Basel Burgan

The Disi Water Conveyance Project was set to be the dream saviour for Jordanians until the middle of the next decade.

Before 2011, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation had announced several times that with the Disi project there would be a complete shutdown of aquifer water usage until 2024, after which aquifer water pumping will resume, provided no other new solution is added to the Disi project.

The sudden influx of 1.5 million Syrian refugees evaporated the ministry’s dreams and demanded new solutions.

For the government, this was an opportunity to revive the Red-Dead Canal project, largely considered a by-product of the Wadi Araba peace agreement between Jordan and Israel.

The Red-Dead Canal was thought to have the potential to push 2 billion cubic metres of water 160km from the Red Sea towards the Dead Sea; a desalination plant midway would desalinate 700 million cubic metres of water shared by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The remaining brine water was to be dumped in the Dead Sea in an effort to stop it from shrinking.

That was the star of the project, estimated to cost $12 billion.

The World Bank spent $15 million to study this project. Many consultants were commissioned. The results were not promising at all.

The brine from the Red Sea water desalination could interact with the chemically unique minerals of the Dead Sea and was likely to cause a white gypsum layer to float, blocking the sun and destroying the work of the Arab Potash Company in using the sun to dry up its lakes.

The study also found that sunlight reflecting off the gypsum layer would increase heat in the Jordan Valley, destroying local farming in the process.

Another potential hazard was a nasty bacteria, cyanobacteria, which could bloom as a result. It is a skin irritant that could drastically affect the tourism industry on the Dead Sea.

Despite international and regional criticism of the Red-Dead Canal, due to its negative environmental impact, the government insisted on going ahead with a miniature project pumping 200mcm of water, instead of 2bcm.

Jordan announced that it will dump the brine on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea. Could this be why Israel never objected to the Jordanian project?

After all, Israel has since 2005 been desalinating and has many plants (producing 750mcm of drinking water) that are now able to export water to neighbouring Arab countries.

The Jordanian desalinated water will partially be pumped to Aqaba and the rest will be sold to the new Israeli settlements that are sprouting on bedouin Palestinian lands.

The Jordanian plan will not even save the Dead Sea (which was a pillar of the project), since not less than 700mcm are needed annually to stop its one metre regression, according to the World Bank studies.

The project requires $2 billion to construct.

In the meantime, Jordanian experts argue that Jordan has choices other than the Red-Dead canal to solve its water shortage.

While the case of Dead Sea shrinkage is connected to Israel’s divergence of the Jordan River, some experts suggest that other solutions could be economically more viable:

— Preventing the loss of estimated 75mcm of clean water through immediate maintenance of Jordan’s decaying network of water pipes, as well as strong measures to combat water theft.

— Contracting private companies in Saudi Arabia to desalinate water next to the Saudi border and using cheap Saudi electricity to sell this potable water to Jordan.

— Commissioning a 200mcm desalination plant by a private investor on the empty 70km2 south Aqaba beach land.

The brine cannot be dumped in the Gulf of Aqaba, as it would harm marine life, but the construction of man-made lakes would allow evaporation and supply a salt industry next to the port.

— Improving Jordan’s rainwater collection. Currently, only 4 per cent of rainfall is collected in dams (320mcm capacity in total). Tens, if not hundreds, of dams could be erected in the deserts and the valleys surrounding the hills of Jordan and the Jordan Valley. Army resources could be utilised for this task. Increasing rain harvesting by 10 per cent would add about 800mcm of extra surface water, yearly.

The government should think of the future.

Should we depend on a project with severe drawbacks that relies on an agreement with Israel that has already self-sufficiency in desalinated water and is exporting it, and that might have many negative impacts? Or should we think of a sovereign and independent solution?

The writer is president of the Jordanian Friends of Environment. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.
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