Seeing the three Ministers of Water — Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli — standing together is sadly an uncommon occurrence. It is therefore not surprising that any memorandum of understanding that they would sign would bring tremendous media attention. That is indeed what we witnessed Monday in Washington, D.C.
When the dust settles from all the grandiose statements made, financially and environmentally sound decisions will need to be taken. Unfortunately the Dead Sea is not about to be saved and, from a regional perspective, water is not about to be plentiful in every residential home.
The idea of a limited water exchange between Israel and Jordan could make good economic, environmental and political sense. To meet the growing needs of domestic water in Jordan’s capital city Amman, the Sea of Galilee in Israel is the closest source of potential available water supply. Given that a pipeline from the Sea of Galilee already links Israel with Jordan’s capital, compared to any other alternative, selling a limited quantity of additional water, 50 million cubic meters annually, to Amman is a good economic deal for the Jordanian public. It is much cheaper for Jordan and environmentally more sound for the region than Jordan bringing desalinated water from Aqaba to Amman, a far more expensive enterprise due to the far greater distance.
Eilat and the Israeli side of the Arava Desert also need more water and given that they are not presently connected to the Israeli national water network, if Jordan would build a desalination plant in Aqaba to meet growing needs there and also sell water needed in Eilat, 50 million cubic meters annually, then Israel would benefit from such a deal, by avoiding the financial burden and environmental damage associated with extending the national water network several hundred kilometers south. Alternatively, Eilat in Israel could build its own desalination plant but then two desalination plants several kilometers apart would be a terrible waste of resources and a missed opportunity to promote cooperation over common interests.
Hence, in principle a limited Jordan-Israel water exchange — Sea of Galilee to Amman and Aqaba to Eilat — would make good economic, environmental and political sense. The problems however occur when a well defined idea based on sound analysis is stretched to try to achieve additional unrealistic and infeasible goals. Instead of declaring a plan for a water exchange, the ministers meeting in Washington announced the launch of the Red Dead Conduit that they claimed would provide ‘plentiful water for all and save the Dead Sea.’
The Red-Dead scheme is a pipe dream that would enrich a small number of people at the expense of the common good. For more than a century, various versions of building a massive conduit, canal or set of pipelines have been advocated to utilize the drop in elevation to the lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea from either the Mediterranean or Red Sea to produce energy and desalinate water. Every study of these projects, including the most recent completed by the World Bank at a cost this time of more than 16 million dollars, has concluded that advancing these projects would be financially unaffordable and environmentally irresponsible.
The brine to be emitted from the proposed desalination plant in Aqaba, instead of being sustainably disposed near source, as occurs on the Mediterranean and elsewhere, is here being proposed to be pumped mostly uphill for more than 200 kilometers to be disposed of in the Dead Sea to supposedly save the Dead Sea.
The cost of building this pipeline is estimated at 400 million dollars. Linking the desalination plant proposed for Aqaba with a pipeline to carry away the brine 200 kilometers to the Dead Sea makes the cost of desalination unaffordable. That is why Israel and Jordan are labeling this project as one that saves the Dead Sea — so that the international community might pay the cost of the pipeline. Brine in the Dead Sea, according to the World Bank studies, is likely to only lead to the further demise of the Dead Sea (growth of algae and gypsum altering the very nature of the Dead Sea), and the quantity of brine discussed in this project at only 100 million cubic meters will do next to nothing as far as preventing the continued drop in Dead Sea water levels. Further, the additional operational cost of having to pay for energy and running costs of pumping brine 200 kilometers is estimated to increase the cost of desalinated water by 30 percent. Desalination costs on the Mediterranean are presently as low as 57 US cents a cubic meter while Aqaba-Dead Sea pipeline costs are estimated at close to a dollar.
Jordan and Israel should move forward on the water exchange and delink it from the burden of the Red Dead. Palestinians need to receive their rightful share of shared Israeli Palestinian water and not be asked to buy more water from Israel. The Dead Sea will only be saved if there exists the political will to take on the root causes that lead to its demise in the first place. Over-extraction of Jordan River waters and the failure to charge the mineral extraction industry for the Dead Sea water that they unsustainably exploit are the two issues that need to be taken on in order to save i.e. stabilize the Dead Sea while preserving its unique features as a natural spa.