At the southern edge of the Dead Sea, five-star resorts and spas, such as Le Méridien and the Prima Hotel’s Spa Club, are also at risk—of flooding. They are not far from mineral companies such as Israel Chemical’s Dead Sea Works, where the potash extraction process creates an unwanted byproduct: Huge quantities of useless salt sink to the bottom of the evaporation ponds, causing water levels to rise. Several years ago, hotel owners on the Israeli side sued the Dead Sea Works and the Israeli government; as part of a settlement, the companies agreed to mine the salt to lower the water levels. The process, estimated to cost well over a billion dollars, is supposed to begin next year. But it’s still not clear where the salt will be dumped.
If it dies, the Dead Sea will also kill its unique natural habitat. Although the water is barren of most life, the surrounding ecosystem includes springs that support a surprisingly rich range of flora and fauna. One such oasis is Einot Tzukim Nature Preserve—more often referred to by its Arabic name, Ein Feshkha, and also known as the “Concealed Preserve.” Located in the West Bank and under Israeli control, it is open to the public only at pre-arranged times. Here, some 160 underground springs run down from the Judean hills and bubble up to the surface, forming sweet-water pools where fish swim quietly. Rushes and sugar cane wave in breezes cooled by the pools, which are ringed by tamarisk trees and other native plants.
Kingfishers, a sharp stripe of turquoise against the haze, dive for food. Ein Feshkha is a major migration path for birds through the Middle East; some half a billion birds pass through here each season, according to Ariel Meroz, a geology student at Hebrew University who works as a Parks Authority guide in the preserve. The birds are not alone. Numerous varieties of bugs and invertebrates have adapted to life here, and ibex, hyrax, wild boars, desert cats, hyenas, jackals and wolves come to drink from the pools. Until recently there were leopards here too, as well as in the neighboring oasis of Ein Gedi. Most famously, the leopard of Ein Gedi—Shlomtzion, affectionately named for Jewish queen Salome Alexandra—prowled here for 16 years. Shlomtzion died in 1995, and no one has sighted a leopard since.
How can an environmental catastrophe be averted? One possibility under discussion is a massive public works project on a scale rarely seen on the international scene. This year, the World Bank presented a bold plan to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea, south of Israel.
The idea of a canal linking the Dead Sea to either the Red Sea—known as the Red-Dead—or the Mediterranean—the Med-Dead—dates back to 1899, when Abraham Bourcart, a Swiss engineer and a Christian who enthusiastically supported the Zionist dream, suggested a Med-Dead canal to Theodor Herzl and the World Zionist leadership. The idea has surfaced numerous times over the years. In 1977, facing the oil crisis, the Israeli government even appointed an official committee to come up with operational plans. But nothing ever materialized.
The canal plan was resurrected at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, when Israel and Jordan announced—to the great surprise of many, including members of the Israeli government—that they would be turning to the World Bank to prepare a comprehensive report, including a feasibility study, an environmental study and a social assessment, for a trilateral plan with the Palestinian Authority for a Red-Dead conduit.
The behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the announcement seemed to promise something for everyone. Jordan, with few freshwater resources and no oil to power desalination plants, had long been considering some form of Red-Dead conduit, even if it meant going it alone. Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president but then its foreign minister, jumped at the opportunity for a large, high-tech, world-captivating cooperative project that would help extricate Israel from its uncomfortable international position and push the region into the “New Middle East.” Palestinians wanted in as well; for them, participation in a project like this would mean world recognition of their status and their rights in the West Bank. And the idea apparently also appealed to James Wolfensohn, then President of the World Bank, who, a source close to him says, “has always had a deep personal hope to bring peace to the Middle East.”
It took years to organize, raise the money and conduct the feasibility study, but the Red-Dead project as put forth in the 2013 World Bank proposal is both conceptually simple and astoundingly complex. It calls for annually pumping up to 528 billion gallons of water through 111 miles of tunnels and pipes on the Jordanian side from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Hydraulic stations would take advantage of the height differentials, and desalination plants would provide potable water for Jordan, the West Bank and Israel, while the remaining briny water would be pumped back into the Dead Sea to raise its level.