By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 5, 2009
AMMAN, Jordan -- An acute water shortage has prompted Jordan and Israel to embark on audacious water-supply projects that supporters say will prevent an impending regional crisis but environmentalists have criticized as ill-advised attempts to rewire nature.
The efforts include a pipeline to Amman from the Dissi Reservoir in Jordan's southern desert and an extensive network of desalination plants Israel is building along the Mediterranean coast. The Dissi is an ancient, nonrenewable, underground pool of water that, once tapped, will run dry in an estimated 50 years.
Most controversially, the two countries are pushing for action on the long-standing idea of cutting a 110-mile path north from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Nearly 2 billion cubic meters of water -- about half a trillion gallons -- would be sent through a network of pipelines or tunnels each year, with some of it desalinated en route and some used to reverse decades of decline in the Dead Sea's water level. The historic water body, the lowest point on the Earth's surface and a major tourist and industrial asset because of its unique chemistry, is dropping by about three feet a year due to evaporation and the fact that its upstream sources, chiefly the Jordan River, have been heavily dammed.
Water is a major source of contention in the Middle East, whether it is tension over Egypt's concerns about Sudan's management of the southern Nile or disputes between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over shortages in the occupied West Bank. The water shortage is severe enough to upend some of the region's traditional dynamics. Jordan and Israel are often pressured by Western nations and international organizations to cooperate in the name of Arab-Israeli peace. Water is one area in which pressure is running in the other direction, with the two pushing quickly on the Red Sea-Dead Sea connection while outside observers urge restraint.
Jordan now views the connection as central to the long-term stability of its water supply. Upset over the years spent discussing the project without concrete action, the country in the spring announced plans to proceed on its own. Israel has since said it would join its neighbor in an initial phase, even as the World Bank and environmental groups foresee perhaps two more years for studies to be completed before deciding whether the project should be built at all.
The projects being planned stem from an atmosphere of intense concern -- particularly in Jordan -- that a multiyear drought and a steady rise in residential, industrial and agricultural demand have made chronic shortages and rationing inevitable unless more water is produced. In the case of Jordan, landlocked and downstream of dams built long ago by Israel, Syria and Turkey on the region's major rivers, the country's dozen or so freshwater aquifers are being exhausted from overuse, with perhaps 20 years or less before they are spent, according to Jordanian officials and water experts.
Utility rates are rising, supplies are spotty in some Jordanian villages, and the farm economy -- from the kibbutzim that helped Israel "make the desert bloom" to the plantations spread along both sides of the Jordan Valley -- is being challenged to pay more for water and to shift from tropical fruits and standard produce to crops more appropriate to a desert climate.
Farms in both countries send abroad much of what they raise, using a long growing season to provide fresh produce to European markets during the winter and, in Jordan's case, to supply neighboring Persian Gulf countries.
Environmental groups say agriculture, in essence, is exporting what may be the region's most vital resource: water.
Investing in huge water- supply plants while shipping overseas tons of potatoes and carrots and other crops "is using a traditional fix instead of adapting behavior" to the climate, said Gidon Blomberg, head of Israel's branch of Friends of the Earth Middle East. "There's a sense among the heads of the water authorities that we want to look like Europe and the U.S. We want to have a garden. It's very much part of the ethos, that we can do better than nature."
Advocates in Israel and Jordan say that there is little alternative, and that connecting the Dead and Red seas is essential to maintaining basic necessities.
"We need to do it and to do it immediately," said Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, who also serves as minister of regional cooperation. "Those who are opposing it don't give any other solution."
"People want water to drink in their homes and they can't find it. We have rationing in some cities now, and we see they want studies that will take two years and then they'll need three to four to get authority and funding," said engineer Fayez Bataineh, Jordan's manager on the project. "Jordan is trying to find ways to speed this."
Along with the supply of desalinated water, which would be split among Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the project is seen as a way to sustain the Dead Sea's tourist economy, as well as industries on both sides that capture and sell its chemicals. The Dead Sea has fallen about 75 feet since 1960 and has lost a third of its surface area.
The environmental risks of the project include the effect on the Gulf of Aqaba's coral ecology, the chance of an earthquake spilling saltwater into pristine desert aquifers, and whether mixing the two types of water will trigger algae blooms or other side effects. The two countries say they can be studied through an industrial-scale pilot project that could then be expanded, changed or halted if necessary; Jordanian officials say they hope to break ground next year.
Environmentalists in Israel and Jordan, meanwhile, view the project as emblematic of the supply-first approach taken by water officials in both countries. They say alternatives, including stricter management of water use, should be exhausted first.
In northern Jordan, overlooking the Golan Heights -- which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war -- Munqeth Mehyar, head of Friends of the Earth's Jordan office, said regional water officials are looking in the wrong direction to solve the Dead Sea's troubles, as well as the broader water crisis.
Within sight of the border fences that separate the Golan from Jordan, a cement dam brings the Yarmouk River to a full stop. The Yarmouk was once a major tributary of the Jordan River, and ultimately of the Dead Sea, but its flow is grabbed upstream by Syria, then by Jordan and Israel. Some goes into Lake Tiberias, which Israel uses as a natural reservoir, and some into the King Abdullah Canal, a miles-long concrete trench that meanders through the Jordan Valley to irrigate farms.
Mehyar said both countries should impose higher water prices and stricter regulations on farms. It makes no sense, he said, to divert the Yarmouk into fields of water-intense crops such as bananas, then spend an estimated $5 billion pumping water from the Gulf of Aqaba into the Dead Sea.
"We have a sick ecosystem," Mehyar said, as he surveyed the Yarmouk dam, just around the bend from where an Israeli banana farm stands out on an otherwise brown Golani hillside. "The disease is in the north -- agriculture, other activities, river diversion -- but they want pipes in the south to bring the medicine."
The fight is not just over farms or even just over fresh water. Jordan loses perhaps half of its water supply to leakage and illegal wells, something environmentalists and international diplomats are pushing the country to address. In both countries, the different parties are fighting over how to best manage the resource.
At Zeillim, a kibbutz established shortly after Israel's creation to help control a stretch of the Negev desert, farm manager Herzl Tsalik said that Israeli farms are being pushed increasingly to use reclaimed water for irrigation, and that they are being charged ever-higher prices for it. In Zeillim's case, about 80 percent of the water is recycled from the homes and apartments of the Tel Aviv area, run through a filtration system on the way.
Even so, he said, the kibbutz's allotment of that water has been cut 15 percent in recent years as more Negev farms are connected to the system. At about 25 cents a cubic meter and rising, the price is making such water-dependent crops as lettuce and peanuts less profitable, a market dynamic that he said will gradually curb and change Israeli agriculture on its own.
"You can't grow potatoes on expensive water," said Tsalik, who monitors the water content of his fields through meters that send wireless streams of data to his office computer. The decision to turn on the irrigation system, he said, is made carefully. Between the combined fields of Zeillim and neighboring kibbutz Gevulot, he manages about 9,000 acres of land. Much of that is in potatoes, peanuts and carrots, and virtually all of that is for export, he said.
World Bank, Jordanian and Israeli experts agree that the "water economy" of the region must change, with farms being charged more and building codes and other regulations updated to reflect scarcity. But even with that, they say, the current supply cannot keep pace.
"You can get incrementally more water through demand management and stricter pricing," said Stephen F. Lintner, a senior technical adviser at the World Bank who is working on the Dead-to-Red connection project. "But at this point, governments are going to have to seriously consider introducing more water into the system."
Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.