Pipeline won’t save Dead Sea, but could supply needed water to ‘thirsty’ neighbors

Click photo to download. Caption: A view of the Dead Sea between Israel and Jordan. Credit: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons.

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org

A recently approved trilateral plan to create a water pipeline connecting the Red Sea and the rapidly evaporating Dead Sea has everything to do with providing freshwater to a desperate region, and less to do with reversing the receding water levels in the Dead Sea.

“This project will not save the Dead Sea,” Prof. Jiwchar Ganor, faculty member at the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, told JNS.org.

Each year, the Dead Sea loses approximately 800 million cubic meters of water, and the shoreline recedes by approximately one meter. Tourists visiting the sea can easily see the impact of water recession. 

“You would need to add 800 million cubic meters per year to stabilize the levels of the sea. This will be a project of approximately 100 million cubic meter per year,” Ganor said.

As part of the project, approximately 100 million cubic meters of water will be desalinated in the Gulf of Aqaba, in Jordanian territory, and divided between Israel and Jordan, with the majority of the water going for drinking and irrigation to Israel’s Arava desert. As part of the cooperation, Israel will then provide desperately needed water to Jordan in the north.

“In Jordan, they have a very severe problem of water shortage. It is not like the shortage we have in Israel. In Amman, you do not have fresh water everyday in the taps. They have a huge water shortage,” said Ganor.

According to Ganor, a water shortage for Jordanians could fuel growing instability for the Hashemite regime. Citizens without water may act in unpredictable ways, including taking to the streets.

“If you look at the entire region, Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Lebanon all take water. This area has a huge population, and it needs a huge amount of water. … It’s not good to have neighbors that are thirsty,” Ganor said. 

“For Israel, it is very important, as I see it, that Jordan will have more water,” he said. “Through this cooperation, Israel gains water where it needs it, in the South, and Jordan gains it where they need it, in the North.”

It is this demand for fresh water that has caused the depletion of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. Waters that flow into the Jordan River and Israel’s Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, are all diverted for consumption, meaning the natural flow through the Jordan River and ultimately into the Dead Sea has been greatly reduced.

For years, environmentalists have warned about the dangers to the future of the Dead Sea if appropriate water flow is not restored. Several plans have been floated to bring water to the Dead Sea, either from the Mediterranean Sea to the west or the Red Sea to the south. 

Most recently, Israeli President Shimon Peres was a vocal advocate of a plan to build a canal between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea—which at 400 meters below sea level is the lowest point on Earth. 

The plan approved by Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority last week will bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea via a pipeline. Yet the waters that will be piped to the Dead Sea will be neither desalinated freshwater nor seawater.

“What will be brought to the Dead Sea is the waste of the desalination project, known as brine,” Ganor said. 

“The present plan is to desalinate sea water in Aqaba[, Jordan]. As part of the desalination process, half the water output will be fresh water, and half will become brine that includes all the salt from the desalination, so it has a double concentration of sea salt.  It is this strategic brine water that will be distributed to the Dead Sea,” he said.

Ganor said there are two reasons to bring the brine to the Dead Sea. 

“The first is reason is to avoid dumping of brine into the Red Sea. The second is to contribute some water to the Dead Sea, which has a negative water balance, so it will slow down the decrease in the Dead Sea water level,” he said.

According to Ganor, substantial research has not been conducted on whether or not placing the brine back into the Red Sea would have any tangible ecological impact on the Red Sea’s famed coral reefs and colorful sea life—yet that is clearly a concern.

In terms of total salinity, the water in the Dead Sea is about 10 times saltier than the seawater of the Red Sea, and five times saltier than the brine. Yet the compositions of the two waters are very different. 

“There are different salts in the Dead Sea,” Ganor told JNS.org. “In the Dead Sea, for example, calcium is high, while sulfates are low. In seawater, sulfates are high and calcium is low. And there are many other examples.”

Meanwhile, some environmentalists are arguing against bringing the brine to the Dead Sea.

“The question of risk to the ecology of the Dead Sea depends on the amounts of water deposited.  In small amounts, there is no risk. If we are talking about very high amounts of new water, then there are various types of risks relating to the Dead Sea water composition, and the growth of particular types of algae that are currently not part of the Dead Sea’s environment,” Ganor said.

“According to the research that we conducted at Ben-Gurion University along with other institutes including Hebrew University, we found that if you add relatively small amounts, less than 350 million cubic meters per year, there will be no ecological risk to the Dead Sea,” he said. “If you add a very high amount, say 700 or 800 million cubic meters, there is a much bigger concern.”

Whether these concerns would negatively affect tourism in the Dead Sea is unknown, as the actual effects cannot be accurately studied.

“We don’t know the precise amount of water that is safe to add without ecological change. The current pilot can give us a real field study to better determine the impact in larger numbers,” Ganor said.

While politicians would like to enlarge the project in the future, more data is needed to do that, said the professor. 

“Yet again, the issue of the brine is not the major component of this deal,” he said.

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Posted on December 12, 2013 and filed under Israel, News, Features.