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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.

“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.