The canal that carries water from the northern basin to the pools of the Dead Sea factories.
The canal that carries water from the northern basin to the pools of the Dead Sea factories.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Nir Hasson Jun 22, 2022

A major study released by the Environmental Protection Ministry on Monday is calling on the government to move forward with a giant infrastructure project in the south with the aim of restoring water levels in the Dead Sea.

After exploring various alternatives to the problem of the shrinking sea, its authors conclude that development of a canal linking the Red and Dead seas is the best solution. However, the study almost entirely ignores the project’s environmental risks to the Gulf of Eilat, contamination of the Arava and disruption of the natural chemistry of the Dead Sea, among others.

In addition, the ministry study recommends that the government refrain from considering an alternative solution proposed by a group of environmental activists, planners and ecologists. Dubbed the “northern option,” that plan calls for sending more water to the Dead Sea from the Kinneret by way of the Jordan River, thus restoring both the Dead Sea and the Jordan River.

The ministry study’s authors say the northern option relies on large quantities of freshwater to restore the Dead Sea at a time when the region is suffering a water shortage. However, northern-option advocates say the ministry report in fact ignores the regional water shortage, and that the study assesses the northern option in a superficial and misleading manner. Their minority view wasn’t included in the ministry report, which is now available for public comment.

The Dead Sea is shrinking due to the construction of dams around the Kinneret and Yarmouk River, which have diverted the water that had previously flowed into it. Compounding the problem has been the pumping of the Dead Sea by Israel Chemicals plants on its shoreline.

ים המלח
The Dead SeaCredit: Ofer Vaknin

As a result, the Dead Sea’s water deficit has reached about 750 million cubic meters annually, which has caused its level to fall by 36 meters since 1980. The fallhas led to sinkholes, destruction of ecosystems and loss of water sources.

The ministry report, written by a team headed by director general Galit Cohen, says the solution is the one that Israel, Jordan and the World Bank have already agreed to – a canal bringing water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Popularly known as the Red-Dead Canal, the plan involves placing giant pumps on the shores of the Gulf of Eilat that would ultimately deliver some 1 billion cubic meters of water via a giant, 200-kilometer pipeline running up the Jordanian side of the Arava. Some of the water would be desalinated at a facility to be erected on the southern end of the Dead Sea for use by Jordan. The rest, including the byproducts from the desalinization, would enter the Dead Sea.

In the first phase, estimated to last about a decade, the report recommends that only 400 million cubic meters a year of Red Sea water be pumped into the Dead Sea, in order to assess the environmental impact. Assuming the canal can eventually reach 750 million cubic meters a year, the Dead Sea’s water level would stabilize from the year 2055.

“The policy document presents for the first time the implications for the region in a business-as-usual situation over the next 50 years, and recommends stabilizing the level as early as possible,” Cohen said with the release of the study. “Continued withdrawal of water from the basin has significant implications for the future of the region. Thus, the government must act resolutely and quickly to ensure that future generations will also enjoy this unique natural resource.”

Problems with no solution

The study’s authors warn about potential ecological harm to the Red Sea due to the pumping, but they say the problem can be solved by drawing the water from deep down. However, they don’t adequately address the other environmental dangers posed by Red-Dead. For example, this option risks harming the Dead Sea through the formation of gypsum deposits in the water and algae blooms.

The study also ignores the risk of accidents or earthquakes in an area with high levels of seismological activity. Either could cause spills that damage the surrounding environment and groundwater.

The report leaves the reader with the impression that its goal is not to promote the Red-Dead Canal (which will be located entirely inside Jordan) but to attack the northern option, also known as the Beit Shean option.

That option was developed by the planner Moti Kaplan, one of Israel’s leading land-use planners, who recommends using natural water sources to rescue the Dead Sea. Kaplan’s alternative was initially slated to appear in the study as a minority opinion, but it was ultimately left out.

The Dead Sea

The Dead SeaCredit: Zafrir Rinat

In its early stages of being designed, the proposal calls for a string of new and expanded desalination plants along the country’s Mediterranean coast. These would produce a billion more cubic meters of desalinated water than Israel does today. The water would be sent to the Kinneret, which would become a regional reservoir for Israel and Jordan. Most of the water would be used for consumption, but 100 million cubic meters of it would be sent down to the Dead Sea via the Jordan River. In addition, Kaplan suggests that another 400 million cubic meters of purified effluent from Jordan be discharged into the Jordan River and Dead Sea.

The Jordan River would be filled with water under the plan, as it had been throughout history. The cost of desalinated water flowing into Jordan would be covered by Israel Chemicals in exchange for the water it requires for potash production.

Kaplan’s proposal comes under sharp attack several times in the ministry study.

“It must be acknowledged that the wheel of the regional water crisis can’t be turned back,” the report states. “Any attempt to compensate for the large water deficit by sending fresh, natural water, especially from desalination, entails unreasonable environmental and economic costs, and constitutes a defiant geopolitical move against the backdrop of our neighbors’ water shortage.”

Among other things, the report asserts that there isn’t room on the Mediterranean coast to build desalination plants. Advocates of the northern option retort that the shuttering of the Hadera coal-fired power plant will free up shoreline space. In any case, they assert, a pipeline carrying desalinated water poses less of an environmental hazard than one carrying seawater. As to the electric power needed for such a massive increase in desalination, supporters of the northern option call for giant solar-power farms to be built in Jordan.

“The authors ignore the plight of the Kingdom of Jordan,” added Dr. Eran Feitelson, one of the group of northern option planners and a member of the geography faculty at Hebrew University. (Full disclosure: The writer is a research student in the department.)

“It is an important player, and Jordan’s stability is a prime Israeli interest, from both a geopolitical and humanitarian perspective; there are millions of people there who don’t have water,” said Dr. Feitelson. “Every solution must start with that. Our idea is to increase the amount of water supplied to Jordan by hundreds of millions of cubic meters and to exploit the water twice over, as we do in Israel, by using every drop twice – once for home use and once in agriculture as purified effluent.”

In response, the Environment Ministry noted that Kaplan worked with the report’s authors in an advisory capacity, and not as a team member.

“During the expert deliberations conducted in preparation of the document, Kaplan offered a number of recommendations that were not accepted by the report’s editors for professional reasons. This usually happens in creating such a comprehensive and in-depth document,” it said, adding that he is invited to submit his comments as part of the public review process now underway.