March 20, 2009

Red Sea Could Save Shrinking Dead Sea

If the shrinking waters of the Dead Sea are to be saved, it will most likely take some assistance from the Red Sea.

The decision to create a tunnel through the Jordanian desert to the Gulf of Aqaba could be made by the end of next year.

In order for the $7 billion tunnel to be built, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians would have to agree to the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance project. Each nation stands to benefit from the project. Jordan alone would have enough water for the next 40-50 years.

There are three approaches that engineers are considering. One includes the use of a buried pipeline, another would create a low-level tunnel while the other includes a higher-level tunnel-and-canal system.

"The idea of linking the Red Sea and the Dead Sea was first suggested by a British military engineer in the 1880s. That was for hydro-power. But the drivers today are water supply and saving the Dead Sea," engineer David Meehan, who leads the study team for French consultants Coyne et Bellier, told Reuters.

"Technically and engineering-wise it was always going to be feasible," he said. "But there are some major issues that could determine its feasibility ultimately."

A tunnel would be about 7-8 meters in diameter, and water would take about 3-4 days to run the length of 105 miles from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which some experts say could disappear in 50 years if nothing is done to reverse the shrinking cycle.

"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, from 950 square kilometers to 637 -- about the size of Lake Geneva.

"For Jordan it is a water-supply project," said Meehan. "While for Israel it has perhaps as much to do with regional politics. For them, desalinating Mediterranean water is much more practical."

He told Reuters that he didn't foresee the project being commissioned before 2020.

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.

A report from the World Bank earlier this week took the findings of two separate studies into account to determine the environmental factors.

"The outcome of mixing of these two water bodies over a time scale of decades is unknown and is difficult to model and predict," it found.

"Clearly, the Dead Sea will change its composition and characteristics as they are known today or were in the past if it receives large volumes of water from the Red Sea."

Environmentalists warn that in mixing the two seas, the composition of the Dead Sea could drastically change and turn white as gypsum sediment precipitates and green blooms grow.


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