Diverting Red Sea to Save Dead Sea Could Create Environmental Crisis

Mati Milstein
for National Geographic News
December 14, 2006
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].)

Leaky Canal?

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.

Adar said that there could be "a leak from the canal for several days, and we could contaminate all—or at least a significant portion of—the aquifers."

Every Israeli and Jordanian community in the valley depends upon these underground layers of water-bearing rock and sand, he said.

"There is no such thing as 100 percent sealing efficiency," Adar said. "Even if the canal leaks from across the Jordanian border, it's the same basin. It's the same bathtub."

The canal would also cause a massive flow of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea via the Gulf of Aqaba.

"The gulf will no longer be a dead end, and a substantial current would be created. … This needs to be examined, and it hasn't been thus far," Adar said.

Chemical Surplus

Adar also raises concerns that an influx of seawater would change the chemical makeup of the Dead Sea.

The sea is naturally fed by fresh water from the Jordan River and its tributaries and by seasonal flash floods running out of desert canyons on the Israeli and Jordanian banks.

But channeling in seawater would likely dump surpluses of calcium, sulfur, and gypsum into the sea.

"The fact is that this water will raise the Dead Sea to its original level. This is positive," Adar said.

"But we also need to examine the hydrochemical evolution that will be caused."

Adar said building the canal is not the only way to save the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.

Rather than siphoning water from the Dead Sea's sources, local authoritie could "desalinate more seawater from the Mediterranean," he said, referring to the process that creates fresh water by removing salt from ocean water.

"And if Syria, Jordan, and Israel reach an agreement to let natural runoff enter the Dead Sea via the Yarmuk and Jordan Rivers, it will recover. It may take another hundred years to recover. But it will."

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