Protecting the Dead Sea Basin: The Position of Friends of the Earth Middle East on the Red Dead Conduit and the protection of River Jordan
Abdel Rahman Sultan
Friends of the Earth, Middle East
A Unique Ecosystem to the World
The Dead Sea
The Dead Sea basin is one of the world’s unique ecosystems. The Dead Sea, a terminal lake, is the lowest place on earth and the saltiest large water body on the planet. Dead Sea waters are recognized for their medicinal and healing treatments. The area’s complex geological form has created a spectacular landscape characterized by high mountain cliffs, deep canyons and green oasis. The springs that feed the green oasis attract unique biodiversity, in stark contrast to the desert surroundings. The Basin is a cradle of cultural heritage of utmost value to the three monotheistic religions of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. For all the above reasons the Dead Sea Basin is treasured by people the world over and is a major site of pilgrimage, tourism and industry.
The Jordan River
The Jordan River Valley is well known in local and international records as an area of remarkable natural, ecological, and cultural value, not only for the riparian parties, but also as a worldwide cultural and religious site. The valley was formed as part of the Great Rift Valley, a unique geophysical formation with a history of radioactivity and a reputation for wonderful bird watching. Diverse flora and fauna flank the winding curves of the Jordan River. The river itself is one of the most distinctive symbols of the land of the Bible and it figures prominently in the historical and cultural traditions of the region.
Existing Policies that Threaten the Basin
Despite its uniqueness, there exists no integrated development plan for the Dead Sea Basin. The competing sectors, the mineral extraction industry, fresh water supply, tourism, local agriculture and urban development exploit the Dead Sea’s resources without consideration of the area’s natural carrying capacity. Due to present unsustainable development policies the Dead Sea is a living example of a ‘tragedy of the commons.’
Over the last forty years, the Dead Sea water level has dropped by some 25 meters. The current yearly water level decline is over one meter. This is due to both water diversion upstream and industrial activities, which are responsible for 75% and 25% of the sea level decline respectively. With the disturbance of the water balance, a sinkhole phenomenon has developed with catastrophic impacts on development in the region. Sinkholes have damaged roads, parking
areas, and tourist facilities. It is not possible to predict the location, scale and extent of new sinkholes, which pose real threats to people’s lives and assets.
Despite its importance, the Lower River Jordan has been turned into little more than an open sewer. Sewage from all of the communities along the Jordan River Valley, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian, is untreated and directed towards the river. Fresh water coming from the Sea of Galilee and the Yarmouk River have been diverted or dammed so that the Jordan River’s flow is today less then ten percent of its historic volume and that volume constitutes mostly sewage and diverted saline springs from the Sea of Galilee.
The Call of the Governments of Jordan and Israel to Protect the Dead Sea
Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) is seeking to conserve this unique trans-boundary ecosystem. In order to achieve this effort, FoEME desires to establish this area as a UNESCO World Heritage site and raise awareness about the area’s uniqueness and challenges. The focus area of the project is the Lower Jordan River Valley, between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea.
Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) support the governments of Jordan and Israel for their call made during the Johannesburg Earth Summit 2002 to protect the Dead Sea. We congratulate our governments for recognizing that they are responsible for the environmental problems facing the Dead Sea and that they have the responsibility to solve these issues cooperatively prior to comprehensive peace in the region.
The plan as currently presented by the governments to build a conduit from the
Red Sea to the Dead Sea deals only with one problem facing the Dead Sea: the decline in water level. There is a need to broaden the issues involved in saving the Dead Sea to more than just the water level. Raising the water level will do little towards preserving the rich cultural heritage of the basin, nor in protecting the unique topography. Unsustainable tourism development with plans to build thousands of new hotel rooms along the ecologically sensitive corridors of the Dead Sea is threatening the cultural heritage of the area today. Raw sewage flowing from surrounding cities untreated into the Dead Sea is polluting ecosystems and threatening the tourism value of the Dead Sea as a natural spa and place of healing.
The proposed conduit raises many environmental questions related to the Dead Sea and Red Sea hydrology, water chemistry and impacts on the natural biota. The Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal (RDC) project components need careful and detailed investigation that involves sophisticated environmental modeling. The following are specific concerns that the proposed Red Sea - Dead Sea Conduit raises:
For the Dead Sea Basin
The RDC could result in temporary and permanent changes on the hydrological balance of the Dead Sea Basin associated with the rise of the sea level.
The resulting mixing in the composition of seawaters at the Dead Sea and the potential changes of its biology, chemistry, and physical stratification.
For the Araba Valley
The vulnerability of the Wadi Araba (Arava valley) region to continuous leaks and/or accidental spill of seawater from the RDC.
The environmental impact of the large-scale civil works involved in the construction of the RDC and its maintenance.
For the Gulf of Aqaba
The likely impact of water flow disruption on the marine environment including the coral reef and sea grass meadows from the intake facility.
Sediment movement around the entrance to the water intake canal and likely impact on marine life.
The effect of the 11 km open canal in terms of potential humidity increase in the atmosphere and the comfort impact on the residents of Aqaba and Eilat as well as on the fauna and flora.
The Call of Friends of the Earth Middle East
In 1998, FoEME produced a concept document entitled: “Let the Dead Sea Live” that outlined a comprehensive plan to protect the Dead Sea. The concept document calls upon the government of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to recognize the importance of listing the Dead Sea Basin as a Man and Biosphere (MAB) and World Heritage site. Since its publication, FoEME has led a campaign to bring the issue of the protection of the Dead Sea to the highest national, regional and international levels. Developing a regional integrated master plan involving Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians under the framework of a UNESCO, Biosphere and World Heritage registration are immediate measures that could be taken by all three parties together.
Developing a management plan requires consideration of all the competing interests exploiting the Dead Sea region and balancing those interests according to the natural carrying capacity of the area. A study involving the true economic value of the resources that should be naturally available to the Dead Sea, including the fresh water currently being diverted needs to be undertaken. Alternative solutions should be reviewed including the possibility of increasing the flow of freshwater sources to the Dead Sea by limiting diversion from the River Jordan and promoting public and private water conservation.
Immediate actions are required to save the Dead Sea. If the RDC project is to be implemented water would still not be expected to reach the Dead Sea for another 10 years. The governments therefore need to put in place policy directives that will deal with the current crises and in so doing consider all possible alternatives and solutions.
FoEME calls on the World Bank to support the urgent need to protect the Dead Sea Basin
World Bank support however should be comprehensive to meet all the challenges that the Basin faces and advance a government policy document that would look into all the causes for present unsustainable practices and all their possible solutions. Measures should include short and long term planning considerations both national and regional. Planning should address all management elements and should include measures to improve the efficiency of the current water infrastructure in the region. Planning should investigate the current water uses and decide if these uses at present levels are sustainable. Civil society groups must be fully involved in all stages of this process, and where relevant independent third party experts should conduct assessments and evaluations.
Crossing the Jordan
With the support of UNESCO Amman office Friends of the Earth Middle East published a report entitled “Crossing the Jordan” in March 2005 to advance the rehabilitation of the lower Jordan River. The purpose of the release of the report was to place the issue of drying up of the River Jordan on the local and international agenda.
FoEME has produced a strategy to identify the common interests of the bordering Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian municipalities in rehabilitating the valley. The municipalities in the Valley agreed to create a mayors network for concrete action and cooperation.
The Goals Next Step
To raise general public awareness as to the urgent need for rehabilitation of the River.
To call on governments to act according to Annex IV of the Israel/Jordan Peace to rehabilitate the River.
To call on governments to list the Lower Jordan River Valley with UNESCO's various mechanisms such as World Heritage, Man and Biosphere, etc. in order to promote sustainable development in the Lower Jordan River Valley.
FoEME’s report “Crossing the Jordan” has identified two areas that can be described as 'core areas' in the north of the valley and in the south of the valley where there is a heavy concentration of nature reserves, national parks, proposed protected areas, important wetlands and important bird areas. The cultural sites include Prehistoric, Biblical, Greco-Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine, Crusader, and later Arab Muslims and Ottoman periods. FoEME proposes to advance recommendations that are divided into four themes: Ecological Rehabilitation, Eco-Tourism, Culture and Sustainable Agriculture, by first concentrating on the trans-boundary core areas in the north and south of the valley. FoEME prepared draft Action Plans for the two core areas identified. The action plan would involve further research, holding further discussions with all relevant stakeholders, obtaining appropriate technical assistance as required and the publication of a draft report on the development and protection needs of the cultural and natural sites in the two trans-boundary core areas.
March 8, 2005
FoEME Bakoora (Peace Island) Declaration for the Lower Jordan River Valley
The universal, natural, and cultural significance of the area
That current practices are at the demise of natural and cultural values and at the expense of people’s livelihoods
That all peoples / riparians along the valley must share the benefits of the resources of the valley, and that in so doing the right balance must be struck with nature
That sustainable tourism – along and/or crossing the Jordan - is the economic activity that can promote sustainable development and bring prosperity to the valley
That the ecological rehabilitation of the River Jordan is a commitment made by the governments in the region on their signed peace treaties and/or agreements, and that now is the time to implement that commitment before damage done becomes irreversible
That this necessitates the prevention of ongoing pollution and return of sufficient quantities of clean water flowing back to the Jordan River
That appropriate UNESCO mechanisms are a strong basis for ecological rehabilitation of the river and valley
That the three governments are called on to develop a coordinated and collaborative detailed action plan including extensive public participation that UNESCO and other donor states are asked to adopt and give technical and financial assistance towards implementation.
EcoPeace / Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME)
Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) was established in 1994 under the name of EcoPeace. It is a non-governmental, non-profit environmental organization with the primary objective of promoting co-operative efforts to protect the shared environmental heritage of the Middle East. In so doing, it seeks to advance sustainable development and sustainable peace. FoEME has offices in Amman, Bethlehem, and Tel-Aviv.