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The Dead Sea could dry up by 2050. Israel and Jordan are planning to develop a pipeline from the neighboring Red Sea to solve the problem - but could this make the situation for the Dead Sea worse?
It was a historic moment: After more than a decade of discussion, Jordan and Israel recently signed an agreement to build a 180-kilometer (112-mile) pipeline channeling water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.
The canal aims to give the Dead Sea much-needed water. With high temperatures almost year-round, the quantity of water evaporating is greater than the inflow. As the water evaporates, what remains becomes more saline by the day. According to some experts, Dead Sea water levels are sinking at a rate of a meter per year - and it could completely dry up by 2050.
Diversion for agriculture
The Dead Sea lies in the lowest-elevation valley of the entire globe, and it is 10 times more saline than the world's oceans. The main water source for the Dead Sea used to be the Jordan River, which flows in from the north along the border between Jordan and Israel, passing the Palestinian West Bank.
Beginning in the 1960s, Syria, Israel and Jordan started diverting river water. By now, more than 90 percent of the water is being diverted.
The water is used for irrigation in the arid regions of Jordan and Israel. According to the World Health Organization, Jordan has access to the least amount of water of all countries around the world. About 92 percent of the country is desert, so it depends on river water for agriculture.
Fragile ecosystem, healing mud
Lack of water at the Dead Sea has been affecting the ecosystem there. The Dead Sea is not actually dead, and life there has kept biologists spellbound for centuries.
"Especially where freshwater enters the Dead Sea, life is thriving," says Youval Arbel, deputy director of the Israeli branch of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth. "And there are very interesting organisms, you can find a lot of algae and halobacteria. It's a very delicate environment," he adds.
The water is not only extremely rich in salt, but also minerals. The mud on the banks of the sea has been used for healing purposes for centuries, if not millennia. Patients from around the globe travel to the Dead Sea to treat skin diseases like neurodermatitis and psoriasis.
To find a solution to the water problem, Israel, Jordan and the World Bank are investing in a $900-million (847-million-euro) pipeline. According to Jordanian Water Minister Hazem Nasser, 300 million cubic meters (243,000 acre-feet) of water would be pumped annually from the Red Sea. This might increase over time to up to 2 billion cubic meters per year.
After passing through several hydroelectric power plants, some of this water would flow into the Dead Sea - the rest would be channeled via a desalination plant to different regions in Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
But several environmental groups have warned that the project could harm the Dead Sea environment. "The chemistry of the Red Sea is very different to water in the Dead Sea, you cannot simply mix them," Arbel says. He fears that mixing the different water types will generate large amounts of gypsum, which could spoil the delicate balance of the Dead Sea ecosystem.
He also points out that the amount of water that would enter is far too low: "90 million cubic meters of ocean water shall reach the Dead Sea via the canal - that is only about 13 percent of the amount of water that is needed to stop the decline of the water level. Probably the canal will do more harm than help," Arbel told DW.
As an alternative to the pipeline, Arbel suggests tackling the problem at its root: by better managing the Jordan River. If water is used more efficiently, for example by installing modern irrigation systems or recycling wastewater, more of the water could follow its natural path to the Dead Sea.
He also suggests that the mineral extraction industry apply new technologies instead of evaporation for their Dead Sea operations.
Water and conflict
The meaning of the pipeline agreement goes far beyond water: In this conflict-scarred area, the transnational agreement is also hoped to bring peace.
Israel's Energy and Water Resources Minister Silvan Shalom hailed the agreement as a landmark deal between Israel and Jordan. "It's the most significant agreement since the peace treaty with Jordan," he said - and that was signed in 1994.