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My enemy's enemy ... is water?

When it comes to water shortages in the Mideast, it's increasingly a case of cooperate or die.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy makes his way into the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi Aug. 9, 2007. Warnings continue that the Dead Sea is slowly but surely drying up, and could be gone completely in 50 years if no action is taken. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

AMMAN, Jordan — Nothing accelerates the peace process between old foes like the threat of a common enemy. In the case of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority that enemy is an impending water crisis and a rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.

As the three governments examine the possibility of a water conveyance project that would bring water about 110 miles from the Red Sea to replenish the Dead Sea and provide desalinated drinking water for Jordanians and Palestinians, many people are heralding the project as not only a solution to the water shortage but a symbol of peace and cooperation.

Though the project has been discussed as a possibility for decades, as the water issue intensifies all parties are looking much more seriously at the proposed project. Presently a series of $15 million feasibility studies are underway. However, as the project gathers momentum, environmental groups worry the political motivations driving the proposal may cause the three governments to overlook less risky alternatives.

“There is too much politics involved, and the politics mask some of the alternatives that could be feasible,” said Avner Adin, a professor of soil and water sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Describing the political appeal of the proposed project, he added that it “will be a big achievement for the Jordanian king and government that they succeeded in providing water to Jordan. From Israeli side, such a project could show advancing peace in the region and it would show a humanitarian approach from Israel.”

While there may be some question about the best option, most everyone agrees that the situation is reaching a critical juncture that will require action sooner rather than later.

The Dead Sea is falling fast enough that resorts on its shore complain that seaside attractions require costly adjustments to keep pace with the receding waterline. In just the last 20 years, the water level has dropped 30 meters and it continues to fall at a rate of about one meter a year. The Dead Sea is deep enough that it remains unlikely that it will completely disappear, but if nothing is done some estimates say it will have almost dried up within the next 50 years.

Meanwhile, Jordan is facing a severe water crisis. Per capita, it is the world’s fourth-most water-poor country and 92 percent of the country is desert. While Israel also faces water issues, it is expanding desalination operations along the Mediterranean Sea that it hopes will meet much of the country’s water needs.

Proponents of the Red to Dead proposal say the project would address both of these issues. In Jordan, Adnan Al-Zoubi, spokesman for the country’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation, said that there are even hopes that developers could tap into the pipeline between the two seas and build new communities in the area, called Wadi Araba which is largely unpopulated now.