Following is the last of a two-part article
outlining government action and suggesting possible solutions to
the water-shortage situation and improvement of the environs of
the Dead Sea:
A WATER tragedy does not have to be the precursor
of action to improve water management. The water shortage in the
summer of 1993 gave a taste of such a tragedy to the residents of
Amman; contamination of western Amman's water supply in 1998 provided
another glimpse into what life could be with a miserly supply of
To provide alternative water sources to the
agricultural and domestic sectors, as well as to improve the situation
on the eastern bank of the Dead Sea, the Water and Irrigation Ministry
initiated a plan, comprising 61 projects, for the period 1998-2010,
at an estimated cost of JD3.5 billion. Most significant are capitalising
on the Disi basin groundwater, building dams in the southern region,
improving Khirbet Al Samra wastewater treatment plant and desalination.
As far as the Dead Sea is concerned, the
Red-Dead canal is being advocated once again, a proposal whose supporters
claim will restore the lake's pre-1960s water surface area, two-thirds
of which currently exist, within around 20 years.
The canal, now called “peace conduit”,
would infuse Red Sea water into the Dead Sea. It appears like a
perfect solution to a worrying problem, making up for the dwindling
contribution of the Jordan River. Transforming the proposed canal
into a conduit, according to the secretary general of the Jordan
Valley Authority (JVA), was meant to minimise costs, reduce environmental
impact and hasten conclusion. A canal is cut through land, much
like the Suez Canal, producing an artificial river and consequently
increasing shoreline area. A conduit is actually only a pipe.
“Transporting a large body of salt
water over freshwater aquifers could threaten contamination,”
said Abdel Rahman Sultan of the Friends of the Earth Middle East
(FoEME), who is performing a small-scale environmental impact assessment
(EIA) of the consequences of the project.
In a conference on the Dead Sea earlier this
year, Living Lake's Stefan Horman said: “We share concerns
regarding the plan to build a channel linking the Red Sea to the
Dead Sea. Experiences from other large-scale projects of this kind
show that they often bring new, even bigger environmental problems
with them. A very detailed and comprehensive environmental impact
assessment carried out by an independent party is indispensable
in order to prevent negative impacts on the entire region and its
Withdrawing large volumes of water from the
Gulf of Aqaba is bound to upset its natural aquatic equilibrium.
Transporting the salty water over freshwater basins in southern
and northern Araba could be a recipe for disaster, and pouring ten
times less saline, full of aquatic life, water into the Dead Sea
could have “interesting” results.
“A simple model to represent the changing
conditions can be created, using appropriate software, but reality
is more complex; you can never tell 100 per cent what the outcome
will be,” said Sultan. He added that hardly any data is available
at present, and called for the creation of a baseline information
database to minimise the unexpected.
“If there are serious potential negative
outcomes, we will use scientific evidence to back up lobbying for
action that would minimise the environmental damage,” added
Possible effects at the Aqaba end are on
the sea larvae, which are at the bottom of the aquatic food chain;
their physical removal is the most probable. Also, mixing different
temperature water layers is likely to occur, modifying the environment
inhabited by an array of diverse sea life.
“Pouring less-saline Red Sea water
into the Dead Sea will produce a lateral and vertical concentration
gradient at the input zone due to the water density difference.
This can even result in aquatic life,” said Sultan.
Studies indicate the presence of algae and
several species of aerobic and anaerobic bacteria in the Dead Sea.
Heavy rains in 1980 and in 1992 led to the lake's dilution, resulting
in the flourishing of some bacteria that turned the surface colour
to reddish blue. Some scientists predict that a sudden inflow of
relatively freshwater could turn the sea green at first and then
The 400-metre vertical drop between the two
seas could be harnessed to generate electricity. According to a
United Nations University report, the theoretical hydro-potential,
exploiting the head difference off 400 m by diverting 56.7 cubic
metres per second (1,600 million cubic metres per year), is estimated
at 194 MW. A hydro power plant would produce 1.3 billion kWh per
year of electricity with an installed capacity of 495 MW, assuming
peak-power operation. These figures belong to a study of an Israeli
plan for connecting the Mediterranean Sea with the Dead Sea, but
the theoretical calculations are generally applicable. Jordan's
total annual electrical energy requirement is 6.453 billion kWh;
thus, the vertical drop can theoretically generate up to roughly
one-fifth of the country's electrical power requirement.
A study started in the early 1980s by Harza
Engineering from Chicago suggested that the (then) canal could generate
freshwater. The water pressure would be enough to push sea-water
through an artificial membrane that would separate the water from
its dissolved substances — reverse osmosis (RO) desalination.
Other studies suggest that the drop is not enough and that further
pumping is required; either way, there is potential for freshwater.
Most Gulf countries satisfy almost all their
freshwater demand through desalination due to their presently abundant
With improved technologies in the field,
conversion rates of up to 70 per cent have been attained by RO methods,
according to Fransesco Civili, member of the Mediterranean Action
Plan (MAP) coordinating unit. With a conduit flow rate of 1,600
mcm per year, over 1,000 mcm of freshwater can be produced by RO
desalination. However, during the desalination process, a number
of chemicals are added, such as disinfectants, anticorrosion and
antifoaming additives that may be discharged along with the concentrate
(outflowing water that was not desalinated). This has the potential
to damage the environment, according to Civili. With untreated sewage
flowing into the Dead Sea expected to increase up to about 35-50
mcm per year, proper management of materials entering the lake is
According to Thafer Alem, secretary general
of the Jordan Valley Authority (JVA), the outflowing concentrate
could also generate electricity.
Cost and consumers involved
According to Sultan, figures for conduit
construction and desalination stand at $0.8 billion and $3 billion
respectively, while an EIA could amount to tens of millions. Can
the country handle such sums?
Grants seem to be the only option, but, according
to a report on financing such a project by the American University,
Washington, “the World Bank does not finance international
water projects unless all riparian states agree to proceed”.
Water, considered by some to become the reason
for future wars, could also become a source of harmony in the region.
If desalination is considered, relatively cheap freshwater, estimated
at $0.5/cubic metre, could be supplied to the nation. Currently,
1 cubic metre of freshwater costs the government $1.15, according
Industry on the lake's shores is consuming
about a third of the removed water, with the remainder lost to evaporation.
The local Arab Potash Company (APC), which produces around 13 per
cent of the world's potash, reported net profits of JD39.5 million
in 2001, almost 1 per cent of the gross domestic product. The government
has given it exclusive rights to exploit the Dead Sea's minerals
on a commercial basis until 2058, with no set limits to the volume
of water being used.
Extraction of minerals from the Dead Sea
is necessary, but its negative impact has to be reduced. Upgrading
the upstream industry can generate more revenue from the same volume
of water consumed, and part of the profits can be used to fund water
conservation projects in the country.
Agriculture is another sector siphoning off
a large fraction of the Jordan River, Dead Sea's main water input.
A third of the 756,300 dunums of local irrigated land is watered
by open canals, resulting in losses up to 50 per cent due to evaporation
and runoff. Alternatively, drip irrigation uses 30-70 per cent less
water than traditional methods without affecting production output.
Many local crops consume too much water relative
to any significant economic returns. Watermelons, bananas, wheat
and various fruit trees can be replaced with more water conserving
produce such as olives, figs, tomatoes, dates, spinach and beetroot.
Besides drip irrigation, using brackish water
for some crops could save up to 6 per cent of the freshwater used
in agriculture, according to a study conducted by the National Institute
for Agricultural Research and Technology Transfer. If this becomes
the case, the water saved could go towards 80 per cent of industry's
Population increase normally means increase
in water consumption. But not necessarily so. California's Mono
Lake residents learnt to “live within limits”, showing
how efforts can be exerted by individuals, not only institutions
and the state.
According to the USAID-funded Water Efficiency
and Public Information for Action, the loss of one drop of water
per second from a leaky faucet wastes 0.9 cubic metres of water
a year. That could be easily prevented through regular maintenance,
while installing other gadgets, such as faucet aerators, could reduce
faucet water use by up to 60 per cent.
According to the State of the Environment
in Jordan 2000-2001 report, rainwater collected by an 80 square
metre rooftop can amount to about 32 cubic metres per year, supplying
almost a fifth of a six-member family's water needs.
With people becoming more dependant on underground
wells, excessive pumping of underground aquifers has led to lower
underground water tables, to the extent that some wells have reached
saline waters. Some of the wells, if not overtapped, can recharge,
while others are nonrenewable. Unfortunately, illegal activities
and mismanagement resulted in pumping rates exceeding safe levels
by 225 per cent in the late 1990s, according to the aforementioned
The Disi basin, which has been receiving
much attention recently, is a non-renewable source of underground
water, claimed to be able to offer 100 mcm of water per year for
around 50 years. Water pumping from the basin and supply to Amman
is estimated to cost JD0.5 billion, with annual running costs of
about JD13 million.
FoEME, a regional non-governmental environmental
organisation, is proposing an immediate solution for the management
of the Dead Sea's catchment area. It is advocating registering the
area with United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation
(UNESCO) as a transboundary “man and biosphere reserve”
(MBR). There are currently 425 other registered MBRs around in 95
countries, among which is the local Wadi Dana reserve, registered
in 1998. Other MBRs include Omayed and Wadi Allaqi in Egypt, Touran
in Iran, Arganeraie in Morocco, and Hawaiian Islands, Golden Gate
and Rocky Mountains in the US.
MBRs are recognised internationally. They
are nominated by national governments and remain under sovereign
jurisdiction of the states where they are located. Biosphere reserves
serve in some ways as “living laboratories” for testing
out and demonstrating integrated management of land, water and biodiversity.
They are organised into three interrelated zones, known as the core
area, the buffer zone and the transition area; only the core area
requires legal protection, the rest allowing industry and tourism
activities to go on.
Transforming the Dead Sea into a biosphere
area or at least trying to preserve it for the future generations
is a daunting task facing us. History will judge how we carried
Wednesday, December 18, 2002