S T E E R I N G T WA S
B E T T E R R E D
S U N L I G H T A N D
C A PAC I T Y
P E O P L E , P L AC E S , E V E N TS
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria,
he Dead Sea’s relentless buoyancy has been known
since the time of Aristotle (304-322 BCE) who
wrote about a body of water “where no fish live and
people float.” The sea’s glorious history, however, far
predates the Greek philosopher’s comments. It served
as a refuge for King David; as the location for the cities
of Sodom and Gomorrah; as a health resort for Herod
the Great; and as the primary source of bitumen used
to mummify the Egyptian pharaohs.
It goes without saying that the Dead Sea is a place
of timeless wonder that has cast a spell on endless gen-
erations. The sea is located in the
Jordan Rift Valley on the border
between Jordan to the east and
Palestine and Israel to the west.
Resting some 400 metres below sea
level, its shores are the lowest areas
of dry land on Earth, although some
ice-encrusted sections in Antarctica
run deeper. It is also the saltiest body of water on our
cent (producing a density that kept my daughters
afloat despite their best efforts to submerge them-
selves), water in the Dead Sea is 10 times saltier than
that of other seas (the Mediterranean, for example,
has an average salinity of 3 percent). Even the world’s
seawater, with average salinity concentrations of 8 per-
cent, is far less salty and buoyant than the Dead Sea.
More than two decades later, I still remember
Prince El-Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan’s response to my
F E AT U R E
WAT E R L E V E L S I N T H E D E A D S E A , A U N I Q U E S A L I N E E N V I R O N M E N T, H AV E B E E N
D E C L I N I N G O V E R T H E PA S T 5 0 Y E A R S . FA R O U K E L - B A Z ( T WA S F E L L O W 1 9 8 5 )
E X A M I N E S C U R R E N T P R O P O S A L S T O R E P L E N I S H T H E D E A D S E A B E F O R E I T
E VA P O R AT E S I N T O E X T I N C T I O N . S U C H E F F O R T S , H E S AY S , W O U L D N O T O N LY
E N S U R E T H E D E A D S E A’ S L O N G - T E R M S U R V I VA L B U T A L S O H E L P T O R E D U C E
T E N S I O N S I N O N E O F T H E W O R L D ’ S M O S T T R O U B L E D R E G I O N S .
he quickly turned to a more serious subject, asking me
to voice a scientific opinion on the options for its sur-
vival: “Med-Dead or Red-Dead?” he asked.
His comment was a shorthand reference to an issue
of critical importance to the region and especially to
Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, all of
which border and have deeply root-
ed historical ties to the Dead Sea.
The sea is drying up at an
increasingly rapid pace. Between
1970 and 2006, its water level
dropped more than 5 percent, from
395 to 418 metres below sea level.
To reverse this alarming trend, water experts have
proposed two alternative strategies, both of which
would link the Dead Sea to other bodies of water. One
strategy would involve digging a canal between the
Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, the so-called
Med-Dead option. The other strategy would involve dig-
ging a canal and laying water pipes between the Dead
Sea and the Red Sea, the so-called Red-Dead option.
Prince El-Hassan, in effect, was asking whether, in my
scientific opinion, I would prefer the Mediterranean or
the Red Sea connection.
The Dead Sea draws on two sources of water. By far
the major source is the Jordan River, which flows
through Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. A tranquil
setting and scorching temperatures lead to rapid rates
of evaporation. Average winter temperatures along the
sea’s coast range between 20° and 35ºC and rarely drop
below 10ºC. In summer, meanwhile, temperatures
average a searing 30° to 40ºC.
Yet, until the 1950s, the rate of
water intake roughly equalled the
rate of water loss due to evapora-
tion. That changed, however, as
Israel and, to a lesser extent, Jordan
and Syria began to extract upstream
water from the Jordan River to meet the demands of
their growing populations. Less than 7 percent of the
upstream flow of the Jordan River currently reaches the
sea, largely because of diversions made for irrigation and
drinking water in support of expanding populations.
The second, less significant, source of water for the
Dead Sea comes from three sparsely rain-fed channels
lying to the east — Wadis Mujib, Karak and Hasa. The
proliferation of irrigated farms, which draw water
from these wadis, has contributed to reducing inflow
to the Dead Sea.
The sea is drying up
at an increasingly
Sea have fallen at a rate of roughly one metre per year.
The surface area of the sea, which was 1,000 square
kilometres in 1960, has shrunk to 670 square kilome-
tres today. While people may not be able to sink in the
Dead Sea, they may soon be able to stand on its bed
without getting wet. Experts estimate that if the cur-
rent rate of depletion continues,
the Dead Sea could disappear with-
in the next half century, turning
into an exposed environment of
rock, salt and sand.
Proposals for connecting the
Mediterranean Sea to the Dead
Sea were formulated well before the current water
crisis. Indeed they were first discussed in the mid
19th century as a way for the region to take advan-
tage of the labour-saving benefits of water mills.
Such proposals became even more appealing with
the advent of hydropower for the production of elec-
Proponents theorized that the 400-metre drop in
terrain between the Mediterranean and Dead Seas
would enable the downward flow of water to drive tur-
bines that could turn mechanical energy into electrici-
ty. Theodor Herzl, one of the fathers of Zionism, popu-
larized the idea in his 1902 novel, Altneuland, or Old
. Three-quarters of a century later, US-based
groups revived the idea by drafting workable construc-
tion plans, contending that the overall benefits of the
project would far outweigh its
canal, designed by the Mediter-
ranean Dead Sea Company in 1983,
would traverse the Mediterranean
coast and then cross the Gaza and
Negev Deserts and parts of the west
bank of the Jordan River.
The Dead Sea would undoubtedly be replenished.
But there is also a distinct danger that salt water
would seep into the substrate (through porous
bedrock and/or fractures) to mix with the groundwa-
ter and increase its salinity. The Dead Sea would be
saved but at the risk of reducing supplies of fresh
drinking water in a region where every drop counts.
Many observers, including myself, concluded that the
trade-off was unacceptable.
Red-Dead has become
the only strategy
discussed by the
with supporting data from space images, he told me
that Jordanian groundwater experts shared this fear.
Following the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty of 1994,
both options were again considered. A consensus was
reached that the Red-Dead, and not the Med-Dead,
option would be the best strategy for saving the Dead
Sea from extinction. Over the past decade, the Red-
Dead has become the only strategy discussed by the
international scientific community.
The Red-Dead project calls for the construction of
either a canal and/or pipelines to carry water from the
northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan some 200
kilometres northward to the Dead Sea. The gradient
would be sufficient to create a rush of water capable of
both generating electrical power and channelling the
water through saline-filtering membranes for desalina-
tion. Most importantly, this solution would ultimately
refill the Dead Sea to its original level, a process that
could take 10 to 20 years to complete, depending on
the amount of water pumped.
The intent of the Red-Dead project is to restore the
level of water in the Dead Sea to the level of 1930, which
environmentalists who have studied the Dead Sea’s bac-
teria, chemistry and salinity stratification deem the ideal
level. The Red-Dead canal/pipeline, simply put, is
designed to return the Dead Sea to its former state.
Cost, of course, also enters into the calculations.
Experts generally agree that the construction of a
canal would amount to some US$5 billion compared
to only US$800 million for the construction of a
pipeline, which would preclude the development of
HELLO SUN, GOOD-BYE ALLERGIES
The long-term economic value of the Red-Dead solu-
tion largely resides in its potential to generate tourism
across the region. Low elevations, extraordinary salt
concentrations and high evaporation rates create a
thick haze over the Dead Sea.
In most places, such conditions would deter
tourists. But that’s not the case here. That’s because
the haze blocks ultraviolet B rays that cause sunburn,
allowing tourists to bask in the sun without fearing for
their health. The air, moreover, is oxygen-rich and
pollen-free. Thus ‘therapeutic skin tourism’ flourishes
At present, the most attractive blueprint for the
Red-Dead project calls for the construction of a canal
six or seven kilometres north of Aqaba. As the canal
reaches the high bluffs of Wadi Araba, which straddles
Jordan and Israel, a subterranean pipeline would pick
up where the canal left off and continue northward,
ultimately discharging water into the Dead Sea. When
fully operational, the system would channel 1,900 mil-
lion cubic tonnes of water a year into the sea, gradual-
ly raising the sea to its historic levels. Proponents of
this option also note that there would be an enduring
could be used for recreation and tourism.
A project of this size, of course, must be subjected
to cost-benefit analyses. In addition to the financial
costs already discussed, environmentalists have also
warned about potential environmental damage. They
suggest that mixing water from the Red Sea with the
unique aquatic system of the Dead
Sea may cause many changes.
They contend, for instance, that
combining marine water with the
delicate mix of bromide, potash,
magnesium and other salts of the
Dead Sea could induce algal
growth or even produce toxic emis-
sions. The colour of the water could change from blue
to red to brown, and the water itself, with diverse
chemical compositions, could actually separate into
distinctive layers. The consequences would not only be
unsightly but could also create unpredictable ecologi-
Yet, if all works out, there would undoubtedly be
appealing benefits, including the provision of energy,
fresh (desalinated) water, and new potentially prof-
itable venues for tourism. All of this, of course, means
added jobs in a region where steady employment is in
These potential benefits are not lost on Prince El-
Hassan, who has just asked a committee of experts to
present what he hopes will be the last scientific evalu-
ation of the Red-Dead project – an evaluation that will
likely lend strong support for moving ahead.
Perhaps more importantly, the
cross-border cooperation between
Jordan, Israel and Palestine inher-
ent in such a project could help to
nurture a sense of goodwill in a
troubled region. Such a develop-
ment would ultimately dwarf any
financial considerations, no matter
how significant they may be.
We’ve tried ‘atoms for peace’. Perhaps it’s now time
to turn to ‘water for peace’.