07/23/2010 15:57

Is the ‘Red-Dead Sea Conveyance Project’ viable?

The Dead Sea’s shoreline is sinking by a meter a year, and it is feared that it will literally ”dry up” by the year 2050 – unless immediate efforts are made to save what many are calling one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. While the facts are well known, experts are divided regarding a solution as to how to save the “lowest point on earth.”

One of the main ideas being forwarded to stabilize the water level of the Dead Sea is the much-heralded, yet controversial, Red-Dead Sea Conveyance Project, which involves digging a canal and a series of water pipeline conduits 160 kilometers from the Gulf of Akaba to a location on the salt lake’s southern perimeter in order to bring between 1,000 and 2,000 MCM (million cubic meters) of water annually to replenish and stabilize its water level.

Included in the scope of the project will be desalination plants to provide as much as 850 MCM of fresh water per annum that will be divided among Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians; as well as generating thousands of megawatts of electricity from hydroelectric power stations that will use the energy from the incoming Red Sea water to operate their generators.

Although plans for the project have been in the works for well over a decade and the subject of several hearings sponsored recently by the World Bank, environmental groups are expressing concern that the building of the conduit in the Arava Valley between Israel and Jordan, as well as the mixing of highly saline and mineral-laden Dead Sea water with less saline Red Sea water, will result in serious and irreversible environmental changes.

These changes, it is feared, will affect not only the unique bio-diversity of the Dead Sea basin and the Arava, but that of the Red Sea as well – including its shoreline and coral reefs.

“THOSE IN favor of the Dead Sea Conveyance Project think that it will solve all problems at once as it is planned to produce both electricity and fresh water as well as stabilize the Dead Sea,” Gideon Bromberg of the environmental activist organization Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) told Metro following a recent World Bank hearing in Jerusalem on the feasibility of the much publicized “Red-Dead” conduit project.

If it is finally approved, the project is expected to take between 20 and 27 years to complete and is estimated to cost as much as $15 billion at today’s values.

Present at the hearing in Jerusalem were a number of people of diverse backgrounds, including scientists, environmentalists, representatives of the Dead Sea’s mineral production industries, health science specialists and politicians. Introductory remarks were made by Dr.

Alexander McFail, lead water and sanitation specialist for the World Bank, Washington DC, who has been involved in four of the five regional hearings hosted by the bank dealing with the ongoing feasibility study.

Afterwards, participants were invited to express their views.

“The ongoing study [of mixing both Red and Dead Sea waters] has not been given enough time for viable alternatives to the proposed project to be evaluated,” said MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz), one of the politicians present at the hearing. “Twelve months’ allowance for the study is insufficient to determine the feasibility of other options.”

Also present at the hearing were Israel Water Authority director Uri Shani and former Israel Geological Survey head Michael Bythe, both of whom agreed with the MK concerning the time factor for the water mixing study.

“The scientists carrying out these studies at the Dead Sea are not being given enough time to come to a satisfactory conclusion regarding the long-term effects of mixing Dead and Red Sea waters together,” Shani said.

Added Bythe: “We all know that this feasibility study will end with inconclusive results, and that a decision will have to be made on how to move forward only after that happens.”

Two days prior to the June 16 World Bank hearing, FoEME conducted a media tour to the Dead Sea for local and foreign journalists, to show them the ongoing experiments involved in mixing the highly saline and mineral rich Dead Sea waters with the less saline, “living” waters of the Red Sea.

The studies are being carried out by scientists connected with the Israel Geological Survey, and funded by a number of entities, including the Israeli government; the World Bank, via donor countries; the Dead Sea Works; and environmental groups, including FoEME.

The main highlight of the tour involved seeing the experimental pools of water containing various “mixes” of Dead and Red Sea waters over periods of time ranging from a few weeks to several years.

Some of the pools showed that the water mixture has taken on a reddish appearance, said to be the result of algae growth caused by the less saline Red Sea water.

Other pools had floating on them clumps of the mineral gypsum – also not normally occurring in natural Dead Sea water.

“Mixing Red Sea water introduces sulfides which are not naturally found in Dead Sea water. These sulfides result in algae growth that appears to cause the water to change color,” said Dr. Itai Gavrielli of the Israel Geological Survey, who along with several other scientists has been conducting these studies.

Gavrielli went on to say that these sulfides are not found naturally in the waters of the Dead Sea. Often referred to as a “master mixer” of Dead and Red Sea waters, Gavrielli has been involved in these studies for more than 10 years.

“We were conducting studies in finding ways to replenish the lake’s water level long before groups like the World Bank became interested,” he noted. “Our models of the lake’s chemical and mineral composition take into account only the lake’s past and present situation, and we have no way of calibrating models for the future. We hope to have a more accurate model completed within the next few months.”

Regarding the change in water color, Gavrielli compares the phenomenon to what occurs in the Great Salt Lake in the American State of Utah.

“This occurrence is due to the mixing of highly saline “dead” waters with those with living organisms in them, as occurs in the Great Salt Lake. While some people think color change caused by the algae bloom makes the lake look more attractive, we have no way of knowing how this will affect the unique mineral composition of the Dead Sea,” Gavrielli adds.

According to studies conducted by Bromberg’s FoEME, the main reason for the rapid decline of the Dead Sea’s water level is due to the near-cessation of the Lower Jordan River’s natural flow, of which only about 2 percent of the stream’s natural freshwater flow eventually reaches the Dead Sea. And most of what does arrive there consists of a mixture of raw sewage and diverted saline water from salt springs and fish ponds in the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret).

The ongoing studies to determine how channeling Red Sea water into the Dead Sea will affect the lake’s overall mineral composition is of particular interest to the World Bank, because of its role in providing financial assistance for part of the conduit project. The results of the feasibility study have to be turned in by next summer in order for the World Bank to authorize its approval for the funding.

World Bank specialist Dr. Alexander McFail told Metro that at the moment, no real conclusions have been forthcoming from the present studies.

“What we [at the World Bank] would like to see would be a “pilot study” involving a much larger amount of Red Sea water being mixed with Dead Sea water. The current models [using small test pools] are just not conclusive enough to show the desired test results.”

McFail added that a technical steering committee will review a report that was due to be submitted to them on July 15 in order to determine at what stage current tests are standing.

Regarding the 2011 time limit for the entire report to be turned in for review, he noted: “I have heard this concern several times, regarding the amount of time being given. But this date [June 30, 2011] has been given by those ordering the report, and that’s also when the money allocated for the study runs out.”

A sum of US $1.5 million has been allocated by donors for the study report.

“The conduit project is a very expensive undertaking that will take at least 20 years to complete. It will only provide around 250 jobs, as compared to our favored option, the revitalization of the Lower Jordan River, which will create hundreds or even thousands of jobs in tourism and other industries,” said FoEME Israel director Bromberg, contacted at his Tel Aviv office.

“JORDAN NOW appears to be planning to go at building a good part of the conduit project alone – which is not exactly in the spirit of good neighborly relations that should be occurring in such an endeavor.

“We can understand why they are so much interested in this plan, as they are suffering from a severe lack of fresh water; and they have a big need for the energy that might be generated from hydroelectric power.

“What hasn’t been divulged is that producing desalinated water from this project will cost as much as three times the cost of producing fresh water from coastal desalination plants, such as the one in Ashkelon. This is largely due to requiring as much as an additional 250 megawatts of power just to pump the desalinated water up to the Amman area – which is equal to at least two Ashkelon size power stations,” said Bromberg.

Bromberg’s estimate of the creation of “around 250 jobs” varies considerably from that predicted by the Delek Group’s chairman, Yitzhak Tshuva, who has expressed an interest in the project.

Tshuva mentioned the project in a speech he gave at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in June 2009, when he painted an optimistic forecast of “up to a million jobs” being created by the Red-Dead Conduit Project, and by “spin-off” industries connected with it.

In the speech, reported in Israel’s Globes financial newspaper, Tshuva talked about increasing Israel’s freshwater supplies through desalination, including the desalination of Red Sea water destined for the Dead Sea.

Gavrielli noted to Metro that “so far, (Delek) has only expressed an interest in involvement in this project.”

A few years back, the project was also known as the “Valley of Peace Conduit,” when Jordan and Israel were planning to cooperate in constructing it. But that was before media information coming from Jordan seemed to indicate that the Hashemite Kingdom was making plans toward constructing a unilateral version of the conduit and the desalination and power plants, with one desalination plant planned to be erected alongside Akaba. “Jordan has instigated preparations for what it is calling the ‘Jordan Red Sea Project’ – a replication of the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, currently the subject of World Bank studies, but on a smaller, first-stage scale,” Bromberg noted.

World Bank representative McFail told Metro that the World Bank has no interest whatsoever in the Jordan Red Sea Project, which is considered a strictly private venture: “We at the World Bank are only involved in the public or tri-lateral project that involves Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians. Jordan, for its part, is involved in both the trilateral project, as well as a private project of its own, the Jordan Red Sea Project, also known as the Jordan National Project.

“The private Jordanian project, which includes building a desalination plant at Akaba, also includes realestate projects which only they are involved in. The desalinated water (from the completed Akaba plant) will also be for Jordanian use only,” McFail said, adding, though, that “the Jordanians will not proceed with their private version of the conduit project until the trilateral public one begins. The Jordanians are also very interested in learning the results of the studies, and have no plans to begin their own project until the public one commences.”

TO OBTAIN the Jordanian side of the story, regarding the kingdom’s plans for the project, Metro contacted Skip Holland, project chairman of the Jordanian governmentsponsored Jordan Red Sea Project. Holland said that he was “not at liberty to discuss the project, as the government of Jordan wants to control all responses on the project.”

Chris Decker, formerly connected with the JRS Project, said that “the main reason for the project is to stabilize the Dead Sea, which has been receding considerably in recent years.” He went on to say that once completed, “the results will be beneficial to everyone in the region.”

Bromberg and his Friends of the Earth Middle East organization claim to have one of the most logical and environmentally sound solutions to restoring the Dead Sea’s water level, and that solution involves restoring the Lower Jordan River’s original flow by at least 30%.

Bromberg is concerned that the time frame being given by the World Bank for the completion of the water mixing studies of Gavrielli and his team of scientists at the Dead Sea is not long enough to reach the conclusive results needed to determine the viability of the conduit project. Both Bromberg and Gavrielli believe the study is being rushed and is lacking in thoroughness.

Ongoing geological studies note that the Dead Sea’s present shoreline of -411 meters is expected to drop to -430 by the year 2030. Gavrielli said the lake would never dry up completely, since it is being partially replenished by water from underground springs, as well as by occasional seasonal inflows from winter rainstorms (as happened this past winter, when several flash floods occurred in the area).

Both he and Bromberg believe that the lake’s depletion is being caused largely by human causes – including local industries which intentionally “dry up” portions of the lake to extract minerals; by the development of hotels and other tourist attractions; and, most of all, by the diversion of fresh water from the Lower Jordan River.

“The Dead Sea can be stabilized by returning a minimum of at least 30% of the Lower Jordan River’s original flow,” Bromberg concluded. “This can be done at a much more economical price, in both money and in terms of environmental impact, than the Red- Dead Conveyance Project – especially if both Israel and Jordan are equal partners in this endeavor.

“The result could turn the Lower Jordan into a ‘living river’ once again, with all its environmental and tourism benefits; and this would stabilize the Dead Sea naturally, benefiting both Israel and Jordan, as well as the Palestinians.

“That in our view is the best ‘neighborly’ solution for reviving a lake that is considered by many to be one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.”

McFail also pointed out alternatives to the conveyance project, which he said are noted in the World Bank Web site under “Terms of Reference”: “As can be seen in this category, included in the alternatives to be studied are those that suggest alternative plans for the Lower Jordan River; as well as those that involve changing crop types and cultivation methods.

Also to be considered… is a combination of the alternatives…”

Readers interested in obtaining more information about the Red – Dead Conveyance Project can do so by accessing the Web sites of the Israel Geological Survey : , Special Projects; The World Bank, Projects and Operations Studies ; and Friends of the Earth Middle East, Projects – Dead Sea.