My enemy's enemy ... is water?

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.

“We can do anything on [Wadi Araba], make it an agricultural area, a tourist area, a medical area,” said Al-Zoubi, who even imagines hotels with swimming pools. “And if this project is implemented, it will represent peace [in the Middle East].”

Environmental groups, however, caution that fervor for the proposed project may cause officials to overlook some serious concerns. For example, the salinity content of Dead Sea water is 10 times higher than water from the Red Sea and studies are still being done to determine what will happen when the two waters mix. There is some concern that the Red Sea water would float on top of the Dead Sea water and introduce new bacteria cultures.

Pumping water from the Red Sea could also potentially raise the temperature of the Gulf of Aqaba by a half a degree centigrade, which would have serious consequences for aquatic life. Additionally, Wadi Araba experiences a significant amount of seismic activity and if the water conveyance system broke in an earthquake it could cause salt water to leech into underground wells between the two seas.

“We’re not anti this project,” said Abdel Rahman Sultan, deputy director of the Amman office for the Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a local environmental group that has voiced concern over the proposed project. “They’re just planning the project without enough information and without enough justification for the needs of this project.”

Sultan said given Jordan’s water situation, the country will most likely be required to begin desalination operations sometime in the near future. His organization is mainly concerned that too much weight is being placed on the proposed Red to Dead water conveyance plan before other options have been fully explored.

Namely, his organization supports rehabilitating the Jordan River, the traditional source of the Dead Sea, as a means of replenishing the receding salt lake. Over the last several decades Israel, Jordan and Syria have diverted nearly 90 percent of the river’s water. Additionally, sewage and agricultural wastewater are now discharged into the river, which, according to FoEME, is largely what keeps the river alive. Restoring the water flow of the Jordan River, said Sultan, would be a more natural way of addressing the problem that avoids many of the environmental concerns surrounding the Red to Dead proposal.

Still, all three governments insist that they are aware of the concerns and investigating the best possible ways to address them in the feasibility studies underway now.

“All of the parties have agreed that they really need to finish the studies and really understand what would be the impacts before they take any action,” said Alexander McPhail, the World Bank’s task team leader Red Sea-Dead Sea water conveyance study program. Currently, the World Bank is coordinating funding for the feasibility studies and although it is funding research into other options, it lists the Red Sea-Dead Sea option as the preferred alternative.