Topping up the Dead Sea?

Topping up the Dead Sea with water from either the Mediterranean or Red Sea sounds like a great idea but as always the damage is in the detail. What got me thinking about this? Well, I’ve just returned from my first ever visit to Israel and was amazed at the how this very little country (about the size of Wales) has often in its long history found itself at the crossroad of events.

I visited Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls had been found in 1946 by a shepherd boy trying to retrieve a lost sheep and was struck how the presence or absence of water has such a controlling effect on history. The scrolls would have never been preserved since about 100BC if water had been present. And yet they would never have been existed if the people who created them hadn’t had access to water coming off the mountain from a long dried-up stream.

This site is now within the Palestinian West Bank. One doesn’t have to travel far down the valley of the Jordan River to see how important irrigated water is in making the desert bloom. Unfortunately everybody in this densely populated land wants access to some of that really valuable water both for survival and commercial applications.

The Jordan River has only a limited supply. Until 1950 the river would transfer 1.3 billion cubic metres of water per year into the Dead Sea. Now only 50 million cubic metres arrives. Much of this is agricultural runoff and fishpond effluence. The level of the Dead Sea which it feeds is consequently dropping at an alarming speed – greater than 1 metre per year; the development of the cheap and reliable electric water pump that makes irrigation on this scale possible has probably got a lot to answer for, certainly in the short term. (Due to its high salinity people can float in the Dead Sea, and of course I had to try it out. It’s a weird not entirely unpleasant experience, providing you don’t ingest any of the water!)

The Dead Sea is at the lowest point on the Earth’s surface, nearly 400 metres below sea level and is over nine times more saline than the oceans. The Dead Sea also sits in the Jordan Rift Valley, the northern part of the rift valley in Africa where humans were first thought to have arrived. Importantly however the valley was caused by the movement of two tectonic plates making it a highly earthquake-sensitive region.

Attempts to reduce the Dead Sea problem by other than a massive reduction of water abstraction have revolved round two basic schemes that involving brine pipelines from either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean. First, the Mediterranean–Dead Sea Canal was proposed in 1980s Israel. It was discarded due to high investment costs however the idea but has now been revived, with a route (pipeline, tunnel and canal) proposed from The Mediterranean to the Dead Sea through the Beit She’an and the Jordan Valley.

Second, in 2005, the governments of Jordan and Israel and the Palestinian Authority, working with the World Bank, took the unprecedented step of all agreeing to a USD 15 million study into a large-scale engineering project to save the Dead Sea (other donors also later contributed). The main idea was to transfer two billion cubic metres of water per year from the Red Sea, 180km northwards, probably via pipeline, to replenish and rehabilitate the Dead Sea. The Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project’s feasibility report, reported this January, estimated a USD 10 billion cost, involving a 177km pipeline and a RO desalination plant to generate fresh water. Supporters believe it would act as a symbol of peace and co-operation between the nations and Jordan has already announced a first stage demonstration.

The World Bank report (see also Q&A sheet here and summary sheet here) however suggests that the highest risk will be with the potential leakage of seawater into underground aquifers. In an area of such high seismic activity this is a real problem and Friends of the Earth have compared the potential decision to go ahead, with Japan’s decision to build nuclear power plants that were ultimately damaged by an earthquake and tsunami.

Israel’s environmental organisations also suggest that the if the pipeline was built it would lead to an outbreak of bacteria and algae with all the health and odour consequences that would follow.

The real solution both economically and environmentally is not to abstract as much water from the Jordan. And yet as usually occurs when there is a competition for a water source, the three users here all seem to believe they all have the greatest need for the water (Jordan for example is classified by the UN as one of the most water-poor countries in the world needs all the water it can get and the creation of an energy neutral desalination plant is a very important to them.

A second World Bank report has in fact raised alternative options to either pipeline, including desalination, water conservation reforms such as wastewater reuse, water pricing. As always the problems, both engineering and political, are more complex than at first realised. One vital factor is that something needs to be done quite quickly and that any massive engineering project will take at least 10-20 years to be constructed (c.f. the UK’s comparatively simpler HS2 high speed train that we’ve been informed will not be completed until the 2030s at the earliest!).

Financing for such a glamorous project will be much easier to raise, although not necessary the best long term solution. The international water industry has always been plagued with massive engineering solutions, the creation of magnificent giant dams being a prime example where engineering grandeur often wins out over more mundane, but perhaps in the longer term more sustainable approaches.

Update (15/11/2016): Photo added of Qumran from here.

Roger Ford

1 comment

  1. Fascinating blog. I have never considered the ‘plague’ of massive engineering solutions in this light. Thank you.

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