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Saving the Dead Sea
Cooperation in Trans-Boundary Water Issues
The Jordan River flows through the Syria-Africa Rift Valley between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian West Bank. Its tributaries start at the base of Mount Hermon and collect in the Sea of Galilee. From there the "Mighty Jordan" winds its way to the Dead Sea. Or at least, it did. The River is a key source of water for Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon— and also a key source of conflict. Israel and Jordan have signed treaties on Jordan River-related matters and both countries divert huge volumes of water— Israel through the "National Water Carrier" and Jordan through the "King Abdullah Canal." Then there’s Syria, which siphons off water from the Jordan’s northern tributary, the Yarmouk River. The result? An estimated 4% of the original flow— a trickle— actually reaches the Dead Sea. Add to that, the fact that Israeli and Jordanian Potash companies located on the southern rim of the Dead Sea pull massive amounts of water to fill evaporation ponds so they can extract minerals, and you get a dying Dead Sea which drops by nearly one meter every year.

Can these countries work together to save the Dead Sea? Maybe not through their governments, but perhaps through their people.


Jamie: When you think of the Middle East, do images of conflict and war come to mind? It would be understandable as headlines are full of reports about bombings and acts of terror. The region has been in turmoil for decades if not centuries, but human suffering is only part of the picture. The environment is also a victim of human conflict. Lack of cooperation among regional adversaries has taken its toll on fragile, defenseless ecosystems. And climate change will likely intensify stress on the lands once known as "The Fertile Crescent."

But amid these dire circumstances there is some positive news. While governments fail to reach meaningful solutions, people are working at the grassroots level to heal polluted rivers and rehabilitate watersheds— all while cultivating cross-border understanding in the process.

Can there be "Peace through Water"? That's our cover story and begins our series about water issues in the Middle East.

Jamie: We start by looking at the Jordan River. The Jordan is the backdrop to the history of three main religions. In present times it serves as the border between Israel and Jordan. Allocating the Jordan River water to the two countries was codified in a 1994 peace agreement.

Dr. Clive Lipchin: The Peace Treaty has a very significant portion that deals with allocations of water from the Jordan River bilaterally. This has definitely improved markedly Jordan's situation. Given that Jordan is the most water-scarce country in the region.

Jamie: That's Dr. Clive Lipchin. He is the Director of Center for Trans-boundary Water Management for the Arava Institute, an environmental studies and research program in the Negev desert whose student body includes Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis.

Clive: The most interesting aspect of the treaty is a Water Transfer. Israel would transfer to Jordan on an annual basis approximately 55 million cubic meters of water per year. The other aspect of the treaty was that Jordan was able to make use of the storage infrastructure in Israel. This is actually very important because Jordan lacks sufficient capacity to store rainwater. The way the treaty is structured seasonal rainfall flowing from Jordanian territory would actually be transferred and stored in the Sea of Galilee during the Winter time and then when Jordan needed that water when demand rose in the Summer indicated to Israel when it would want that water to be transferred back. So the treaty actually has led to the integration of the two countries water networks which I think if you look at water treaties this is quite a unique aspect that has certainly improved Jordan's ability and of course as Jordan has been able to better manage its water resources it's also helped cement the general issues of peace between the two countries.

Jamie: So what happens? When Jordan needs water that is being stored in Israel, they make a phone call?

Clive: Yeah... It's very straight-forward. The two countries jointly monitor how much water is being transferred from one country to the other. There are open channels of communication. There are monitoring stations on both sides that each side has access to. And it's simply that. They basically will at a certain date transfer the water, and at a certain date when they need the water back they simply say okay this is when we need the water, and the transfer is made. It's really quite straight-forward.

Jamie: And this has been going on since 1994?

Clive: Yes and that's another important point. Even though as many people understand the Middle East is quite a volatile region politically, but ever since the treaty was signed in '94 despite what may be happening in other regions or even within Israel or Jordan these agreements have never ever been broken. Jordan received every drop of water it requested ever since 1994.

Jamie: There is another water project involving the Jordan River that some say has the potential to bring governments together and save the Dead Sea where water levels are dropping at a rate of three feet per year. The so-called "Red to Dead" proposal is an ambitious undertaking that plans to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, but not without significant risks.

Clive: What made this project realistic in the last couple of years was the massive advances in desalination technology. Israel is one of the world's leaders in desalination technology and development and today 30% of Israel's drinking water comes desalination from the Mediterranean Sea. So the fact that the technology has developed to a point where it's now economically feasible made the project attractive in the sense that two issues could be resolved in one integrated project. The first is to provide more water to the region, mostly to Jordan, and the second to save the Dead Sea. And so the idea of the Red-Dead was to divert... was to pump Red Sea water along a conveyance route all the way to the Dead Sea, a distance of around 300 kilometers, and then to use the altitude difference where the Dead Sea being around 400 meters below sea level could be used to generate hydropower which would be the electricity needed to run the desalination facilities. The desalination facilities will be built at the southern basin of the Dead Sea. Drinking water that would be produced from the facilities would be provided to Jordan, some to Israel and some to the Palestinian Authority. And the reject brine would be diverted into the Dead Sea. And the idea is that the reject brine would be able to stabilize the Dead Sea waters by offsetting the amount of water that is evaporating. This project is managed jointly by the three governments. It is being facilitated by the World Bank. A recent feasibility study was completed which the three governments were responsible for administering.

Jamie: So the World Bank study was finished in January of this year?

Clive: Yeah, the World Bank study if I remember began about three or four years ago. It involved as I said, very close cooperation by the three parties. The report has not been officially published, but the outcome of that study basically advocates for a staged approach to the project primarily to make sure that any environmental impact to the Dead Sea itself would be able to be mitigated. We'll have to see in the next year or so how things will develop, but I would say there is a sense of urgency and that is the business as usual scenario of not doing anything means that the Dead Sea will continue to decline at a meter every year. And this situation cannot be halted unless we return water to the Dead Sea. There's no other option here.

Mira Edelstein: Look, if the idea of this project is to save the Dead Sea, you can't just study... the World Bank cannot just study one option— that's against their own guidelines.

Jamie: That's Mira Edelstein. She is the Resource Development and Foreign Media Officer for Friends of the Earth Middle East which is a member of Friends of the Earth International, the largest grassroots environmental network in the world.

Mira: They need to study other options if there are other ones on the table. And we put the option of rehabilitating the Jordan River and we did our own studies of how this is possible, how it's feasible, how it's economical, how it's environmental, how it's a better peace project and less environmentally risky. And we said, this needs to be studied as well.

Jamie: The Friends of the Earth Middle East study identified a number of risks if the Red-Dead project were implemented including: the mixing of marine water from the Red Sea with that of the Dead Sea; possible damage to the sensitive coral reefs in the Red Sea which are a popular tourist attraction; the huge energy costs of pumping desalinated water uphill from the Dead Sea to Amman which is about a kilometer higher in elevation; and lastly the pipeline would be built upon the Syrian-African rift which puts it at risk for seismic activity.

The Friends of the Earth Middle East has proposed rehabilitating the Jordan River as an alternative to the Red-Dead proposal. Once a mighty river, the Jordan is now heavily polluted, reduced to a mere trickle by the time it reaches the Dead Sea. Friends of the Earth Middle East has conducted studies that suggest conservation measures by Syria, Jordan and Israel could raise water levels by at least a third if not more and thereby heal the river and restore the Dead Sea without the potential risks of the Red-Dead proposal.

Mira: We did very comprehensive studies to understand what a best scenario would be for the Jordan River. Alright, I shouldn't say best scenario, I should say realistic scenario to rehabilitate the river and indeed where we would get that water from. And we have very, very specific results that came out of these studies where we need to bring back about between 400 and 600 cubic meters of water into the Jordan River from all the countries— not just from one country. We would need Israel to bring in about 220, and Syria about 100 and Jordan about 90.

Jamie: That's hundreds of millions of cubic meters, right?

Mira: Indeed. We know that we're not going to bring the Jordan River back to its original 1.3 billion cubic meters— we're only asking for a third of that would even at least rehabilitate the Jordan River to some kind of healthy, healthier ecosystem. We then did a water economic study in each country, and thought is there any where we could conserve water or what could we do in our water economies that could possibly save enough water? And we found, believe it or not, hundreds of cubic meters of water in each county that could be saved. So our ideas are not tree hugging ideas. They are based on scientific reports that we have done together with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian experts. They have come to the same conclusion. All of them. And it was not always easy. So that we really do have a concrete idea of how this can happen and which is why this project is really now seriously on the table.

Jamie: Friends of the Earth Middle East has other projects involving the Jordan River including a proposed Peace Park. They believe water can be a vehicle for peace.

Mira: You know when you give residents of communities an incentive that they will benefit from, you’ll get them on board. Much easier than just having governments and politicians argue with each other about who gets what. That’s what we do with our grass roots projects. We bring it down to the people how everyone will benefit from these cross border initiatives, and when you show that to the people who are living in the communities it’s not so difficult for them to get on board. 💧


Arava Institute for Environmental Studies

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies is an environmental studies and research program located in the Arava Desert Valley of southern Israel. Accredited through Ben-Gurion University, the Arava Institute houses academic programs, research centers, and international cooperation initiatives focusing on a range of environmental concerns and challenges.
With a student body comprised of Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis, and students from around the world, the Arava Institute offers students an opportunity to learn from leading professionals while forming friendships and developing skills that enable them to lead the region and the world in solving today’s most pressing environmental challenges.

Friends of the Earth Middle East

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) is an organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists. Their primary objective is to promote cooperative efforts to protect shared environmental heritage. They seek to advance both sustainable regional development and the creation of necessary conditions for lasting peace in our region. FoEME has offices in Amman, Bethlehem, and Tel-Aviv. FoEME is a member of Friends of the Earth International, the largest grassroots environmental network in the world.

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