Plans to save the Dead Sea
The Canal project: the Archaeology

The Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth, is a unique ecosystem, with geological and biological characteristics that are found nowhere else on earth. It is (still) the home of rare species such as the leopard, ibex and hundreds of bird species. Its salt water houses some unique bacteria. The combination of salt, minerals, hot springs and a unique climate have turned it into a major health resort with particularly beneficial effects on skin diseases. Its economic importance for the region includes the tourist industry, and the potash industry, conducted on the south end of the Sea.

The Dead Sea also has a unique history, with world famous and unique archaeological sites such as Bab edh-Dhra, En Gedi and Masada on its eastern and western shores, as well as numerous smaller sites.
The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah was situated on the east side of the Dead Sea, as an etiological saga explaining the origins of the salty sea, its salt-crusted coast and rock-salt formations ('Lot's wife' has been identified repeatedly in the numerous salt pillars that can be found on the southern coast).

The Dead Sea gets its water from several sources, mainly the Jordan River, and a number of wadis that discharge into the sea from the east, such as the Wadi Mujib, the Wadi Kerak, the Wadi Hasa, and several smaller ones. However, the demand for water in Israel, Palestine and Jordan has put such a strain on these water sources that presently little water flows into the Dead Sea, and what does still flow into it is mainly domestic and industrial sewage. Also, artificial evaporation ponds have been created to extract the valuable minerals from the water. As a result, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped in the past 30 years by almost one metre per year, and it is still dropping with alarming speed. It is unlikely that it will dry up completely, but it is predicted that its surface will diminish to an estimated 300 km2, one third of the ca 940 km2 it measured in 1966. One of the consequences of this diminished surface is the appearance of sinkholes, and the drying up of natural springs. Another consequence is the forming of salt dust on the dried-out plains, salt dust which is carried out over the country by winds, and which can seriously harm fertile lands, as well as people. Much of this is already happening.

The Dead Sea in 1960

The Dead Sea in 2000: the southern basin has dried up

The Dead Sea as it will look in 2050, if nothing is done

Plans to save the Dead Sea

Several projects have been proposed over the years to save the Dead Sea. The majority of these plans involved pumping water from elsewhere, either the Mediterranean Sea, or the Red Sea, into the Dead Sea, to replenish it. The earliest of these plans dates back to the 19th century. When the actual level of the Dead Sea was first measured, plans were developed to use the height difference to create a hydroelectric power plant. Most plans focused on a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea. Even though none of these plans were carried out, they were not forgotten.
A renewed study, started in the 1980s at the request of the Jordan Valley Authority and finalized in 1996, focused on the Red Sea – Dead Sea option, rather than the Mediterranean option. This canal would fill up the declining Dead Sea, and create renewable hydroelectric energy. Using new osmosis techniques, a Red Sea -Dead Sea Canal could also generate fresh water to supplement the scarce water resources in the region.
In 2005 the governments of Jordan and Israel, and the Palestinian Authorities together agreed on the terms of reference for a program to study the Red-Dead option. In May 2005 they formally asked the World Bank to organize donor financing, and manage the study's organization.
In response to the World Bank's request for donor funding France, Greece, Italy, Japan, South Korea, The Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States of America have committed themselves to co-financing of the project.

 In its early stages the plans to save the Dead Sea were wellcomed by most parties. However, as time and plans progressed, the parties became more aware of potential problems and dangers of the plan. The negative effects on the Sea itself, and on its surroundings still need to be studied. What will happen if the water of the Dead Sea mixes with that of the Red Sea, for example? It has been suggested that the gypsum in the Dead Sea water, when it reacts with the sulfate in the Red Sea water, will produce a white layer of gypsum on the surface. If the quality of the water, including the beneficial effects on skin diseases, will be affected, the tourist industry, supposed to be one of the major beneficiaries of the project, will suffer instead.
In the Wadi Arabah itself the possibility of leaking and bursting of the conduit as a result of earthquakes in this area needs to be thoroughly investigated. Seawater can pollute the scarce and precious ground water resources, as well as the ecosystem of the region.

And what are the effects of pumping large volumes of water out of the Red Sea? There are serious concerns for marine life in the region.

Various other options have been proposed. Friends of the Earth Middle East have proposed the 'Jordan River Alternative'. Through dramatically changing the nature of the agriculture in the region, focusing on crops with a low water consumption; educating populations to use water more effectively and more realistic water pricing; and exploiting other water resources, such as recycling of waste water and desalination, water could be brought back into the Jordan, and so into the Dead Sea. According to the FOEME study, this alternative would cost ca $800 million; about half the cost of the estimated $1.5 billion for the Red-Dead Canal.

Presently the World Bank has dismisses the alternatives as unrealistic. But it is very aware of the possible problems and dangers involved in the RDC project. In order to thoroughly investigate these, the World Bank has commissioned a 15 million $ feasibility study, looking into all aspects, positive and negative, of the Red-Dead Canal project, and possible solutions and alternatives. This study program, which is entering its second year, will look into the technical, economic, financial, environmental and social aspects of the RDC. It has been split up into two, independent studies: the Feasibility study, looking at the economic, technical and financial aspects, and the Environmental and Social Assessment Study, which researches environmental and social aspects. The London-based environmental consultancy firm ERM is working together with the Wadi Arabah Project research group in assessing the consequences of the project for the archaeology of the region.

The World Bank Study Program
The FOEME feasibility study

The Red Sea - Dead Sea Canal project: the archaeology

The Terms of Reference for the Study Program mention the potential danger to archaeological and historic site during the construction phase of the conduit, as part of the Environmental and Social Assessment. This acknowledges the archaeological importance of the region, as well as the fact that the canal is virtually certain to encounter archaeological sites, both known ones and new ones. As the impact of historical and archaeological sites is recognized, we assume that the outcome of that research may influence decisions regarding construction. The creation of an inventory of archaeological sites will therefore be part of the Environmental and Social assessment, and consist of literature review, discussions with the responsible ministries and individual scholars, as well as a field survey along the various proposed construction lines of the conduit.

Proposed canal routeSo far, the archaeology of the region has received little attention in the media hype surrounding the project. However, the  World Bank recognizes its importance. Several areas with major archaeological remains will be affected, the  most significant presently the Wadi Faynan, with its numerous copper production sites and field systems.
The most likely option at present is that the canal will follow a course along the eastern foothills of the wadi, and therefore be completely on Jordanian soil.
Our initial assessment showed that within the area likely to be affected there are over 500 sites that have been recorded with coordinates, and numerous more that have no coordinates, and whose location is uncertain. Many areas have been surveyed by various expeditions, but there are also large stretches that have not been surveyed recently.

Read here the preliminary assessment report

The Wadi Arabah, and especially the hill country between the bottom and the eastern plateau, is an area with a rich history covering every period from Palaeolithic to late Islamic. Hundreds of sites have been found here in a number of surveys, and since the area has still only been partly surveyed, hundreds of sites are still waiting to be discovered. Therefore, regardless of what route the pipeline/canal will take, it is bound to affect tens, maybe hundreds of archaeological sites, many of which have only been recorded in surveys, but never extensively investigated.

Archaeology of the Wadi Arabah in the Study Program

The Wadi Arabah Project has, from the beginning of the project, expressed an interest to be involved in any archaeological feasibility studies that may be carried out in the Wadi Arabah. This wider consultative role for the project was expressly outlined at the Atlanta conference in November 2003, and for that reason representatives of the Israeli Antiquities Authority and the Jordanian Department of Antiquities were present so that we could begin to consider a mechanism for cross-border cooperation. The Environmental and Social Assessment study, which includes the study of the archaeology of the area, is conducted by the London-based consultancy group Environmental Resource Management. The Wadi Arabah Project is actively involved in this study, with Eveline van der Steen acting as subconsultant for the archaeology of the region. The information that has been gathered, and is still being gathered by the participants in the Project, is particularly useful as a framework to conduct these studies.

Some links

LA Times, August 3
Jewish Journal August 3
Haaretz, June 11

June 2007
Friends of the Earth Middle East have conducted a preliminary study into the feasibility of the construction of the conduit, focusing on economic, technological, environmental and social aspects. The World Bank feasibility study program will be conducted in 2008-2010.

The World Bank Study Program
The FOEME feasibility study

Other links:

July 2006
Recent weeks have seen a renewed interest in building a canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, a joint project of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. "We have two main goals in building the canal," Israeli Minister of National Infrastructures Benjamin Ben-Eliezer said last week on a tour of the Dead Sea region. "Saving the Dead Sea, and saving Jordan." See full article by Leah Krauss, UPI

May 19, 2005
When the Ein Gedi Spa opened in 1986 to pamper visitors with massages, mud wraps and therapeutic swims, customers walked just a few steps from the main building to take their salty dip in the Dead Sea.
Nineteen years later, the water level has dropped so drastically that the shoreline is three-quarters of a mile away. A red tractor hauls customers to the spa's beach and back in covered wagons. See full article by John Ward Anderson, in Washington Post Foreign Service

April 21, 2005
Israeli, Jordanian, Palestinian representatives sign Red-Dead Sea Canal study agreement The proposed NIS 3 billion canal from the Red Sea and Dead Sea will produce power, and save the Dead Sea (see full article in Globes Online).

On May 9th, 2004 king Abdallah II of Jordan discussed the Red-Dead canal with James D. Wolfensohn, president of the world bank. Click here for newsitem

We shall keep you informed of new developments on this page.