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Canal could help Red Sea bring back the Dead

ABUNDANT water from the Red Sea could replenish the shrinking Dead Sea if Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians decide to commission a tunnel north through the Jordanian desert from the Gulf of Aqaba.

The Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance project would supply the biggest desalination plant in the world, running on its own hydro-electric power and providing Jordan with enough water for the next 40-50 years. Israel and the Palestinian West Bank would also benefit.

A decision on whether to go ahead could come by the end of next year and the likely cost would be about US$7 billion.

"The idea of linking the Red Sea and the Dead Sea was first suggested by a British military engineer in the 1880s," said engineer David Meehan, who leads the study team for French consultants Coyne et Bellier. "Technically and engineering-wise it was always going to be feasible. But there are some major issues that could determine its feasibility ultimately."

Three potential systems are being examined: a buried pipeline, a low-level tunnel all the way and a higher-level tunnel-and-canal system.

Two new feasibility studies are being commissioned by the World Bank, acting for the "beneficiary parties" - Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.

If a tunnel is chosen, it would be about 7-8 meters in diameter. Red Sea water would take about three to four days to flow 168 kilometers, relying entirely on gravity and dropping about 400 meters below sea level, to the lowest point on earth, where the Dead Sea is rapidly retreating.

Some estimates say it could more or less dry up in 50 years if no action is taken. Its level is falling by about 1 meter per year due to a sharp decrease in inflow from the Jordan and other rivers whose waters now irrigate fields.

"The level has fallen from 394 meters below sea level in the 1960s to 420 meters below sea level as of mid-2007," said the World Bank. The water surface area is down by a third to 637 square kilometers.

The World Bank said arresting the decline to avert an environmental calamity and topping up the sea is the main priority.

"For Jordan it is a water supply project," Meehan said. "For Israel it has perhaps as much to do with regional politics."

Jordan tunnel

The tunnel would be on Jordanian territory, following the border with Israel. Jordan is one of the two Arab countries that have full relations with the Jewish state, and the project in an earlier incarnation was quickly dubbed the "peace canal."

Meehan said he "can't see the project being commissioned before 2020," but its feasibility could be established in a year.

The main concerns are the effects on marine life in the Gulf of Aqaba of the extraction of such large volumes of water, the effects of that water mixing with the Dead Sea, and the funding of the project.

Also Israel has concerns about potential leakage polluting valuable freshwater aquifers in a desert region where it has developed world-leading techniques for cultivation, and "environmentalists don't like the idea of canals which cut off wildlife migration."

The Palestinians have not formally asked for a share of the desalinated water, he said, possibly because they do not want to prejudice their existing claims to mountain aquifers supplying the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley.

"None of these issues can be separated from politics," he said, although Jordan and Israel say they could go it alone. But that could involve a dispute in international law and make funding difficult.


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