Sea’s unique ecology and related tourism would be astronomical if either the algae popped up or the gypsum changed the water’s color, Bromberg said.

“You are certainly going to reduce the salinity, but it’s still going to be high enough to float,” he added. “But would you want to float with slime? It’s not existent in the Dead Sea at the moment. If the Dead Sea turns into a milky white, are you going to want to float? The two bodies of water will not mix -- it’s like bringing oil and water together.”

Doron Markel, Israel’s representative at the Study Management Unit for the International Feasibility Study for the Red Sea-Dead Sea convergence, was less concerned about the gypsum.

“So there will be a whitening effect. So what? The research said it may be suspended on top, but they don’t know,” he said. “However, they found a way to mitigate the problem. They found that by adding gypsum it will coagulate and sink it to the bottom.”

Affordable Water?

Gypsum or not, there’s also the production of water, a big issu ein this parched part of the Middle East.

But FoEME Jordanian director Munqeth Mehyar is under the impression the World Bank’s feasibility report fudges the real numbers. The report listed a potential benefit of $10 billion over 50 years, based on the increased availability of water as a result of the project, but it calculated that number on the cost of tankered water. That’s the most expensive option to obtain water in Jordan.

In reality, the feasibility study states that the cost of a cubic meter of water via the Red Sea-Dead Sea conduit would be up to $2.70, which is nearly triple the current cost of a cubic meter of fresh water to Amman residents. The cost to Israel and the Palestinian Authority would be up to $1.85 per cubic meters. Israel’s Mediterranean desalination plants produce drinking water for an average price of $0.61 per cubic meters.

The feasibility study also estimates a benefit of $1.4 billion from the generation of hydropower over 50 years, being the total amount of hydroelectricity generated multiplied by the difference between the long-run marginal cost and the actual unit cost of producing hydroelectricity. But the two power stations connected to the conduit would create just 251 megawatts of electricity altogether, not enough to pump the projected 800 million cubic meters per year of desalinated fresh water to Amman.

So the project would be in a power deficit to the tune of 880 megawatts, and that’s without calculating the cost to pump water to Israel and the Palestinian territories. To make up for that, it would require two new power stations that would double the project’s carbon footprint. The report says those “conventional” power stations would push emissions of CO2 per year to 650,000 metric tons by the year 2020.

Building Peace, Or Maybe Not

Israel’s Markel said the three governments have worked well together on the conduit project so far, which is an effective mechanism for peace-building.

But the devil is in the details. The governance structure laid out by the World Bank requires recognition of all parties’ riparian rights to the Dead Sea, but the West Bank that borders the Dead Sea is still under Israel’s control, as it has been since 1967. Project financing is dependent upon Israeli leadership recognizing Palestinian sovereignty of the Dead Sea in the West Bank. That is unlikely, given the stalled peace process.

There’s also the security risk. The preferred route of the conduit is solely on Jordanian territory. Israeli investment could be a hard sell if the conduit is vulnerable to the tap being turned off in the event of war. Jordan, while formally at peace with Israel, previously turned down a proposed conduit from the Mediterranean for the same reason.

Then there’s the potential for terrorist attacks, such as those that have occurred repeatedly on the gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel in the Sinai.

The initial stage of the conduit project would produce 230 million cubic meters of fresh water for Amman and 60 million each for Israel and the Palestinians by 2020.

It’s a minimal amount of water for Israel compared to the some 600 million m3 it will desalinate on the Mediterranean by the end of 2014. But it would service the Arava region, which is water-poor. And, anyway, Israel’s main concern is saving the Dead Sea, said Maya Eldar from Israel’s Ministry of Regional Development.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” she said.

Eldar’s team supports a pilot stage for the conduit, but the feasibility study indicates that the design requires 75 percent of the full scale of the project to be built in order to meet the project’s objectives and not encounter a cumulative loss of $3 to $4 billion. “The first phase would not even cover the interest on the finance needed to build [it], let alone cover the operating and maintenance costs,” the report said.

Markel, the Israeli representative at the conduit’s study management unit, agrees: “We suggest a very careful step. Start with a slow stage one,” he said.


FoEME threatened to take the World Bank to the inspections panel -- an independent complaints mechanism for people who believe they have been, or are likely to be, adversely affected by a World Bank-funded project -- over its failure to initiate a study of alternatives to the conduit.

“We don’t think it was so much the Bank, but our own governments that didn’t want the alternatives report,” said Bromberg, who claimed there are a handful of companies that stand to make big bucks from the conduit’s construction. (He declined to name them, as the work is still in its early stages.)

“The alternatives study is making life difficult for those who want to build the Red-Dead canal,” he said, mentioning the World Bank’s look at other possible ways to tackle the project.

That study compares the conduit proposal with roughly 20 alternatives, or combinations of alternatives, to meet the project’s aims.

One combination suggested that the project’s objectives could be met without the big price tag or environmental risks by doing a number of things together. This would include rehabilitating the Lower Jordan River; adding desalination plants in Aqaba and on the Mediterranean coast; importing water; improving water recycling and conservation; and taxing the Dead Sea companies for the water they evaporate. It could also be implemented incrementally, allowing room for technological advancement.

FoEME has long argued that replenishing the lower course of the Jordan is the answer to the Dead Sea’s decline, considering it is its natural life source.

The flow rate of the Jordan River once was 1.3 billion cubic meters per year; as of 2010, just 20 to 30 million flowed into the Dead Sea. The reason for this is because its fresh water is diverted by Israel, Syria and Jordan.

The European Union last year funded FoEME to develop a master plan to restore the Lower Jordan.

Markel countered that this combination of alternatives was still at concept stage, it was unrealistic, and that FoEME had an agenda of its own. “There’s no alternative for fresh water to flow in the Jordan River into the Dead Sea,” he said. “We don’t have this water; nobody will produce this water and discharge it into the Jordan.”

A report on the public hearings is due to be published in Israel in mid-March, but any decision on how to move forward will have to be taken by Israel’s government. But after January’s general elections, outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu still hasn’t cobbled together a new majority. And a hot summer, with its increased rate of Dead Sea evaporation, looms.