Will it save the Dead Sea?

In July 2005, the World Bank will hold a donors’ pledge meeting to seek financing for a study on the feasibility of bui! lding a water conveyance project from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. For over two years the World Bank has been negotiating with the Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian governments to prepare and finalize the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the feasibility study and the environmental and social assessment of the project. In May 2005, after a long process of highly secretive political negotiations, the parties agreed to a common text that now allows the World Bank to proceed.

The project is considerable by any standard. The investment required is estimated at US $5 billion. The desalination component proposed is 5-6 times larger than that of any facility that currently exists. No other project anywhere in the world seeks to connect two seas.

For some, the size of the project excites–large profits to be made, opportunities for high profile leadership, and technological challenges to highlight humankind’s ability to overcome the "limitations" of nature. For others, however, and not only environmentalists, the project still raises many more questions than answers.

In May 2004, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, David M. Satterfield, testified before the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee stating his concerns related to the project. He testified:

And there are many crucial questions about the project that remain unanswered, such as: 1) will the introduction of Red Sea water into the Dead Sea have a major negative impact on the chemistry of the Dead Sea water?; 2) while introducing Red Sea water into the Dead Sea to control the level of the Dead Sea may alleviate some environment problems, will such introduction cause other negative environmental impacts?; 3) what will the environmental effects at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba be, where the Red Sea water will be siphoned into the project?; and 4) will the cost of the desalinated water delivered to customers in Amman or other population centers be too expensive for consumers?

The World Bank would likely respond to these concerns by stating that all these and other questions will be answered by the ToR feasibility study that they now seek to undertake. The NGO community is not invited to the World Bank meeting. Therefore, before the donor community convenes to hear the presentations of the World Bank and to be asked to pledge the US $15 million needed just to undertake the study, it should ask the World Bank a few more questions concerning the ToR in order to make sure that taxpayers’ money is well spent.

The demise of the Dead Sea is due to the impact of upstream water diversion projects together with mineral extraction industries in the southern basin of the Dead Sea. The natural water conveyance that once brought water to the Dead Sea was the flow of the lower Jordan River. Until the 1950s, some 1.3 billion cubic meters of fresh water flowed down the historic Jordan River and into the Dead Sea. Presently, the flow of the lower Jordan is down to 50-100 million cubic meters. Israel, Jordan and Syria divert 95 percent of the water upstream. The impact of the water diversion is not only tragic for the Dead Sea but also for the Jordan, a river holy to millions of people around the world. The water diversion is so great that in summer the Jordan River no longer reaches the Dead Sea.

What has been left to flow in the Jordan River is untreated sewage and saline water diverted from the Sea of Galilee. One of the most important sites to the Christian world where Jesus was baptized has been defiled.

Recently, 16 members of the US Congress wrote a letter to the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian leaders calling on them to restore the Jordan River’s integrity.

Rehabilitating the Jordan River is also a commitment made by both Israel and Jordan under the terms of their 1994 Peace Treaty. Yet in the ten years since the signing of the Peace Treaty, the governments have done nothing for the river.

An estimated minimum 300 million cubic meters of clean water are required to flow down the Jordan River to rehabilitate it. This constitutes almost half the amount of water required to stabilize the Dead Sea and prevent the sea level from falling any further.

The World Bank’s response to the inclusion of the Jordan River in the ToR is simply that there is nothing to discuss. The Bank refuses to study the root cause for the demise of the Dead Sea, stating "the natural flow of the Jordan River is fully appropriated for what is considered essential use by the various water sectors." The so-called "essential use" must refer to agriculture, as agriculture takes the majority of fresh water in the Middle East.

Large quantities of water provided for agricultural purposes in the semi-arid to arid areas of the Middle East would not occur if water to the agricultural sector were not heavily subsidized. The water subsidy to agriculture not only has an environmental result (the demise of the Jordan River and Dead Sea are just two examples), but it also leads to economic absurdities. In Israel, 50 percent of the fresh water resources are allocated to agriculture and yet the economic return is only 2-3 percent of the GDP. In Jordan, 75 percent of fresh water resources are allocated to the agricultural sector and yet the economic value is only 6 percent of the GDP.

In response to this criticism and in order to protect its own credibility, the World Bank recently agreed that in the ToR "statements on water resources management that provide an overview of the policies in the context of the Dead Sea and identify ongoing and planned actions to address broader water resources issues will be prepared in the region."

Donors would be well advised not to invest millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in exchange for vague "statements on water resources management". For political reasons the World Bank is trying to avoid dealing with the difficult issues involved in saving the Dead Sea. A ToR that claims to have saving the Dead Sea as its prime aim without any examination of the causes behind the problem and an investigation into whether those causes can be mitigated in the first place puts the credibility of the whole study into question.