News From the Red Sea to the Dead Sea: Canal plan to save the healing waters from vanishing

From the Red Sea to the Dead Sea: Canal plan to save the healing waters from vanishing

Dead Sea is dying
The Dead Sea is dropping at a rate of a metre a year. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images
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Water-strapped Israel this week said it is moving ahead – in partnership with equally parched Jordan – with a long-stalled plan to pump water from the Red Sea to the fast-falling Dead Sea.

Along the way, the project aims to generate enough potable water to ease a dire situation whereby 97 per cent of water in the Gaza Strip is reportedly unfit for human consumption.

The Dead Sea – the famed salty waters that Cleopatra bathed in for the sake of her health – has been shrinking for decades at more than a metre a year. Natural freshwater sources are also vanishing.

A lot of water, but is it enough?

The idea is to channel 400 billion litres of seawater per year from the Red Sea to a new desalination plant in the Jordanian port of Aqaba. The plant would produce 210 billion litres a year of freshwater. This would be consumed by Israelis and Jordanians – and be sold to the Palestinian territories at cost.

The Dead Sea Works factory located in the southern part of the Dead Sea: the world’s seventh largest producer and supplier of potash products with more than 10,000 Israeli workers. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

The brine by-product – 190 billion litres per year – would be pumped 200 kilometres north to the Dead Sea, in a bid to halt or even reverse rapidly falling water levels.

This project has been earnestly kicking around for at least 15 years – as prone to failure as any peace deal – and the actual idea is four centuries old.

The big question isn’t will it go ahead – but will it work?

EcoPeace, an award-winning activist organisation that links environmental protection as a means to build cooperation and peace in the region, thinks not.

EcoPeace has said that for the Dead Sea to simply maintain its current level would require inflows of about 800 billion litres a year – four times as much promised by the pipeline project. To restore it to its full glory would obviously require much more.

Aerial view of the some of the 5500 sinkholes that have formed on the expanding Dead Sea shore, rendering much of it dangerous and inaccessible. Photo: Getty

The group has argued that the Dead Sea – victim to poor water management, agriculture and potash mining methods based on evaporation pools – is a symptom of bigger problems. The pipeline, they say, will only add to those problems.

The Israeli government blames climate change and reduced inflows from Syria.

The Dead Sea is now half the length of what it was a century ago. And the surrounding area has become a death trap of landslides and sinkholes – more than 5500 at last count – that have swallowed roads, buildings and tree plantations.

Tourism’s on the boil

The bid to save the lake is linked to protecting an increasingly thriving tourism industry – a record four million-plus people visited Israel in 2018. Most of them come to be photographed sitting up, as you sit on a chair, in the super buoyant waters of the Dead Sea – and to enjoy those health salts.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there were hotels that enjoyed the sea’s waters lapping on their doorstep. Those waters are now two kilometres away.

Bathers enjoy the fabled healthful mud of the Dead Sea in Ein Fashkha on the West Bank. Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

If the sea shrinks to a foul-smelling puddle – as it is expected to do by 2050 – many of those tourists will go elsewhere for their magic selfies.

But Israel’s water problems aren’t confined to the salty sea – which is increasingly hard to access safely. Many of the well-moneyed tourists are religious pilgrims who come to be baptised in the Jordan River – where Jesus was baptised – and find themselves born again amid sewage.

Walking on water no longer a miracle

The Sea of Galilee – also known as Kinneret or Lake Tiberias – another pilgrim hot spot, is disappearing, too. This was where Jesus is said to have walked on water to reach his disciple fishermen in a storm. The joke now is you don’t need to be the Son of God to walk across the lake, which is fed by the Jordan River – which in turn is fed by much-dammed waterways in Syria.

The Sea of Galilee, which has been drained for the sake of agriculture, is at its lowest level in a century – and the political will to address poor water management by the government is nowhere in sight.

Sex and the City’s Mr Big, actor Chris Noth, does the tourist thing of posing with a newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea. Photo: Getty

Israel has met the water crisis by building more desalination plants – which now reportedly supplies 70 per cent of the country’s drinking water. This too has been problematic. A study published in July, in which nearly 200,000 Israelis were monitored, found that those who were drinking desalinated water showed an increased risk of heart disease – because the authorities had failed to add sufficient magnesium to the supply.

All of this should serve as lesson to other countries where the water supply is vulnerable because of poor rainfall – where tourism is linked to natural wonders.

In the same week that Israel made its pledge to build the pipeline, the UN has upgraded its estimates for ocean warming – it’s happening 40 per cent faster than was thought five years ago. If that’s true … goodbye coral.

Also reported this week: the Great Ocean Road is in danger of being washed away by surging seas.

When there is some good news on this front, we’ll let you know.

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