Mohammad Ghazal
The Jordan Times
July 28, 2008 - 4:36pm

A study looking into alternatives to save the shrinking Dead Sea will kick off later this year, according to the World Bank (WB).

Experts warn the water body is dropping by one metre every year, calling for a plan to save this "world heritage" attraction and make available much needed water in the area.

Meanwhile, three parties concerned with the problem - Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel - have reiterated their full commitment and support for the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Programme, under which feasibility and environmental and social assessment studies are under way.

Alternatives to be studied no later than October include the current Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Programme, which was proposed in 2005. But it has never been the sole option, World Bank’s Alexander McPhail told The Jordan Times recently in an exclusive videoconference.

Another option is taking no action because all alternatives might prove unfeasible. The third is ending the extraction of water from the Jordan River, the main supplier of water to the Dead Sea. Experts will also study a Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal option or extending a water pipeline from Turkey.

"The World Bank is currently working on the terms of reference for the study of alternatives which is expected to take less than six months and will be conducted by a three-member entity representing Jordan, Palestine and Israel," said McPhail, who is the lead water and sanitation specialist and task team leader of the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Studies at the WB.

McPhail was in Amman yesterday to take part in a public stakeholders meeting to review progress.

According to the WB, there are many factors that contribute to the drop in the Dead Sea's level, whose surface area is currently 630 square kilometres, while historically it was 950 square kilometres.

These include the extraction of water from the Jordan River as only 10 per cent of the river flows to the Dead Sea, while the rest is consumed, according to Stephen Lintner, the WB's senior professional and adviser on issues concerning environmental and social safeguard policies, who also spoke at the videoconference.

"Jordan and Israel both extract significant amounts of water for the use of agriculture and municipal areas," said Lintner. "There are some extractions from Syria on the Yarmouk basin and a very small amount of water extracted by Lebanon. But the majority of water is being used by Jordan and Israel."

What adds to the problem is that there is very little rainfall in the region and a lot of evaporation because of the hot and arid climate. The inflow of groundwater to the sea has also been decreased, said McPhail. According to the WB, rainfall in the Dead Sea is 90 millimetres (mm) per year and evaporation stands at 1,500mm per year.

Meanwhile, Jordan Valley Authority (JVA) Secretary General Moussa Jamaini said the Kingdom was fully committed to the Red-Dead conveyance action, stressing that the country is in a “dire need” for the project.

"The Red-Dead scheme would help end the country's large water deficit that stands at 400 million cubic metres of water annually," Jamaini told The Jordan Times. "This is the best project to provide water [through desalination plants] and preserve the Dead Sea from vanishing."

According to Jamaini, Jordan is the world’s fourth poorest country in terms of water, with an annual per capita share of water for all purposes standing at about 110-150 cubic metres, compared to the international water poverty line of 1,000 cubic metres of water per person annually.

"If the Dead Sea is not rescued, a major disaster to the environment will occur in the area," said Jamaini. "All the sinkholes in the area will turn into muddy areas with the drop in the water level - and this is very unsafe to people."

The JVA official explained that with the decrease of the water level in the Dead Sea, underground water will start moving towards the sea, the lowest area in the world, and thus the limited quantities of underground water in Jordan will disappear with the passage of time.

Saving the Dead Sea is also important to tourism investments worth billions of dollars on the shores of the Dead Sea, Jamaini added.

Shaddad Attili, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, said the Palestinians are committed to the plan.

"Palestine has rights to part of the Dead Sea coastline, and Palestine shares the concerns of other parties over the drop in the water level of the Dead Sea and wishes to conserve that unique resource," Attili told The Jordan Times in an e-mail.

"In addition, the present plans suggest that Palestine would receive a significant volume of desalinated water from the Red Sea-Dead Sea project, were it to be constructed," said Attili. He explained, "Palestine has by far the lowest availability of freshwater of any of the countries bordering the Jordan River basin - and one of the lowest availabilities of freshwater of any country in the world."

According to Attili, Palestinians use up an average of 70 cubic metres of freshwater per person annually.

Noga Blitz of the Israel Water Authority also underlined that Israel is fully committed to the Red-Dead Water Conveyance Programme, saying the region needs a solution for the decline of the Dead Sea as well as additional sources for freshwater, given the fact that all natural resources are depleting.

"The proposed conveyance addresses both needs," said Blitz. "Israel is deeply interested in saving the Dead Sea and the creation of a source for desalinated water for use in the region."

According to the official, the annual per capita share of freshwater in Israel for all purposes is approximately 200 cubic metres.

In the interview, McPhail and Lintner stressed that the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Programme is a proposed action by the three beneficiaries with a primary objective of saving the Dead Sea with a secondary objective to generate power and desalinate water. The three beneficiary parties will review the findings of the studies and consider the next steps they may wish to undertake, he said.

"There are no foregone conclusions here that we are going to build anything because we do not know if it is feasible from a technical standpoint or an environmental and social standpoint," McPhail said. "First, we will do the feasibility studies, then we will decide if we need to do something."

There are no clear figures on how much water will be desalinated or the volume of desalinated water that each beneficiary will receive in case a desalination plant is indeed created, according to McPhail.

"This has to be determined. It is a political decision as well. There have to be discussions and it is up to the governments. There is no assignment in the terms of reference of water and power use. It will be determined between the beneficiaries," said McPhail.

He explained that the production of desalinated water depends on the volume of salty water pumped into the desalination plant.

McPhail, however, cited a pre-feasibility study carried out by Harza JRV Group in the late 1990s concluding it would be possible to move two billion cubic metres per year of seawater. Half of that would go to address the decline of the Dead Sea.

He said the fund has collected $10.5 million for the feasibility study and the environmental and social assessment through June 2008. Of the total sum, $4.5 million was provided by France, $2 million from Japan, $1.5 million from the US, $1.5 million from the Netherlands and $1 million from Greece.

The total cost of the two studies, in addition to other expenses related to the programme, stands at $14 million based on a 24-month timeline, according to McPhail. He also expects to receive donations from four other sources.

"There is a lot of desire on the part of the beneficiary parties to make the studies last for 18 months. However, we have done all the procurement and the bidding and we asked people to prepare proposals on the basis of 24 months," said McPhail. "We have signed contracts with the consultants for 24 months and we have told the consultants if it is possible, we would like to finish before that."

Currently, French company Coyne et Bellier is carrying out the feasibility study, while the British firm, Environmental Resources Management, was selected to undertake the environmental assessment of the Red-Dead proposed action, which the three beneficiaries agreed to proceed with, according to McPhail.


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