Turning the Desert Into a Wasteland

The ecological impact of a canal leading to the Dead Sea might be especially destructive.

Heads of state including President Shimon Peres, tycoons, World Bank officials and plain old visionaries have been furiously preoccupied of late with the Arava region and the Dead Sea. They propose to "make it bloom" by developing lakes, hotels and a host of other building plans, and to desalinate massive amounts of water using a canal that would conduct water from the Gulf of Eilat to the Dead Sea. That will stop the decline in the level of the Dead Sea.

Here are a few facts about the vision's status: No official body currently possesses a clear plan under which we could ascertain the cost of turning the desert into a wasteland, and of carving out a canal stretching more than 100 kilometers. To date, no one has studied the feasibility - engineering, economic or environmental - of the canal's route, and it is not clear where it would go. The World Bank is supposed to conduct such a study; it will take about two years.

There is no well-founded assessment on the environmental and ecological ramifications of the project. Even worse, it is unclear what the objectives are of the various ideas.

Business people want to turn the Arava on both sides of the border between Israel and Jordan into one big tourism and trade zone. On the other hand, the World Bank is looking solely into the possibility of a canal passing deep within Jordanian territory and serving the purpose of desalination and energy production.

All these are not minor details for which technological solutions can be found. Expensive energy production might prove unworthwhile compared with other alternatives. The cost of desalination might be high compared with desalination along Mediterranean shores. The impact of introducing Red Sea waters into the Dead Sea might be far-reaching, and the ability of the projected canal to withstand earthquakes is also a matter to be addressed seriously.

The ecological impact on an area where a riveting system of landscape contours and diverse flora and fauna have developed might be especially destructive. As far as some of Israel's decision makers are concerned, the Arava is like a great big motherlode to be mined. They probably recall with nostalgia Nathan Alterman's poem from more than half a century ago: "Wake up, wilderness, your fate has been sealed, we are coming to conquer you" (from "Shir Hakvish," 1949).

There is a real concern that some of those behind the project are pushing for hasty and partial studies, and are trying to bypass planning and vetting procedures. To that end they are spouting excessive promises about how useful the project will be, out of an expectation that the path to the Arava will be cleared quickly so the vision may be realized.

That attitude, according to which plans for an ecologically vulnerable and earthquake-prone region can be approved without conducting in-depth studies, attests to profound contempt for procedures that have become a basic requirement for approving construction plans throughout the world. It renders the vision dangerous not only for the Arava, but for all planning and decision-making proceedings in Israel.