Better Med (or Red) than Dead

By Josie Glausiusz|Tuesday, November 01, 1994
The Dead Sea is drying up. So are Israel and Jordan. The solution: a canal from the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. All it takes is peace.

The Dead Sea is neither a sea nor altogether dead. It is a salt lake that straddles the border between Israel and Jordan, and a few species of bacteria and algae do survive in it. But the Dead Sea is dying. It is slowly drying up because its main source of water, the Jordan River, has been reduced to a trickle by thirsty humans. Israel diverts about half the river flow out of the Sea of Galilee (a freshwater lake traversed by the river) and, along with Jordan and Syria, takes smaller amounts from the Yarmuk River, a tributary of the Jordan. What’s left in the river by the time it terminates in the Dead Sea is not enough to replace what evaporates there in the fierce desert sun. Since 1930 the level of the Dead Sea has dropped by 56 feet; its area has shrunk by about a third, to 250 square miles.

But now there is hope that the Dead Sea might be saved--by the same insatiable human demand for water that threatened it in the first place. Faced with a growing water shortage, Israeli and Jordanian officials are dusting off a long-abandoned plan for a canal that would funnel water into the Dead Sea from either the Mediterranean, in the west, or the Red Sea, in the south. Because the Dead Sea lies 1,312 feet below sea level, water flowing down the canal would have enough energy to power both hydroelectric plants and desalination plants, which would produce freshwater. As a fringe benefit, the Dead Sea would be replenished with hypersaline water.

The water needs of the region are desperate. Besides draining the Jordan, Israel is overexploiting two underground aquifers, one of which is already becoming contaminated with salt water. In Jordan, water is so scarce that homes are supplied with it only one day a week. We need about 1,200 cubic meters per capita per year to be self-sufficient in water, to drink and clean ourselves, to cook and to produce food, says Munther Haddadin, who heads the Jordanian negotiating team on regional water resources. (A cubic meter is 264 gallons.) What we have this year is only 180 cubic meters--15 percent of what we need.

Desalination of seawater flowing through the Med/Red-Dead canal, as it is called, would provide a new source of drinking water. Most of the energy needed to desalinate the water--it has to be pumped at high pressure through a semipermeable membrane--would come from the flowing water itself, so the process would be relatively cheap. One estimate suggests the canal could yield 800 million cubic meters of freshwater each year--roughly an eighth of the water needs of Israel and Jordan--at a cost of 40 to 60 cents per cubic meter. That’s about half what it would cost to desalinate seawater on the coast.

What’s more, says Pinhas Glueckstern, the leader of the team investigating the project for Israel’s Energy Ministry, desalination plants would allow for more efficient hydroelectric plants--which were the centerpiece of earlier plans for a canal. (The idea was first proposed in 1899.) Since some of the water flowing through the canal would be diverted for drinking, engineers could build a larger canal and larger, more efficient hydroelectric turbines without flooding the Dead Sea.

A canal might have other benefits too; artificial lakes along the route, for instance, would attract tourists and fish farms. For now, though, the canal is still just an idea. Even the route it would take remains undecided. The shortest route, from the Mediterranean, would run through the politically volatile Gaza Strip and would require 50 miles of tunnels through mountains. A second route, requiring no tunnels, would begin at Haifa, on the northern Mediterranean coast of Israel. But the Jordanians, who have no access to the Mediterranean, favor the third and longest route, which would start at ‘Aqaba, on the Red Sea.

No one knows whether the canal will ever be built. But it certainly won’t happen without cooperation between Israel and Jordan--which is why it has seemed like a pipe dream for so long. The signing last July of an Israeli-Jordanian peace declaration may give the canal its best chance ever of becoming reality. For one thing, the two countries may start getting international aid that could help pay the multibillion-dollar cost of the canal. This project started as a dream, says Haddadin. But so did peace in the Middle East.
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