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Environmentalists urge caution at Jordan's plans to save Dead Sea
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19:23, September 22, 2009

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With both water and time running out, Jordan is aggressively pursuing a massive international water project to save the Dead Sea and provide the Kingdom with much needed water, while some environmental experts have labeled the scheme as "risky."

Environmentalists are casting doubt over the feasibility of the proposed Red-Dead canal project, which seeks to channel water from the Red Sea to the rapidly-shrinking Dead Sea, saying that it may do more harm than good.

In 2005, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel agreed to explore the Red-Dead Canal project, which entails pumping around 2billion cubic meters (bcm) of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea annually, 800 million cubic meters (mcm) of which will be desalinated as potable water for consumption.

The World Bank-supported initiative seeks to pump 1 bcm of water annually to raise the water level in the shrinking lake from420 meters to 315 meters below sea level.

The project will also supply what will be the biggest desalination plant in the world, running on its own hydroelectric power. The international companies that will carry out studies on the feasibility and environmental impact of the project are to be announced next month.

However, as Jordan is in dire need of water and keen on rescuing the Dead Sea, an important site for its growing tourism industry, it has taken matters into its own hands and launched a national project in May 2009 to establish a desalination plant in Aqaba.

According to the scheme, namely, the Jordan National Red Sea Water Development Project, water will be pumped from the Red Sea to the plant, which will be operational by 2014, producing 1.2 mcm potable water and diverting the brine into the Dead Sea.

The two projects are similar, while the water authorities say they can be implemented simultaneously to save the Dead Sea, which is expected to dry up within the next 50 years.

"Jordan has depleted all of its water resources and it must start desalinating water from the Red Sea. This project will also help rescue the dying Dead Sea," Red-Dead Canal Project Director Fayez Batayneh told Xinhua.

With Jordan listed as the 4th poorest country in the world in terms of water and the Dead Sea shrinking at an average one meter a year, Batayneh said Jordan has no option but to go ahead with implementing the scheme.

"Water is a national security issue and we cannot solely rely on rainfall to meet our increasing needs. We want to follow the example of other countries by desalinating water to save the Dead Sea, which is a national landmark," Batayneh added.

However, environmentalists say siphoning water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, considered to be the lowest point on Earth, will change the composition of its waters, known for their high salinity, rich minerals and therapeutic properties.

"Officials promote the project as environment-friendly, but it is not," Royal Society for Conservation of Nature (RSCN) Director General Yehya Khalid told Xinhua.

"People from across the world visit the Dead Sea for its unique water composition. By adding Red Sea water to the Dead Sea, it will not be a natural wonder anymore," he said.

The Red Sea waters are 10 times less saline, a level which gives the Dead Sea its world-renowned buoyancy.

Environmentalists are also concerned that pumping "massive" amounts of water from the Red Sea will negatively affect the coral reefs in the Aqaba Gulf and harm its marine ecosystem.

Another concern surrounding the proposed projects is the establishment of a pipeline from Aqaba to the Dead Sea for transferring the water, said Munqeth Mehyar, Jordanian Director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, noting that the area is known for its seismic activity.

Ahmad Kofahi, Executive Director of the Jordan Environment Society (JES), which functions as the coordinator of 13 environment-concerned NGOs in Jordan, told Xinhua the route of the pipeline will run through vital agricultural lands.

To save the Dead Sea, according to the environmentalists, the preferred solution is to rehabilitate the Jordan River, once the major supplier for the Dead Sea.

In the 1960s, the river used to supply the Dead Sea with about 1.3 bcm of water annually, but "huge" withdrawals of water from the river for irrigation, mostly by Israel, robbed the Dead Sea of its major tributary, experts said.

The river, now a gentle stream, no longer contributes to the Dead Sea, which can rely only on intermittent rainfalls and small streams trickling down from surrounding valleys, according to experts.

"One main reason the Dead Sea is in such a dire state is the drying-up Jordan River. Rehabilitate the river, allow the flow of its water into the Dead Sea and the latter will be rescued," Mehyar told Xinhua.

"The solution is to rehabilitate the Jordan River. Unlike the proposed Red-Dead Canal scheme, this will not cause environmental problems," the RSCN Director General Yehya Khalid agreed.

"I have many doubts over the feasibility of the Red-Dead scheme. There are many risks behind it," Khalid added.

Despite objecting to the feasibility of the Red-Dead Canal, environmentalists stressed they are concerned about the danger posed by the shrinking Dead Sea.

According to Mehyar, there are around 820 sinkholes on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, which he said it is a threat to local residents and farms in the area.

"Because of the sinkholes, many farms have been destroyed and houses been affected. Two years ago, salt factory was forced to relocate as it was about to collapse," Mehyar added.

Khalid, Mehyar and Kofahi are among the environmentalists who have repeatedly called for addressing the "sickness," rather than treating the symptoms of the Dead Sea's woes.

"The best solution is to go back to the root cause and rehabilitate the drying Jordan River. All other solutions will have environmental ramifications," Khalid said.

Source: Xinhua

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