A Sea of Troubles

Saving the Dead Sea Might Become More than a Pipe Dream



The Dead Sea is dying. The famed biblical sea is receding more than 3 feet (1 meter) a year, due to a combination of damming, climate change and companies draining the water supply. A researcher at the University of Jordan warns that it could disappear altogether by 2050. Yet a project to raise the sea’s dwindling levels is in motion, as long as its major government stakeholders—Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority—can overcome tense regional politics.

The first goal: build a desalination facility in Aqaba, Jordan that would turn Red Sea water into drinking water and then pump the remaining salt brine into the Dead Sea, for a cost of US$2 billion. The project, which has been talked about for more than a decade but never funded, would both buoy the Dead Sea and provide safe drinking water to surrounding drought-prone and water-insecure areas.

Funding and technical problems have created barriers. A World Bank report raised concerns about the initial cost—US$10 billion—so project leaders broke the initiative into phases in order to cut costs. The first phase, construction of the desalination facility and brine pipeline to the Dead Sea, is now roughly one-fifth of the initial proposal. Loans and other funds are expected to come from a range of public and private groups, including government organizations in the United States, France, Italy, Spain and Japan.

“This is important for regional cooperation,” Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel’s regional cooperation minister, told Bloomberg. “Jordan has severe water issues, and Israel wants to maintain Jordan’s stability.”

But diplomatic standoffs, especially in recent years, have hobbled progress. Israeli and Palestinian tensions remain high. And in 2017, an Israeli security guard shot two Jordanian citizens outside of the embassy in Amman, Jordan. While additional political tensions continued to mount and stall the project in the months that followed, Mr. Hanegbi said in January he expects the Israeli Cabinet to approve the project’s first funding when it comes to a vote later this year. Construction could begin in 2021 and last roughly three-and-a-half years, according to NBC News.

If successful, the project will roll out additional phases. As it stands, the amount of brine produced in the first phase won’t come close to stopping the decline of the sea’s water levels, let alone reversing it.

“Saving the Dead Sea is the responsibility of the entire world,” Fathi Al Haweimel, a Jordan government official, told NBC News.—Michael Wasney



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