FROM THE FIELD
Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East

How to Wrap Your Head Around Dead Sea Rehabilitation

by |June 13, 2016

By Ann Marie Hager

As we passed the Dead Sea, I could hear the pain and strain in the voices of my Israeli colleagues: The Dead Sea was visibly receding. Many spoke of the visible differences from their own childhoods, evident in this photo:

The Dead Sea is receding about 1 meter per year. Photo: Ann Marie Hager

The Dead Sea is receding about 1 meter per year. Photo: Ann Marie Hager

The Dead Sea has been receding at an average rate of 1 meter per year. As the terminal body of water for the Jordan River Watershed, Dead Sea shrinkage can be attributed to Syria, Jordan, Israel and Palestine diverting water from its tributaries at various points, along with potash companies in both Jordan and Israel evaporating Dead Sea water to harvest its minerals. How can this important historic, cultural and environmental landmark be rehabilitated in one of the world’s driest regions while improving water access for Israel, Palestine and Jordan?

Two of the most talked-about proposals for rehabilitating the Dead Sea are constructing a canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, called the “Red-Dead” project. Another proposal, constructing a canal from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea, appropriately termed “Med-Dead,” would build a channel from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. Both options can be seen below:

Image: Arava Institute pre-feasibility study.

Image: Arava Institute pre-feasibility study. (Click for pdf of the study.)

However, both plans face political and environmental challenges.

Pumping brine uphill and then letting it flow downhill to the Dead Sea would not only increase the Dead Sea’s water level, but it would also generate hydropower. The hydroelectric energy produced would alleviate only some of the energy needs for pumping water uphill, but not all.

Furthermore, two aquifers span the Israeli and Jordanian territories: the coastal aquifer and the mountain aquifer, seen in the image below.

Because these territories are so seismically active, building any canal would run the risk of contaminating fresh groundwater housed there. A ruptured pipe would spill brine directly into these aquifers. With such limitations on freshwater in the region, this is a particularly precarious risk to take.

Map of the Jordan River Basin. (Click to view the related paper, a pdf.)

Map of the Jordan River Basin. (Click to view the related paper, a pdf.)

Furthermore, leftover brine from desalination would be put in the Dead Sea, thereby raising its level. However, traditional seawater is mostly composed of NaCl, or sodium chloride, whereas Dead Sea water is made of mostly KCl (potassium chloride) and MgCl (magnesium chloride). The most obvious consequence of mixing sodium-based water from the Red Sea with potassium-based water from the Dead Sea would be the formation of gypsum. In discussions with leading Jordanian scientists, the phenomenon was described as “white icebergs (of minerals) floating along the surface of the Dead Sea,” which would potentially hurt the Dead Sea tourism industry. However, the gypsum would likely sink, making the potassium harvesting (potash) industry a more difficult endeavor. Both the potash and tourism industries contribute significantly to the economies of Jordan and Israel.

The political challenges for Red-Dead and Med-Dead are no less cumbersome.

The Jordanian government has put much time and political will into supporting the Red-Dead project, and has an interest in seeing it come to fruition. Currently, there are plans for low-level implementation of the project, which in turn means the amount of water allocated for Jordan falling well below its current need.

The Med-Dead project faces even further political dispute. This was first voiced by Jordanian representatives of a well-known, regional non-governmental organization, who asserted that Jordan would never accept a Med-Dead proposal. After some discussion, it became clear that Jordan, understandably, would not be willing to support a Med-Dead proposal where control of water would be left entirely to the Israeli side, leaving Jordan to Israel’s whims and potentially changing interests.

Furthermore, Israel is currently a world-leader in desalination. With state-control of all water resources, research in desalination and wastewater treatment, and access to the entire Mediterranean Sea, some experts assert that Israel has “solved” its water issue via desalination. Thus, Israel is now in a position to sell water to Jordan.

But selling Jordan desalinated water from Israeli technologies still leaves Jordan’s fate in Israeli hands, a situation Jordanians do not prefer.

Thus, we must ask: What is the Israeli interest in providing Jordan with water?

Israel has an acute interest in Jordan’s stability. Jordan, with a still-developing economy, huge influxes of refugees from Palestine, Iraq and most recently, Syria, and the water issues discussed above, has more than one reason to lose its coveted and long-standing stability.

Israel, which geopolitically views Jordan as a buffer from unfriendly neighbors as well as a recipient of regional refugees, knows keeping Jordan stable is fundamentally within its interests.

While Jordan worries about its dependency on Israel, Israel worries about its interest in Jordan.

While neither the Red-Dead nor the Med-Dead is a perfect solution, desalination may provide another opportunity for interdependence, while satisfying both states’ interests.

I can wrap my head around that.

ann marieAnn Marie Hager is a master’s degree candidate in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution program at Columbia. She was among a group of students who traveled to Israel and Jordan to study environmental challenges. You can also follow their experiences at #CUJordanIsrael2016.

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