After almost a decade of arguments over the feasibility of a proposed pipeline between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, the World Bank released a series of reports over the weekend that declare the project feasible from an engineering, economic and environmental standpoint.
But while the Regional Development Ministry welcomed the reports as an important step toward implementing the project, the environmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East said the findings ought to definitively bury the idea.
The project's goals are to stabilize the shrinking Dead Sea, supply water and electricity to countries in the area, especially Jordan, and engender regional cooperation that would promote peace. The World Bank concluded that without the pipeline, the Dead Sea would shrink by about 10 percent over the next 50 years, which would do major harm to tourism, local industries and the environment.
A panel of experts from several countries, including Jordan and Israel, then examined several alternative proposals for importing a large amount of water from the Red Sea. The best option, it concluded, was to build a pumping station near Aqaba that would pump the water to a high point, whence it would flow via a system of pipelines and a tunnel to the area south of the Dead Sea.
There, the world's largest desalination plant would be built, with most of the desalinated water - about half a billion cubic meters a year - going to Jordan. The high-salinity water left over after the desalination process would be piped to the Dead Sea, to halt and eventually reverse its shrinkage. A hydroelectric plant would also be built, to supply electricity to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Altogether, the plan envisions almost two billion cubic meters of water a year being pumped from the Red Sea, most of which would eventually reach the Dead Sea. The World Bank estimated the total cost at almost $10 billion, but said much of this sum could be financed out of the profits from selling the desalinated water and electricity.
The bank acknowledged that the project would have some negative consequences for the environment: For instance, algae would likely start growing in the Dead Sea, and leakage from the pipes could raise the salinity of an important groundwater reservoir in the Arava. But it believes these problems could be dealt with, and recommended starting cautiously, with a small pilot project to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Nevertheless, it acknowledged that such a pilot would be of limited value in assessing the environmental impact.
Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of FOEME, said the negative environmental consequences cited in the reports ought to be enough by themselves to kill the project.
But in addition, he said, despite the bank's finding that the project was economically viable, "it adds in small print that it would require assistance of $5 billion from the international community, and that Jordan would have to invest $2.5 billion in infrastructure that would bring the water to Amman. The bank forgets that there's a global economic crisis, and that Jordan is on the verge of bankruptcy. The project will raise water prices in Jordan and cause riots."
Jordan itself also recently voiced concern about the project's cost, saying it would consider a smaller project that would just bring desalinated water from the Red Sea to Amman.
But the Regional Development Ministry welcomed the reports, even while noting that so far, the World Bank has merely posted them for public comment, and will issue its final recommendations only after reviewing these comments. Only then will Israel make its own decision.
"All the parties would benefit from the cooperation around this project, and it would save the Dead Sea, which is a wonder of the world," explained Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom. "We'll work to recruit influential parties to get the project implemented in practice."