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Originally published Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 12:16 AM

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Israel, Jordan plan to join Dead, Red seas to boost water supply

An acute water shortage has prompted Jordan and Israel to embark on water-supply projects that supporters say will prevent an impending...

The Washington Post

AMMAN, Jordan — An acute water shortage has prompted Jordan and Israel to embark on water-supply projects that supporters say will prevent an impending regional crisis but environmentalists have criticized as ill-advised attempts to rewire nature.

The efforts include a pipeline to Amman from the Dissi Reservoir in Jordan's southern desert and an extensive network of desalination plants Israel is building along the Mediterranean coast. The Dissi is an ancient, nonrenewable, underground pool of water that, once tapped, will run dry in an estimated 50 years.

Most controversially, the two countries are pushing for action on the long-standing idea of cutting a 110-mile path north from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Nearly 2 billion cubic meters of water — about half a trillion gallons — would be sent through a network of pipelines or tunnels each year, with some of it desalinated en route and some used to reverse decades of decline in the Dead Sea's water level.

The historic water body, the lowest point on the Earth's surface and a major tourist and industrial asset because of its unique chemistry, is dropping by about 3 feet a year due to evaporation and the fact that its upstream sources, chiefly the Jordan River, have been heavily dammed.

Water is a major source of contention in the Middle East, whether it is tension over Egypt's concerns about Sudan's management of the southern Nile or disputes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over shortages in the occupied West Bank.

Jordanian officials view the Dead Sea-Red Sea connection as central to the long-term stability of the country's water supply. Upset over the years spent discussing the project without action, officials in the spring announced plans to proceed on their own.

Israeli officials have since said they would join their neighbor in an initial phase, even as the World Bank and environmental groups seek perhaps two more years for studies to be completed before deciding.

The projects being planned stem from an atmosphere of intense concern — particularly in Jordan — that a multiyear drought and a steady rise in residential, industrial and agricultural demand have made shortages and rationing inevitable unless more water is produced.

Aquifers exhausted

In the case of Jordan, landlocked and downstream of dams built long ago by Israel, Syria and Turkey on the region's major rivers, the country's dozen or so freshwater aquifers are being exhausted from overuse, with perhaps 20 years or less before they are spent, according to Jordanian officials and water experts.

Utility rates are rising, supplies are spotty in some Jordanian villages, and the farm economy — from the kibbutzim that helped Israel "make the desert bloom" to the plantations spread along both sides of the Jordan Valley — is being challenged to pay more for water and to shift from tropical fruits and standard produce to crops more appropriate to a desert climate.

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Farms in both countries send abroad much of what they raise, using a long growing season to provide fresh produce to European markets during the winter and, in Jordan's case, to supply neighboring Persian Gulf countries.

Environmental groups say agriculture, in essence, is exporting what may be the region's most vital resource: water.

Investing in huge water-supply plants while shipping overseas tons of potatoes and carrots and other crops "is using a traditional fix instead of adapting behavior" to the climate, said Gidon Blomberg, head of Israel's branch of Friends of the Earth Middle East.

Better than nature

"There's a sense among the heads of the water authorities that we want to look like Europe and the U.S. We want to have a garden. It's very much part of the ethos, that we can do better than nature."

Advocates in Israel and Jordan say that there is little alternative, and that connecting the Dead and Red seas is essential to maintaining basic necessities.

"We need to do it and to do it immediately," said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who also serves as minister of regional cooperation. "Those who are opposing it don't give any other solution."

Engineer Fayez Bataineh, Jordan's manager on the project, said, "People want water to drink in their homes and they can't find it. We have rationing in some cities now, and we see they want studies that will take two years and then they'll need three to four to get authority and funding. Jordan is trying to find ways to speed this."

Along with the supply of desalinated water, which would be split among Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the project is seen as a way to sustain the Dead Sea's tourist economy and industries on both sides that capture and sell its chemicals. The Dead Sea has fallen about 75 feet since 1960 and has lost one-third of its surface area.

The environmental risks of the project include the effect on the Gulf of Aqaba's coral ecology, the chance of an earthquake spilling saltwater into pristine desert aquifers, and whether mixing the two types of water will trigger algae blooms or other side effects.

The two countries say the effects can be studied through an industrial-scale pilot project that could then be expanded, changed or halted if necessary; Jordanian officials say they hope to break ground next year.

Looking for alternatives

Environmentalists in Israel and Jordan, meanwhile, view the project as emblematic of the supply-first approach taken by water officials in both countries. They say alternatives, including stricter management of water use, should be exhausted first.

In northern Jordan, overlooking the Golan Heights — which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war — Munqeth Mehyar, head of Friends of the Earth's Jordan office, said regional water officials are looking in the wrong direction to solve the Dead Sea's troubles and the broader water crisis.

Within sight of the border fences that separate the Golan from Jordan, a cement dam brings the Yarmouk River to a full stop. The Yarmouk was once a major tributary of the Jordan River, and ultimately of the Dead Sea, but its flow is grabbed upstream by Syria, then by Jordan and Israel. Some goes into Lake Tiberias, which Israel uses as a natural reservoir, and some into the King Abdullah Canal, a miles-long concrete trench that meanders through the Jordan Valley to irrigate farms.

Mehyar said both countries should impose higher water prices and stricter regulations on farms. It makes no sense, he said, to divert the Yarmouk into fields of water-intense crops such as bananas and then spend an estimated $5 billion pumping water from the Gulf of Aqaba into the Dead Sea.

"We have a sick ecosystem," Mehyar said.

The fight is not just over farms or just over freshwater. Jordan loses perhaps half of its water supply to leakage and illegal wells, something environmentalists and international diplomats are pushing the country to address. In both countries, the different parties are fighting over how to best manage the resource.

World Bank, Jordanian and Israeli experts agree the "water economy" of the region must change, with farms being charged more and building codes and other regulations updated to reflect scarcity. But even with that, they say, the current supply cannot keep pace.

"You can get incrementally more water through demand management and stricter pricing," said Stephen Lintner, a senior technical adviser at the World Bank who is working on the Dead-to-Red project.

"But at this point, governments are going to have to seriously consider introducing more water into the system," Lintner said.

Washington Post correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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