In a recent presentation delivered in a working breakfast organized by EDAMA Minister of Water and Agriculture Hazim Al Naser has dropped a bombshell. The Minister has revealed that the government is now thinking seriously of replacing the Red-Dead Conveyor project with a series of lower budget projects that would provide drinking water to Jordan and its neighbors through the desalination of Red Sea water.
This is the 1st time that a high-level official suggests that the Red-Dead Sea project can be revoked. This is a decision that makes sense and comes at the right time.
During its presentation of the final results of the Environmental and Socio-economic feasibility studies for the project, the World Bank and the Ministry of Environment provided the regional stakeholders with many reasons to doubt the feasibility of the whole project. If you have some time during Ramadan to read the full studies available here it would be a great educational exercise, but of not let me summarize the situation.
The plan is to pump 1.2 billion Cubic Meters of sea water from the Red Sea, pass it through a series of desalination plants, use the desalinated water for drinking, and discharge the brine to the Dead Sea, which should help restore it to its 20th century levels and prevent it from vanishing like the Aral Sea. The Dead Sea is a unique ecosystem — it is the world’s saltiest lake at the lowest altitude. Its surface is currently about 420 metres below sea level. Excessive use of tributary water from the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers has reduced its level by 27 metres since the 1960s, a trend exacerbated by climate change and increased evaporation.
Although the feasibility and EIA studies recommended going ahead with the project they raised more questions than they answered, casting a shadow of uncertainty over its future.
The Dead Sea level will not be restored:
The seawater modelling exercises used in the studies indicate that it will be safe to discharge a maximum of 350 million cubic metres of sea water brine into the Dead Sea every year, but that any additional discharge will be detrimental to the environment.
The interaction between sulphate from the Red Sea and calcium from the Dead Sea will form a white layer of gypsum on the surface of the Dead Sea, destroying the aesthetic value and ecological integrity that currently attracts tourists to the area. The mixing of waters will also cause algae to grow, which would be devastating for the mineral industries that thrive along the Dead Sea’s shores.
The cap on discharge volume means the project can’t meet its original objective, since any realistic restoration of the Dead Sea to its condition around four decades ago would require adding 700 million cubic meters annually — double the threshold considered safe for the environment
Huge Energy requirements:
Environmental safety is not the only risk. The project is also challenged by affordability. It needs to raise US$10 billion, and the only financing option is a huge private investment by a company that could sell water at a high-enough price to recoup its capital investment.
The financial feasibility study assumed that about 80 per cent of the project’s costs will be provided by loans and donors, with only a fifth from countries — both difficult in this global state of austerity.
And the project will need 800 megawatts of energy to drive the desalination, pumping and operation of the facilities — a requirement that cannot be met with the current, short-term forecasts of energy supply in the region.
The new option:
Faced with such barriers, any reasonable decision maker will pause and think a lot before committing to this dangerous adventure. During his above-mentioned presentation Minister Al Naser proposed another solution.
The alternative is based on a series of smaller scale and lower budget projects that start with the treatment and desalination of Red Sea to produce 85 MCM of freshwater and 100 MCM of brine that will go into the Dead Sea. The produced freshwater will be provided to both Israel (50 MCM) and Palestine (35 MCM). In return Jordan will receive the same amount from Israel from sources in the northern Jordan valley.
Now I am getting confused and worried. Why desalinate and then sell the water to Israel while we can potentially link the resulting desalinated water to the alraedy existing Disi project pipeline?. I am not an engineer nor a plumber, and would love to know why such a linkage between the desalination plan in Aqaba and Disi infrastructure is not feasible.
This could provide a strategic additional source to bridge the water demand gap and at a much lower price, both financially and politically.