Scientists Oppose Peres' Dead Sea Canal Scheme

Ecologists say the politicians' plan for a canal from Eilat threatens the ecosystems of the Gulf of Eilat, the Arava Valley and the Dead Sea.

Gil Ronen,

The World Bank has finished a series of public hearings on a project which will link the Red Sea in the Gulf of Eilat to the depleted and polluted Dead Sea, located between Israel and Jordan. The project, which calls for the digging of a canal between the two bodies of water, has been touted by President Shimon Peres as part of the "Peace Valley" scheme which he believes will bring Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel closer together.

But environmental groups and geologists quoted in an Al-Jazeera feature say the plan could damage three unique local ecosystems: the Gulf of Eilat; the Arava Valley between Eilat and the Dead Sea; and the Dead Sea itself.

The opponents of the project say the political motivation of uniting Israel, Jordan and the PA behind one joint project has produced a climate in which the environmental effects of the endeavor are not being properly considered.

Proponents say it will save the Dead Sea. The water level of the Dead Sea is dropping by an average of 1 meter per year. As a result, the unique ecology and the economic development in the Dead Sea region are in serious danger. Environmentalists have distributed a bumper sticker seen on many Israeli cars that reads "Save the Dead Sea."

The World Bank says the $5 billion construction of a water conveyance system bringing salt wate
regenerating the flow of the Jordan River to bring water to the Dead Sea will cost just than $800 million
r from the Red Sea would stabilize the Dead Sea's level and thus preserve tourism, agriculture and mineral extraction in the region.

'The Bank is refusing to listen'
Clive Lipchin, director of research at the Arava institute for environmental studies, said, however, that the Gulf of Eilat "is already overdeveloped with 70 percent coral mortality on the Israeli side."

"For the Arava Valley," he said, "the threat emanates from possible earthquakes which could cause a break in the canal and flood the valley with seawater, destroying agriculture and polluting the groundwater used by Israel and Jordan."

"The most serious problem, about which very little is known," said Lipchin, "is the mixing of the waters - the Dead Sea with the Red Sea. This is what is unique to the project and has never before been attempted. We simply cannot predict what the outcome will be," he said.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), said: "The Bank is simply refusing to listen to real alternatives that have been put on the table."

One alternative to the plan proposed by environmentalists and local geologists includes channeling the flow of water in the north back to the Jordan River which flows into the Dead Sea. Over the past 50 years, the amount of fresh water the Jordan River has carried into the Dead Sea has decreased from 1.3 billion cubic meters annually, to just 70 – 100 million cubic meters. This is because Israel, Jordan and Syria now divert 95% of the flow.

As a result, "the culturally and historically important Jordan River has been turned into little more than an open sewage channel," FoEME said.

FoEME's report on rerouting water back to the Jordan River predicts: "There would be a sizeable net environmental gain from rehabilitating the Jordan River and the Dead Sea with no negative environmental implications. This must be compared to the significant risks associated with the RDC [Red-Dead Canal] project.

Dan Zaslavski, a former Israeli water commissioner, estimated that regenerating the flow of the Jordan River from the north to bring water to the Dead Sea will cost no more than $800 million, less than one-sixth of the estimated financial outlay of the RDC project.

Earlier this year, Israel's President Shimon Peres said the "project of the canal, or the peace conduit ... is vital for the preservation of the Dead Sea, but just as much for peace and prosperity in the area."

The World Bank's feasibility study regarding the planned project is expected to begin in September.

In the 1980's and again in the 1990's, Israel considered a canal channeling water from the Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea, but eventually shelved the plans due to financial doubts. The Red Sea - Dead Sea alternative now being discussed is considered to be less worthwhile economically.