for National Geographic News
A multibillion-dollar canal project that would divert water from the Red Sea to save the shrinking Dead Sea may inadvertently cause critical environmental side effects.
Israel, Syria, and Jordan all siphon water from upstream sources that drain into the Dead Sea (map of the Dead Sea region).
Because of this, the sea's water level has dropped some 82 feet (25 meters) over the past century, losing between 31.5 and 39 inches (80 and 100 centimeters) every year.
At a meeting this past Sunday representatives from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority agreed to examine the feasibility of building a canal to channel seawater north from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea.
The 112-mile-long (180-kilometer-long) Two Seas Canal project would cost the equivalent of two to four billion U.S. dollars. The canal would send between 317 and 396 gallons (1.2 and 1.5 billion cubic meters) of water into the Dead Sea annually.
"This project will help ease the shortage of water for all of us," Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said at the Sunday summit, according to the Reuters news service.
"A peace agreement is a piece of paper that can be cemented only though economic projects."
But Eilon Adar, director of the Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, warned that major natural engineering projects inevitably create negative impacts.
(Related news: "China's Three Gorges Dam, by the Numbers" [June 9, 2006].)
The principle problem with the Two Seas Canal, Adar said, is its location in the Arava Valley, part of the earthquake-prone Syrian-African rift.
A canal rushing with seawater in a seismologically volatile valley could spell disaster for the area's underground freshwater aquifers.
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