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Red to Dead: Not As Simple As It Seems

Red-Dead_2At ~428 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is considered the Earth’s lowest point on land, and is suitably named for its high salinity content that does not support marine life. Currently, the Dead Sea is shrinking as a result of mining for raw materials and the loss of fresh water inflow from the diversion of the Jordan River for drinking water by Syria, Israel and Jordan. This shrinkage is problematic for economic, environmental and cultural reasons for both Jordan and Israel, the two countries which share borders with the Dead Sea. The sea provides a source of income from tourism and cosmetic/health products for both countries; in terms of the environment and conflict, it is an integral part of a project meant to provide water and energy to the Middle East, while at the same time serving as a symbol of peace and cooperation.

The “Red to Dead” water conveyance project has been proposed to respond to these problems, and is meant to bring water north from the Red Sea, to the Dead Sea. The transfer would not only address environmental issues associated with the declining water level, but desalinization could provide a source of energy for Jordan, Israel and Palestine. At the same time, the project could offer a source of fresh drinking water for Jordanians living in Amman, who are in dire need of a sustainable source of water. Currently, the approximately 3 million people living in Amman receive water twice a week to once per month, depending on their location in the city.

As students in the Regional Sustainability in the Middle East program have witnessed first-hand, the proposed “Red to Dead” project is highly controversial within Israel and Jordan. Through presentations and discussions with different stakeholders, students have seen that despite shared environmental interests, the internal disagreements on how to best move forward affect external negotiations. The Jordanian government viewpoint is that the project must progress in order to secure a source of water and energy for the Jordanian people and to fulfill the obligations set forth in the Peace Agreement of 1994.

On the other hand, Friends of the Earth-Middle East (FoEME), an NGO, is concerned with the environmental impacts the project could have, which include the unknown consequences of adding sea water to the Dead Sea (whose source has historically been freshwater from the Jordan River) and the effects of water removal on the coral and marine life in the Red Sea. As an alternative, FoEME suggests an agreement requiring Israel, Syria, and Jordan to return water to the Jordan River.

To complicate things further, there is disagreement as to the role of and benefits for Palestine, since currently they do not have access to the Dead Sea due to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The Israelis instead propose a different solution to the water and energy needs, through a “Med to Dead” project which would provide desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea.

The more students learn about the issues, the more apparent it becomes that there is no easy solution. The longstanding conflict in the Middle East is being further complicated by the pressing environmental issues being faced by its countries. Already, the erosion of the Dead Sea has had environmental impacts, ranging from the loss of fresh water springs, river bed erosion and an increase in sinkholes which threaten to further destroy the sea. However, the shared environmental threats offer a glimmer of hope, by forcing engagement on shared water and energy needs.

The perspectives heard have been convincing and students are being challenged to sort through the political agendas to hear the facts. While it is unclear what format the “Red to Dead” project will take, one thing is agreed upon on both sides: The project must move forward in some form, at the very least to provide desalinated drinking water for the residents of Amman, Jordan.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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