Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Red/Dead Gets Go Ahead

Lynch smiled. ‘Do you actually like her? She doesn’t seem your type.’
‘That’s none of your business.’
He leaned forward, his smile fading fast.‘We need your help. Dajani’s confirmed to a journalist from one of the Arabic rags he’s going to be bidding for the water privatisation and he’s claiming he has the solution to Jordan and the West Bank’s water supply problems. We’re deeply concerned about what he’s up to, Paul. The West Bank’s none of his business and it isn’t part of the privatisation as far as we are aware. The Izzies are screaming blue murder already and asking the Jordanians for clarification – and they’re saying nothing, not confirming, not denying. Your Minister has clammed up tighter than a shark’s arse at fifty fathoms.’
From Olives - A Violent Romance

It's been on what Gulf News likes to call 'the anvil' for something like 20 years now, but the infamous Red/Dead Canal is now set to commence. The problem is the Dead Sea has been shrinking at an incredible pace, its level dropping by up to a metre a year. Maps of the sea's outline over the past five decades look like maps of the Palestinian territories since 1948. It's inexorable and the scale of the great sea's decline is mind-boggling.

There simply isn't enough water to go around - I looked at the regional water crisis in my first serious novel, Olives - A Violent Romance because it's such a big (and unexplored) topic in the region. Israel and Lebanon almost went to war over Lebanese plans to dam the Litani river and there have been squabbles aplenty between Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria as everyone tries to get more out of a well that is near dry. The River Jordan, which feeds into the Dead Sea, has been reduced to a sad trickle. You can stand on the shores of the great gloopy body of ultra-saline water and look up the shore-side cliff to see hooks let into the stone that were used to tether boats forty years ago. It's an unnerving sight.

The Red/Dead Conduit (or even the "Two Seas Canal") aims to address the problem by piping water from the Red Sea up to the Dead Sea. It's all part of a multi-billion dollar project involving water desalination at Aqaba to feed the Israeli city of Eilat and the Jordanian capital Amman. Alongside this, 100 million cubic metres (MCM) of saline water will be diverted to feed into the Dead Sea. The deal's a complex one and involves Israel selling water to the Palestinian Authority as well as releasing more water from Lake Tiberias (The Sea of Galilee if you prefer) to Jordan. Israeli opponents of the scheme have criticised it as a water swapping deal dressed up as an environmental deal.

Part of the problem is that this all represents, literally, a drop in the ocean. Back in the 1960s, the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers used to push some 1900 MCM into the Dead Sea. Today that flow has reduced to something like 2-500 MCM depending on the season. Another 100 MCM is unlikely to make a huge difference. The original Red/Dead project called for two billion MCM to be pumped into the Dead Sea. Worse, the companies extracting potash and other minerals from the Dead Sea are themselves evaporating anything up to an estimated 350 MCM. The World Bank's feasibility study into the whole project estimated an inflow of a billion MCM per annum would stabilise the Dead Sea. So 100 MCM ain't looking like 'the solution'...

Alongside that are concerns about the environmental impact, as well as quite where all the power to feed the huge pumping stations the project demands - water is being pushed 230 metres uphill before flowing down to the Dead Sea - and the pipeline to Amman is an incredible 178 kilometres long. Part of the project plan includes hydro-electric power plants, but it's not known how much these will offset the overall consumption of the pumping stations and the project's two desalination plants.

What is clear is that it's likely going to be a mess. Few of the news stories covering the project agree on the numbers - and there are so many of them it's hard to work out quite what's what here. It's not yet been clarified how the project (which appears to be a scaled back version of what the World Bank's $16 million feasibility study called for) will be funded. And the concerns of environmentalists - both at what feeding seawater into the Dead Sea will do and at how pumping large volumes from Aqaba will affect flows around the sensitive Red Sea coral reefs - appear to have been largely sidelined.

What's sort of cute is how the water scarcity that drives Olives has remained relevant. It was all a huge mess when I first sat down to write the book in 2004 and it's no less of a mess almost ten years later, despite the Wadi Disi project being completed and the Red/Dead Project finally being agreed...

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