May 22, 2005

Israel, Arabs agree to save Dead Sea

SHUNEH, Jordan (AFP) -- Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority said Sunday they had agreed terms for a feasibility study on transferring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, to save the world's lowest sea from vanishing.

The two-year study, costing 15 million dollars, will investigate the social and environmental impact of conveying large quantities of water through a 200-kilometer (120-mile) conduit between the two seas.

Experts at a discussion panel warned earlier in the day that the Dead Sea has been losing large quantities of water, posing a serious evironmental disaster to the whole area.

The project, if proven feasible, involves the building of a small canal on the Red Sea between Jordan and Israel and then pumping water to the Dead Sea through a 180-kilometer (110-mile) pipe or several pipes.

The agreement was announced at a joint press conference on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) between Jordan's Minister of Water and Irrigation, Raed Abu Saoud, Israeli Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Palestinian planning minister Ghassan al-Khatib.

Abu Saoud hailed the landmark agreement as a significant step to foster "understanding and cooperation between us and to strengthen peace in the region" and announced that a "new horizon has now begun."

Ben-Eliezer described the agreement a "major economic leap ... the first of several other projects."

Abu Saoud said that following the feasibility study, the project will take around five years to complete.

But the project in its second phase involves building power generation and water desalination plants to supply electricity and fresh water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Zafer Alem, secretary general of Jordan Valley Authority, told AFP the first phase is estimated to cost one billion dollars while the second phase is expected to cost up to three billion dollars.

The surface of the Dead Sea is estimated to have dropped from 392 meters below sea level to 416 meters and is dropping at an alarming rate.

Alem said that between 250 to 300 million cubic meters (6.6 to 7.9 billion imperial gallons) of fresh water were being lost annually because of a tilt in the Dead Sea plateau as a result of a drop in its level.

He said that so far, 30 percent of the surface area of the Dead Sea has already been lost.

Abu Saoud said that the Dead Sea needs some two billion cubic meters (528 billion gallons) of water annually from the Red Sea in order to save the Dead Sea.

Experts said that some 66 billion cubic meters (17.4 trillion gallons) have evaporated from the Dead Sea because of industrial uses.

The feasibility study will be supervised by the World Bank and financed by a number of donor countries.

Inger Andersen of the World Bank told the debate that a meeting for donor countries is planned for early July.

Experts estimate that desalinated water from the project will be enough for Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians over the next 50 years.