“Look at that!” said Muhammad ‘Asfour, an environmentalist and avid nature photographer, pointing to a picture of a boat and wooden staircase perched well above the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea. “Do you see how far they are from the waterline?”
The slow death of the Dead Sea is hard to appreciate for the one-time visitors who come for the strange sensations of floating in the briny water, among the most saline in the world, and slathering on the dark mud of the seabed. But the evidence keeps piling up. Experts say that the water level has fallen over 80 feet in the last 50 years and recently has been dropping by one meter, or 3.2 feet, per year. Comparisons of aerial photos from the 1960s and the present highlight the sea’s decreased surface area. These dramatic changes endanger the unique ecosystem of the Dead Sea basin. They pose a serious threat to the established tourism industry on the Israeli side and the newer one on the Jordanian shore. Also, dangerous sinkholes, created when an influx of fresh groundwater, triggered by the declining sea level, eats away at the surface, now dot the landscape around the Dead Sea. According to scientists and residents, these sinkholes have swallowed up farmland and livestock and caused damage to the nearby potash industry, producer of one of Jordan’s biggest exports.
Serious efforts to save the Dead Sea started in the latter half of the 1990s, once the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Jordanian peace agreements made it possible to consider cooperative projects around shared natural resources. Environmentalists raised awareness of the problem, while Jordanian and Israeli government officials pledged to rehabilitate the water basin. Quickly, one plan came to dominate the “Save the Dead Sea” agenda: the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, a proposal to transfer millions of cubic feet of water northward from the Red Sea via a channel or canal through Jordan into the Dead Sea. In 2005, the Israeli and Jordanian governments, along with the Palestinian Authority, announced their support for the project and the World Bank’s willingness to coordinate the feasibility study and the environmental and social impact assessment. The project seemed ready to launch.
But the fate of the Red-Dead, as the project is often called, is still unclear. According to World Bank officials, the study phase was delayed due to difficulties in securing funding and the inclusion of two additional studies, one of which is designed to explore alternatives. By late 2009, most of the contracts were awarded and firms and panels designated to carry out the different study assignments. The World Bank says the study phase — including the feasibility study, assessment and two additional studies — should be completed by the end of June 2011. Meanwhile, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian officials remain committed to the project. The Red-Dead, they emphasize, is the best hope for saving the treasured hyper-saline lake. But regional pride and environmentalism are not the only reasons for their support. They look forward to the large volume of fresh water that is projected to come from the Red-Dead’s desalination components and the electricity that will be generated at its hydropower stations. In Jordan, officials tout the Red-Dead as necessary to protect tourism invest- ments on the Dead Sea shores and argue that it will spur economic development in the Wadi ‘Araba area, where the water conveyance structure will be built. Some officials go so far as to promise that the Red-Dead will help Jordan erase its serious water deficit. Jordan is one of the most water-poor countries in the world.
Perhaps under pressure to close the water gap, the Jordanian government has moved ahead on two other mega-projects. In May 2009, it announced the Jordan National Red Sea Water Development Project, a strictly Jordanian venture undertaken by the Ministry of Water and Irrigation and the Jordanian Atomic Energy Commission. The aim of the project is to pump Red Sea water into a nuclear-powered desalination plant, sending drinking water to the southern city of ‘Aqaba and the brine into the Dead Sea. It is an obvious imitation of the Red-Dead, or “Phase I” of the project, as the Water Ministry has claimed.
The government has also started to implement the long-awaited Disi Water Conveyance Project, the plan to pump groundwater from the large Disi aquifer in the south of Jordan and pipe it as drinking water to the capital. The project seemed ready to go in 2008, with a Turkish company on board to build and operate it, when a scientific study was released through the international press in early 2009 showing elevated levels of radioactive isotopes in the underground water reserves. A storm of controversy erupted over the findings, with some Jordanian officials dismissing the research as an Israeli conspiracy. As of early 2010, the project at least appears to be going into effect. The inauguration ceremony was held in December and trucks started arriving in January loaded with thousands of massive pipes, some of which were prominently lined up along the road from the airport into Amman.
The Red-Dead has plenty of skeptics. Environmentalists, scientists and tourism operators are concerned about the potential damage to the affected wilderness. Connecting the two bodies of water will require the construction of a conveyance structure 112 miles long, either a surface channel or a tunnel, along the eastern side of the Jordanian-Israeli border. The structure would pass directly through ecologically sensitive areas in the Wadi ‘Araba mountains, the range seen from the high point in Petra, which are home to endangered species and coveted hiking trails. They worry as well about the impact of so much pumping on the Gulf of ‘Aqaba, Israel’s only opening onto the Red Sea and Jordan’s only outlet to the oceans at all. The Gulf offers nearly year-round beaches and a fragile coral reef, making it an attractive destination for local and international divers and vacationers. The Dead Sea may not fare well either, when its waters are mixed with those of the Red Sea. Critics contend that changes to the unique chemistry of the Dead Sea could lead to algae growth, alteration of water color and separation of the waters.
More importantly, critics say, the Red-Dead project does not address the root problem: the depletion of the Jordan River, the main feeder of the Dead Sea. Everyone agrees that the Jordan River’s flow has shrunk markedly over the decades due to overuse, though hot disputes remain over who is most responsible for drawing off the water — the Israelis, the Syrians or farmers in the Jordan Valley. Regardless, saving the Dead Sea, according to Munqidh Mihyar, director of the Jordan office of Eco-Peace, will require saving the river as well. “You have to adopt a multi-pronged approach that involves rehabilitation of the Jordan River basin, reforms in the agricultural sector and a reopening of the water file in the Jordan-Israel peace agreement.” None of these prongs, he admits, is politically popular.
For Jordanian critics, the government’s support for the Red-Dead and other mega-projects is indicative of the flaws in its broader water strategy. “The Red-Dead has become the backbone of the water strategy,” Mihyar says, “and it’s a mistake.” Government officials and aid agencies typically present the water deficit in Jordan as a simple equation: As water-poor Jordan’s population grows and concentrates in the cities, the demand outstrips the country’s supply. The Red-Dead and other projects, critics point out, are short-sighted boosts to the supply side of the equation and relieve the government of taking on the complicated mix of political, economic and cultural conditions affecting demand.
For example, the agriculture sector consumes the largest portion of the water supply in Jordan, while generating a very small percentage of gross domestic product. The more sustainable farms use minimal irrigation and cultivate dry-climate crops such as dates and olives, but plenty of farms grow water-intensive crops, such as bananas and watermelons, for the high profit margins while depending on water subsidies and protections against imports to do so. The farmers’ unions and their government backers reject changes on the grounds that Jordan needs to produce its own food and that farm work supports thousands of Jordanian families. Maintaining the status quo, Munayyar argues, also serves the economic interests of the large farm owners. An even clearer case is the thirsty cut flowers that Jordan grows for export.
A fair amount of water in Jordan is also lost, stolen or wasted. Water is tapped illegally through unauthorized wells. It leaks out of the pipes in the aged infrastructure. There is little awareness among ordinary citizens and businesses, especially in the larger cities, of the need to conserve and even less incentive to do so since subsidies keep prices low. New development occurs without consideration of water use and conservation measures. And many of these issues are compounded, former Minister of Water and Irrigation Hazim Nasir says, by the lack of integrated planning among the relevant ministries.
For now, the Jordanian regime stands firm behind the Red-Dead and Disi projects as the pillars of the country’s water strategy. In May 2009, the king gave the go-ahead for this vision and reaffirmed it in his letter of designation to the new prime minister after the government shakeup in December. Meanwhile, the staircase in Muhammad ‘Asfour’s picture stands ever further from the water’s edge.
CORRECTION: In the print version of this article, Muhammad Mihyar, the Jordanian head of Eco-Peace, was wrongly identified as Muhammad Munayyar. We regret the error.