The Dead Sea: A Pathway to Peace for Israel and Jordan?September 7, 2010 By Russell Sticklor
The Middle East is home to some of the fastest growing, most resource-scarce, and conflict-affected countries in the world. New Security Beat’s “Middle East at the Crossroads” series takes a look at the most challenging population, health, environment, and security issues facing the region.
Amidst the start of a new round of Middle East peace negotiations, the fate of the Dead Sea — which is divided between Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank — may not seem particularly relevant. But unlike the perpetually thorny political issues of Israeli settlement policy and Palestinian statehood, the Dead’s continuing environmental decline has sparked rare consensus in a region beset by conflict. Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians all agree that something must be done. The much more difficult question, however, is what. But no one is lacking for ideas.
Who Stole the Dead’s Water?
Some 1,400 feet below sea level, the shoreline of the Dead Sea lies at the lowest dry point on the planet. Since the 1970s, this ancient inland saltwater sea has been changing, and fast, with the water level dropping at a rate of three feet per year. The region’s stifling heat and attendant high evaporation rates have certainly played their part. But the real culprits are irrigated agriculture and household water demand, spurred by population growth, which have siphoned off much of the precious little water that once flowed into the sea.
Historically, the Jordan River and its tributaries have contributed roughly 75 percent of the Dead’s annual inflow, or about 1.3 billion cubic meters per year. Even though the Jordan isn’t a large river system, it is an economic lifeline in this parched region. The basin’s waters have been tapped to the point of exhaustion by businesses, farms, and households in Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, and, father afield, Syria and Lebanon. With the cumulative population of those areas projected to increase by 68 percent between now and 2050 (or from 44.9 million today to 75.4 million by mid-century), strain on the region’s water supply will only increase with each passing year.
Already, the Jordan and its tributaries are far worse for the wear. Pollution is an ongoing concern thanks to untreated wastewater entering the river system, while a sprawling network of dams and other irrigation diversions to “make the desert bloom” has carried with it a hefty environmental price tag. The Jordan now delivers a scant 100 million cubic meters to the Dead each year, with up to 50 percent of that flow likely contaminated by raw sewage due to inadequate wastewater treatment upstream.
Meanwhile, water depletion rates in the Dead have been exacerbated by mineral-extraction companies on the sea’s southern reaches, which rely heavily on evaporation ponds to remove valuable minerals from the saltwater.
Tapping the Red
Attempts to internationalize the environmental dilemmas facing the greater Dead Sea region range from a proposed transborder “peace park” in the Jordan River valley to a global, internet-driven campaign to vote the Dead Sea as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. But by far the most ambitious — and controversial — idea for restoring the Dead Sea’s health is to build a 186-mile canal to bring in water from the Red Sea.
The plan has been around for decades, but has not gotten off the drawing board due to its large scale and costs. The project’s centerpiece would be a waterway built through the Arava Desert Valley along the Israeli-Jordanian border. Proponents on both sides of the border say the canal could help raise the Dead’s surface level, helping restore the area’s struggling ecosystems. And given the canal’s substantial elevation drop from sea level to shoreline, its waters could likely be harnessed for hydroelectricity, powering desalination plants that would provide new fresh water for the region.
The project could also harness cross-border environmental issues to transcend long-standing political and religious divisions between the region’s Jewish and Arab populations. “People are saying that water will cause wars,Dr. Hazim el-Naser in a 2002 interview on the canal project, when he served as Jordanian minister of water and irrigation. “We in the region, we’re saying, ‘No.’ Water will enhance cooperation. We can build peace through water projects.” Currently, the canal proposal is the subject of a World Bank feasibility study expected to be completed in 2011.
Deep Skepticism Remains
Still, as diplomatically and environmentally promising as a Red-Dead canal may seem, not everyone is on board with the proposed project. Environmentalists’ concerns run the gamut from unintended ecological impacts on the Dead Sea’s delicate chemical composition, to a sense that, even after decades of on-and-off consideration, the project is being pushed at the expense of other possible policy options.
The New Security Beat recently contacted Mira Edelstein of the international environmental nonprofit Friends of the Earth Middle East via email to discuss some of the group’s concerns about the canal. Edelstein highlighted some of the potential pitfalls of — and alternatives to — a canal link to the Dead:
New Security Beat: How have population growth and the corresponding rise in food demand in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank affected the Dead Sea’s health?
Mira Edelstein: The Jordanian and Israeli agricultural sectors still enjoy subsidized water tariffs, making it easy to continue growing water-intensive crops. But this depletes flows in the lower Jordan River system, and directly impacts the Dead Sea.NSB: Why is your organization opposed to the idea of a Red-Dead canal link?
ME: Friends of the Earth Middle East does not support a Red Sea link, as this option carries the risk of irreparable damage. We believe that this option will not only damage the Dead Sea itself — where the mixing of waters from two different seas will surely impact the chemical balance that makes the Dead Sea so unique — but also because we are worried that pumping such an enormous amount of water from the Gulf of Aqaba will likely harm the coral reefs in the Red Sea itself.NSB: What steps do you propose to improve environmental conditions in the Dead Sea and the Jordan River valley?
Additionally, the Arava Desert Valley, where the pipes will be laid, is a seismically active region. Any small earthquake might damage the pipes, causing seawater to spill and polluting underground freshwater aquifers.
ME: It all has to do with the water policies in the region. The governments [of Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank] desperately need to reform our unsustainable policies, and at the top of this list is agriculture. This means removing water subsidies and changing over from water-intensive crops to more sustainable crops appropriate for the local environment.Sources: Friends of the Earth Middle East, Israel Marine Data Center, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Geographic, the New York Times, Population Reference Bureau, United Nations, Washington Post, Waternet, the World Bank.
In addition, wastewater treatment plants need to be built throughout all of the Jordan valley region so that only treated wastewater is used for agriculture. Some of that treated water, and of course fresh water, should be brought back into the Jordan River system that will later flow into the Dead Sea…In addition, ecotourism projects should be encouraged, as they are an economic stimulus that can help support greater environmental conversation in the region.
Photo Credit: “Dead Sea Reflection,” looking east across the Dead Sea to the Jordanian shore, courtesy of flickr user Mr. Kris.