Sodom and Gomorrah, lying in the desert heat, were the cities to which God sent Abraham in order to find righteous men in the heart of evil. It was where Lot and his family were living, and from whence they emerged into the world. The area has always been rich in drama and emotions.
And, indeed, the project of bringing water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea has always been controversial. On one hand, it may benefit the residents of the area and promote peace in the Middle East and around the world; on the other hand, the radical ecological upheaval may cause unpredictable and irrevocable damage.
The Dead Sea Canal has been in the headlines for nearly two hundred years – each generation and its version: from the Mediterranean, from the Red Sea, from the Sea of Galilee, to the Dead Sea. In the beginning, the canals were envisioned as a transport route through the kingdom, later, utilising the altitude discrepancy to produce electricity. In recent years, the plan was updated, and apart from electricity, the aim is now to produce clear water using Reverse Osmosis.
Over the years and with the receding Dead Sea water level, the environmental aspect of saving the Sea has become yet another factor; and electricity production, utilising gravity rather than polluting fossil fuel, has gained weight. Alongside the project, dreams abound of lining the canal with a road connecting Jordan and Syria, thus promoting peace throughout the region.
The Dead Sea Canal
In 1850, the British naval officer William Allen visited Israel. Allen was possibly the first to envision a canal feeding the Dead Sea. The Suez Canal had not yet been built, and Allen was mostly seeking routes to facilitate transport throughout the British Empire. He proposed a canal from Haifa harbour, through the Jezreel Valley and towards the Jordan Valley. According to his plan, water from the Mediterranean would flood the Jordan Valley, turning it into a salt-water lake. Later, Allen also proposed a canal from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.
Johann Kremenezky, a multi-faceted engineer and later the head of the Jewish National Fund – he invented the famous Blue Box – supported the idea and managed to infect Ze’ev Binyamin Herzl with his enthusiasm. Herzl gives the canal pride of place in his utopian novel, Altneuland, which was published in 1902 and has since been translated into a slew of languages. The book is freely available on the internet for those who have not yet appreciated its pages.
As a result, the Dead Sea Canal was promoted and publicised by Herzl – himself, an example of that rare kind of madness whose visions actually come true, perhaps because that vision was so timeless and free of temporal constraints.
In principal, the Dead Sea Canal refers to three main options: Red Sea to the Dead Sea, and Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, the latter using either a southern or a northern route. The northern route (first publicised in the Tsfira daily newspaper by a German engineer in 1893) proposed transferring water via the Jezreel Valley and Beit Shea’n to the Jordan River. Another alternative offered Hadera as the source, and through the Hadera River towards the Jordan River (which at the time was still an actual flowing entity). The southern route began in the Gaza/Ashkelon area. For now, all these plans have been shelved.
With the advent of the Middle East peace process, the Dead Sea Canal plans were put back on the agenda in several forms. The most widely referred to – one which then-Foreign Minister Shimon Peres promoted – was based on the Red Sea-Dead Sea route using an open canal for part of the route, and a closed aqueduct excavated along the Israeli-Jordanian border. Based on the preliminary blueprint, Red Sea water would be raised to the highest point in the Arava, 200m above sea level near Be’er Menuha, and from there dropped by gravity towards the Dead Sea – a 600m fall. The plan had (and still has) some attractive advantages – the development of a joint Jordanian-Israeli region, clear water supply and offsetting the Dead Sea for water impounded along its Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River supply route.
In the Sixties, the state of Israel initiated and constructed the Ha’Movil Ha’Artzi National Water Carrier – quite possibly the country’s most ambitious project to date. In spite of the numerous years elapsed since my primary school days, I can still remember the excitement as my teacher described the grandeur of the endeavour. Its main function was to supply water to the Negev by transferring water from the Sea of Galilee through the Negev. Thanks to this project water is still supplied to all corners of the state, and its construction was instrumental in the development of the Negev and the country’s south. In fact, one cannot imagine Israel today without it.
Nevertheless, the draining of the Sea of Galilee over the years hindered the flow of water through the Jordan River, and what was once a raging waterway is today mostly a seasonal stream – usually presenting itself in the form of floodwater enriched with considerable amounts of sewage.
The amount of water supplied to the Dead Sea has diminished to a third. But, to be clear, Israel is not solely responsible for this calamity. Alongside the National Water Carrier, Syria and Jordan also instituted similar water projects that have further depleted the Jordan River of its wealth.
For millions of years, the Jordan River supplied water to the Dead Sea, often flooding it, always evaporating from it – since from this lowest point on earth the water can flow no lower. Now, the water no longer arrives and the level of the Dead Sea has been constantly dropping. The environmental results of changes in the Dead Sea have been distressing and the Dead Sea region has undergone some painful ecological changes. The sea level has dropped, the sea surface has diminished, and changes in the sub-terrain have resulted in dangerous landslides (sinkholes). It is feared that the sea – along with its precious environmental and economical treasures, as well as its social and religious legacy, will totally disappear. The Dead Sea’s disturbing evaporation is caused by a lack of water. The Jordan River’s water is being drained along its entire route to supply many states and many more people. This water usage and the resulting trends are a siren to the residents of the region, whose responsibility it is to solve these problems.
As mentioned, concurrent with the plans to transfer water from the Mediterranean, which were rejected, plans were also proposed to transfer water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea by aqueduct – a series of pipes, tunnels and canals in the Arava district – towards the Dead Sea. The project even attained a moniker, ‘Red-Dead’, and was presented to a joint Israeli-Jordanian-American committee. A feasibility test was made, resulting in warm recommendations. In 1998 a new master-plan for the project was proposed by Rephael Benvishti, which received the support of the Minister for Regional Cooperation, current president, Shimon Peres, and the accord of the Jordanian government.
Now, if Israel is thirsty for water, Jordan is even more so. Most of the land is desert, and, although Jordan does utilise floodwater and has built a huge dam across the Arnon river, there still is a substantial shortage of water. The Red Sea, the Gulf of Aqaba is located in the country’s south, far from Amman and the large population centres, and there is no access to the Mediterranean, making seawater desalination and piping unfeasibly expensive.
For the Jordanians, water initiatives and the possibility of supplying agricultural water mean family reunification and the return of their sons from foreign lands, where they went to seek work, since a steady income from agriculture is presently unviable. Jordanian support for the plan is a dictate of the critical need for water to ensure the economy and welfare of the kingdom. There is a possibility that if Israel postpones the Dead Sea Canal, the Jordanians will execute the project on their own, and then the chance for regional cooperation on this exceptional project would be lost. Economic inter dependence between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians may not result in a great deal of love, but it will certainly reinforce chances for peace and regional cooperation.
Current plans combine the aim of stabilising the Dead Sea’s level – saving the Dead Sea, desalinating water for the area and creating a model for regional cooperation that strengthens peace. In March 2007, the project was presented within the framework of Shimon Peres’ Economic Peace Corridor initiative, which was accepted by the Israeli government. The project is in the process of engineering, environmental and economic feasibility tests at the World Bank, which is expected to finance it should it be convinced of its viability.
Tests are being applied on two levels: economic feasibility and environmental feasibility. The project will be executed in two stages. Its length is estimated at 180 kilometres. At its entry point at the southern part of the Dead Sea, the largest desalination plant in the world will produce about 800 million cubic metres of clear water each year – eight times the rate of any existing plant. Water surplus will flow to the Dead Sea. In addition, the canal route will host a hydro-electric power plant that will utilise the altitude differential between the two seas to produce 800 megawatts of electricity for the operation of the canal, the desalination plant and more.
As in any other large regional project, one that changes the face of the environment, the establishment of such an ambitious enterprise raises serious fears.
Additional natural events may take place that are unforeseen, altering the set of considerations. Responsibility widens tenfold when considering the Dead Sea – a unique region located at the lowest point on earth. In addition, the Dead Sea and the Jordan River are holy to three religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Environmental monitoring should accompany each stage of the project, from its entry point in the Red Sea. The marine environment and coral reefs of Eilat are of high scenic sensitivity. The marine community and reef have been suffering for years due to nutrient enrichment and the damage caused by agriculture and massive tourism. It is a complex area under constant disturbance, making the maintenance of equilibrium even harder. The main source of disturbance over a time period will be due to water extraction and the transfer of water and nourishment to the Dead Sea. Since this sea is basically a desert sea, poor in minerals, maintaining the balance will require monitoring and discretion. An additional fear is the suction of fauna, especially plankton, into the suction pipes, entrainment, and the entrapment of wildlife, impingement – both fears that dictate a slow-working system of suction pipes that affords escape for the fish.
An additional concern is disinfection activities aimed at preventing pipe blockage by sea fouling; the disinfectants used, if emitted into the seawater – especially the Red Sea – may cause damage. Proposed technologies will be tested in the initial testing stage, and then their effect upon the seas, as well.
During the construction of the suction plant, marine operations and foul will temporarily cause water turbidity, owing to the lucidity of the desert seawater.
Additionally, and in accordance with the technical specifications of the suction plant and the preliminary activities, problems are expected that will intensify during the early stages when the operating systems are being studied.
In spite of an early test series, in which water was transferred from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, it is difficult to predict the overall effect: will the new water float on top of the old? Will they mix? What will be the interaction of the two water bodies? Will these waters solve the sinkhole phenomenon? Different researchers offer different opinions – sometimes totally divergent. In any case, only the real situation will provide real answers, and still there will be those who said “I told you so!”
The Arava region concentrates a large amount of groundwater from the large rivers of the Negev, Eastern Sinai and the Edom Mountains. This groundwater affords the development of trees. The vegetation varies according to strata and water quantity. The fact that most of the region is wild and exposed enables animals a geographical leeway that exists in no other region in Israel. Mammals that feed off wide-area territory, such as tigers, may be harmed by boundaries, and the plan will need to take account of this and enable them unhampered movement. A large variety of birds that migrate through this region are less sensitive than land-bound animals; however, they may be affected if their sources of water and food along the route are harmed.
Our task, as ecologists and environmentalists places a huge responsibility upon us. We must collate all available information and analyse it while, at the same time, listening to the professionals and those who are acquainted with the region and its ecological systems. Concurrently, we must take into account the non-professional and negative opinions that are at odds with any project, including those underway. Without doubt, among the professional researchers one will also find contradictory opinions, encumbering even further the resolutions of the politicians and citizens.
Life in the twenty-first century charges decision-makers with the task of taking all existing knowledge and technologies into consideration, in order to improve the quality of life in its wider sense. We must employ the resources we have responsibly, so that our children will have a sufficient supply. Today’s medical and technological sciences raise considerably the number of people who can exist upon the globe. The same purveyors of those sciences must guarantee the health of the babies and their future as adults. Developing a population without assuring it the basic infrastructures of water and employment is a secure path to human suffering and international conflict.
Entrepreneurs and leaders must understand that they must supply those infrastructures – of knowledge, of development – that will minimise the damage, and to ensure the alignment of planned projects with the natural environment. This does not mean hindering projects of great import, but rather intelligent development that takes into consideration all the environmental components that are part of a complex ecology.
Dr Rachel Einav is CEO of Blue Ecosystems (www.blue-ecosystems.com), a company providing marine environmental consulting. She obtained her PhD from Bielefeld University (Germany) in eco-physiology and adaptation strategies of marine macroalgae. The results of her Post Doctoral project In Bar Ilan University (Ramat Gan, Israel) have been published as a book – Seaweeds of the Eastern Mediterranean Coast, (in Hebrew, and in English by ARG Ganther Verlag KG, India), which is now being translated into Arabic. Dr Einav’s scientific interests are in the area of marine environment and anthropogenic effects on seaweed communities. She is also an enthusiastic sea kayaking paddler.
W: www.blue-ecosystems.com E: [email protected] www.osedirectory.com/environmental.php
Published: 01st Mar 2011 in AWE International