Red Sea and Dead Sea (Image credit: Expedition 35 Crew Image courtesy of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Image Science & Analysis Laboratory Derivative work including grading, noise reduction, lens distortion and vignetting correction and dust spot removal: Julian Herzog (ISS035-E-007148) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Almost two decades ago, facing severe water shortages, Israel began to plan for an alternative: desalination. Amidst one of the most severe droughts in the country’s history, an Israeli company, IDC (a division of Strauss), built Israel’s first desalination plant in Ashdod (2005), followed by Hadera (2009), and Sorek (2016). There are now five plants in Israel and more are planned. As a result, in addition to water conservation and water recycling programs, Israel is resupplying its major water reserve, Lake Kinneret, and now exports water.
With Jordan facing water shortages and the Dead Sea shrinking dramatically, in recent years the World Bank has suggested a billion-dollar project to provide potable water to Jordan, Israel, and areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), and bring water to the Dead Sea by building a large desalination plant on the Red Sea, where they share a border. Water from the plant would be pumped 100 miles north through Jordan to replenish the Dead Sea and then continue to Amman.
But there were many objections, especially from ecologists and water experts who claimed that the project would not be sufficient to prevent the crisis of the Dead Sea and would even damage it. Others argued that the desalinated water lacked essential minerals - such as magnesium - found in freshwater, and would have adverse effects on consumers. Economists pointed to the huge energy and infrastructure requirements necessary. Nevertheless, an agreement was signed between the partners in the project in 2015.
It would seem that alternatives to the Red-Dead Sea project were rejected for political and diplomatic reasons.
This project is a classic example of how politics shape economic policies. A careful look at the context and reasons given for it expose an insidious attempt to advance a political agenda.
Using economic projects to further political objectives is not necessarily bad, but one should know what they are. This project’s goal, according to an analysis of the World Bank’s recent report on “Area C of the West Bank” and their other publications, is clear: to shift control over Area C (areas under full Israeli administration according to the Oslo Accords) from Israel to the PA, remove all Jews from the area including the IDF, and return to the armistice lines of 1949.
In order to accomplish this, the World Bank and other international aid organizations are engaged in a large number of infrastructure and building projects throughout PA-controlled areas and Arab villages in Area C. These projects are steps toward building an Arab “Palestinian” state in Judea and Samaria (“the West Bank”), including eastern Jerusalem.
The question is whether this project is the most cost-effective solution and if it is environmentally sound. For example, it would be much cheaper, faster, and environmentally safer to supply water to the Dead Sea by a canal or pipeline from the Mediterranean Sea.
Since Israel has already built several desalination plants, another one in Jordan is unnecessary. If Jordan wants its own desalination plant, why should Israel pay for it? Since desalination plants require large amounts of fuel, it would be much cheaper to bring water to Jordan from Turkey.
Major sources of freshwater in Syria that once flowed into the Yarmouk River and the Jordan River and supplied the Dead Sea were illegally diverted by Syria; re-opening them is a simple, cost-free, and quick alternative.
The amount of water estimated to be added to the Dead Sea from the Red-Dead Sea project is only about 10% of what is needed to prevent a further decline. Therefore, the Dead Sea will continue to recede despite the World Bank’s project. The project’s costs to Israel, moreover, were never explained.
Giving the PA Leverage
The agreement requires Israel to provide additional amounts of fresh water from the Kinneret, Israel’s primary water reservoir, with little or no payment, to Jordan and the PA.
Palestinian NGOs have criticized the deal for “not recognizing Palestinian claims of water rights,” which are attempts to claim sovereignty.
The PA has resisted attempts to build facilities that would treat waste water that could be used in agriculture. Attempts to develop water conservation projects in PA-controlled areas have been rejected because Israel was involved, even though PA residents were the main beneficiaries.
The project would also bring the PA closer to parity with Israel regarding the use of the northern Dead Sea area. This would strengthen PA claims for access to and sovereignty over the area, which appears to be one of the aims of the World Bank, and it would link the PA-controlled area of Jericho with Jordan. This presents a major strategic problem for Israel and Jordan.
This project is an important step toward establishing PA claims over the entire Jordan Valley and supporting its claims for riparian water rights, including aquifers.
Significantly, the World Bank brushed aside alternatives to this project, despite numerous objections from environmental groups and economists.
At a time when there is a major humanitarian crisis in Syria – where it is reported that thousands are starving and homeless – this costly World Bank project is morally bankrupt.
A water pipeline from Turkey to Jordan could relieve their water shortage and turn the country’s vast uninhabited desert into an oasis, providing homes and employment for millions of refugees displaced by the civil war in Syria and other countries as well.
Assisting Jordan’s economic development could also boost the country’s political stability and benefit the entire region. Those possibilities should not be dismissed in favor of a partisan political agenda.
The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His book of short stories, “As Far As the Eye Can See,” was published by the New English Review Press in 2015. This article, reprinted with permission of the author, previously appeared as "The World Bank's Red-Dead Sea gamble." The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. February 06, 2018.