Can an Unlikely Middle East Pact Give Life to the Dead Sea?

A World Bank-sponsored deal between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority aims to save the Dead Sea. But it achieves a lot less than its backers are advertising.

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Mohammad Abu Ghosh / Xinhua Press / Corbis

Bathers swim in the Dead Sea in Jordan on Nov. 19, 2013.

In the constellation of the world’s proposed engineering mega-projects, the Red-to-Dead Sea Canal has been a reliable source of speculative wonder for decades. The Dead Sea is evaporating, as the amount of fresh water reaching it from the Jordan River has slowed to a trickle in recent decades. Also water-starved is the desert nation on its eastern shore, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, already one of the driest places on earth even before hundreds of thousands of thirsty refugees poured in from Iraq and Syria.

Why not let gravity solve both problems? The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, and only 120 miles from the Red Sea. Digging a canal from the Red to the Dead would renew the latter and the hydro-electric force of the water moving downhill could power a de-salination plant that changes seawater to drinking water for Jordan. It sounded perfect, until the World Bank did the math in a 2011 study and concluded that gravity also worked against the project: The desalinated water would have to be pumped out of the lowest point on earth 1,000 meters to where Jordanians live, an undertaking that would require construction of two coal-fired power plants. There was also the question of what Red Sea water would do to the Dead Sea—possibly spawning algae blooms and floating gypsum.

So what, exactly, was ceremoniously signed at World Bank headquarters in Washington today? The agreement come to by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories was hailed in the Israeli press as “Return of the Red-Dead Canal.” But it’s not quite that. The plan calls for building a desalination plant not at the Dead Sea but on the Red Sea, near the Jordanian port of Aqaba. The scale is much smaller — not the 2 billion cubic meters moving from one sea to the other each year that was envisioned by the mega-project, but one tenth as much. Of that, some 80 million cubic meters of fresh water would be produced by desalination, most of which would go to southern Israel. The balance would go to southern Jordan, while its elevated northern section would receive 50 million cubic meters from Lake Galilee in Israel (gravity again). The Palestinian West Bank would gain access to another 30 million cubic meters.

But it’s not yet clear what would make its way by newly built pipeline to the Dead Sea, 120 miles miles downhill. Press reports said the plan calls for the 100 million annual cubic feet of Red Sea water that isn’t desalinated to be channeled through a pipeline to the Dead Sea, in what amounts to a pilot program for the mega-project. It might also get the brine left over from desalination. But the brine might also go back into the Red Sea. A leading environmental group says all that will depend on the results of environmental studies.

“Water exchange programs are great, but leave the Dead Sea out of it,” says Mira Edelstein, spokeswoman for EcoPeace/ Friends of the Earth Middle East, an advocacy group that warns against tampering with the Dead Sea’s delicate ecosystem. “The Dead Sea knows only fresh water—sweet water, as we call it.” Adding brine, or even sea water, risks not only the aesthetics of the famous sea but also the chemistry that produced its assorted therapeutic qualities, Edelstein says. “And that’s what we’re worried about with these plans, too,” she tells TIME.

But even if it all goes forward, it’s far short of the massive canal that so alarmed environmentalists. “It seems to me it’s a desalination for Amman project,” says Yaakov Garb, who teaches environmental studies at Ben Gurion University in Beersheva. But that doesn’t really seize the imagination, he says — nor does it do much to attract funding for the project’s $400 million price tag.  “Often major projects need to mean many things to many people in order to go forward,” Garb says. “If you’re looking to get assistance from the international community, it’s better to have a Save-the-Dead-Sea framing, or a ‘regional peace’ framing.”  The participation of the Palestinians helps build the latter frame, he notes, even though the Palestinian Authority minister who signed the agreement has complained that Israel continues to deny the occupied territories’ full rights regarding the Dead Sea, and advocacy groups in the West Bank lambasted the pact. As for Jordan, Garb notes that Israel is inclined to do what it can to stabilize the ruling monarchy there, and with it its existing 1994 peace treaty.

So it was that Silvan Shalom, the Israeli minister for regional cooperation who took credit for the pact, was on Army Radio early Monday. “We succeeded in formulating a plan that received the blessing of the prime minister on our side, the blessing of Mahmoud Abbas on their [the Palestinian] side and of course the blessing of the Jordanian king,” he said. “And after all these things were agreed we go today to the signing ceremony which is nothing short of historic.”