A plan to save the Dead Sea by pumping desalinated brine from the Red Sea will fail to address the real causes of the ecological catastrophe
On a cliff beside Route 90, a highway that runs along the fringes of the Judean desert on Palestine’s West Bank, an old engraving seems to encapsulate the story of the Dead Sea – a thick, red line and underneath it the letters “PEF”.
These were etched by members of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a British society, surveying the Levant in 1900. They approached the cliff by boat to mark the level of the Dead Sea.
More than hundred years later, the road lies about four metres below the surveyors’ mark, and the shoreline is nearly half a mile away.
The Dead Sea, which lies at the lowest point on earth, has been dropping at an alarming rate of about one metre a year. This year it stands at 428 metres below sea level.
There are two main culprits behind this ecological disaster. One is the chemical industries on the Israeli and Jordanian shores of the Dead Sea, which withdraw 250-280 million cubic metres (mcm) of water every year.
The other cause is the dramatic dwindling of the lake’s main feeder, the Jordan River. For decades, Syria, Jordan and Israel have diverted too much water from the biblical river and its tributaries for household consumption and irrigation. Now the river carries about 3% of its past water volume.
A number of proposals to rehabilitate the Dead Sea have been floated over the years. Last December, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed a memorandum of understanding ––presented as a remedy for the ailing lake. However, a closer look at the agreement casts serious doubts over the prospects of restoring the ecosystem.
The new deal includes the trans-boundary exchange of water and the development of a desalination plant in the Jordanian port of Aqaba on the northern tip of the Red Sea, to be shared by the participating countries, and the pumping of brine to revive the Dead Sea, through a 180 kilometre pipeline.
Israel will take the majority of the 80 million cubic metres (mcm) of desalinated water produced every year, with the rest going to Jordan. In exchange, Israel will supply Jordan with 50 mcm of freshwater from the Sea of Galilee. The project will be completed by February 2018.
For Jordan, this project is a vital lifeline. Jordan is one of the world’s most water scarce countries – a reality that’s already felt in the populous capital of Amman, exacerbated by the influx of refugees from war torn Syria in recent years.
Israel has also agreed to sell an additional 30 mcm of the desalinated water to the Palestinian Authority. However, Israel already controls water sources in the occupied West Bank, and the country has been accused of denying Palestinians their fair share of water.
According to the trilateral agreement, the Aqaba desalination plant will only discharge 100 mcm of brine into the Dead Sea, 20 times less than is required to restore the sea, according to a study by international experts earlier last year.
The December agreement comes after a comprehensive study, coordinated by the World Bank on behalf of the three governments, examined the option of saving the Dead Sea by linking it with the Red Sea, and supplying potable water, primarily to Jordan.
The final report concluded that a pipeline carrying two billion cubic metres of Red Sea water and desalination brine could stabilise the Dead Sea’s water level within about 30 years. At the very least, the authors stated, it would take 700 mcm of water to prevent further decline of the lake.
But the new agreement will only stop the decline by 20%, said Saad Abu Hammour, secretary general of the Jordan Valley Authority and the Jordanian chairman of the project’s steering committee. “It’s still little quantities, but it’s better than nothing,” he added.
And it’s also an expensive project. The pipeline alone will cost an estimated US$300-400 million, and the project as a whole, according to Abu Hammour, will cost about US$900 million.
Environmentally destructive, economically irrational
Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) do not believe the project will actually materialise. The Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental NGO supports the water exchange part of the deal, its Israeli director Gidon Bromberg told thethirdpole.net. However, “we remain incredibly sceptical that there will ever be anything connecting the Dead Sea [and the Red Sea] because [it] makes no economic sense.” Both alternatives for disposing of the desalination brine – to dump it back in the Red Sea or treat it onshore – might be cheaper than the pipeline.
The environmental costs are also high. While discharging desalination waste into the sea is a common solution around the world, there are concerns about the impact on the Red Sea’s sensitive marine ecosystem. Environmentalists argue that mixing the two seas’ waters (the introduction of brine into the Dead Sea) could produce a chemical reaction that would possibly create gypsum and red algal blooms.
“The best solution for the brine is to build evaporation ponds near Aqaba,” argued Bromberg.
The rationale behind developing a brine pipeline that stands to bring no substantial benefits, but bears a significant price tag, remains elusive.
Keep the river flowing free
Reviving the Dead Sea requires governments to tackle the root causes of its demise.
FoEME’s Bromberg insists the region’s governments need to increase the amount of water allocated to restore both the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Last June, for the first time in five decades, Israel started gradually releasing freshwater from the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River with the aim of eventually allowing up to 30 mcm of water to flow down this iconic stream.
But the NGO believes Israel needs to release 200 mcm over the next decade, and a similar amount should come from both Jordan and Syria. Abu Hammour agreed.
At the same time, the quantity of water chemical industries take out from the lake should be tamed, said Bromberg. “First and foremost we’re saying the industry should pay for the water … they have no incentive to conserve.” In addition, water-efficient technologies should be introduced, he says. “We don’t want to close the industry. But we demand the industry behaves more sustainably.”
According to Abu Hammour, the Jordanian water and irrigation ministry is already helping industries to develop the most advanced water conservation technologies, which he believes could help save “at least 100 mcm [a year]”.
The cost of failing to protect the Dead Sea is well known. Damage to agriculture and infrastructure is already visible. Thousands of sinkholes have emerged around the periphery of the lake.
The authors of the World Bank-managed study predict the Dead Sea’s surface level will fall to 550 metres below sea level by 2150. If this happens, “the chemical industries would also eventually go out of business incurring another substantial reduction in regional GDP,” experts warned.
In the meantime, another World Bank study not only concluded that it is “unlikely” industries will reduce the amount of water they withdraw, but also recommended taking into account a further 10% in water extraction due to expansion plans.