Pass The Salt

A Terrible, Horrible, No Good Idea for Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian Cooperation

12.11.13 9:30 PM ET

This sounds like the sort of thing I should be excited about: authorities in Jordan, Israel, and Palestine have agreed to a massive regional water project intended to meet shared needs.

As the New York Times reports,

The project addresses two problems: the acute shortage of clean fresh water in the region, especially in Jordan, and the rapid contraction of the Dead Sea. A new desalination plant is to be built in Aqaba, Jordan, to convert salt water from the Red Sea into fresh water for use in southern Israel and southern Jordan — each would get eight billion to 13 billion gallons a year. The process produces about the same amount of brine as a waste product; the brine would be piped more than 100 miles to help replenish the already very saline Dead Sea.

Coupla problems with that. Actually, several problems with that. Starting with: It will be very bad for the actual, physical region.

As the Times notes, the Dead Sea is contracting. It is, for all intents and purposes, split in two, and if you look at Google Map’s Earth view, you’ll see part of the reason why: The extraction of Dead Sea minerals via evaporation ponds. It’s a huge business that makes a lot of money for some very well connected people, but between the Israeli and Jordanian industries, it’s causing a 40-48 cm drop in the water level every year.

This massive, unsustainable extraction has also led to the extensive and wildly unpredictable creation of hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of sinkholes in the area, because when you yank out the minerals, the necessary balance between those deposits and the fresh water coming from the Jordan River is hugely disturbed.

The excess fresh water washes away deposits and as a result, when pockets are created underground, the earth simply gives way. The various spas and hotels along the Dead Sea’s shore have had to literally rearrange their deck chairs, closer and closer to the center of the sea, as the shore has moved and sink holes have rendered beaches unusable. (All of which is why I haven’t bought any Dead Sea products, produced by anyone, anywhere, for a very long time).

Yet another enormous problem (and here I begin to run out of synonyms for “so big you can hardly imagine it”) is the amount of fresh water currently feeding into the sea from the Jordan River. In 1948, the Jordan’s flow was roughly 1.3 billion cubic meters, enough to power a hydroelectric plant, but until very recently, the volume had been reduced by more than 90 percent—and half of what remained consisted of agricultural run-off, dumped saline water, and (are you listening carefully?) raw, untreated sewage.

This past May finally saw some good news—after decades of diverting 60 percent of the water leaving the Sea of Galilee for the river, Israel announced plans to pump 30 million cubic meters into the Jordan annually. “I know that’s not enough,” Israel Water Authority head Alex Kushnir told Haaretz, “but that’s what we can manage now. We won’t be able to restore the river to its historic flow levels.”

Don’t misunderstand: As bad as Israel’s policies have been in the Jordan River Valley (an eco-system that stretches from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea and should be considered a single unit), Israel is hardly the only one to blame for the disaster at hand.

Jordan built a canal that diverts water from the Yarmouk River, a major tributary; Syria has built more than 40 dams on the Yarmouk. Then there’s the Syrian-Jordanian Unity Dam, completed in 2007, which nearly choked the Yarmouk off all together.

Israel isn’t the only one to have added human waste to the mix, either— untreated sewage seeps into the water basin from Jordanian and Palestinian septic tanks and cesspits. Furthermore, agricultural policies on all sides have long been senseless: Bananas, for instance, a major Jordan Valley crop, require enormous quantities of water. In recent years, agriculture took up some 30 percent of Israel’s fresh water and 70 percent of Jordan’s, while translating to about three percent and six percent of GDP, respectively.

And I haven’t even gotten to why the project meant to help resolve these issues is such a bad idea.

Put very simply: The Red Sea is not the Dead Sea. The make-up of one is not identical to the other. Dumping the brine from Point A into Point B is likely to cause lasting ecological damage.

Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director of the tri-national (Palestinian-Israeli-Jordanian) environmental group Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME): “Based on the research already done by the World Bank, the brine should not be transferred into the Dead Sea because of detrimental impacts."

Oh right, that’s the other thing: The World Bank conducted a feasibility study a few years back regarding an even bigger project under consideration, the “Red-Dead Canal”— it was found unfeasible, in part because of the environmental damage it would cause. But this new project isn’t that. It’s a standard desalination project project that hasn’t even been studied yet.

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And that, unfortunately, isn’t even the end of the story. FoEME's Palestinian Director, Nader Khateeb: “Even if this project includes selling [additional] water to Palestine, it continues to ignore riparian rights of Palestinians on the Dead Sea and the Palestinians’ fair share of water allocation.”

A genuine resolution of all of these problems would require the kind of tremendously creative thinking we only rarely see in the Middle East—including changing farming techniques, a reduction of the minerals industry, and a willingness to treat all stakeholders as equal.

I don’t know what the answer is. In fact, the water shortage that was once acute is even more severe now, as as Jordan finds itself grappling with a million Syrian refugees.

I do know, though, that failing to address existing problems even while creating a new one is no solution. I can only hope that enough pressure can be brought to bear on all involved that this project will be scrapped, and more responsible ideas sought.