Although the sea itself supports no fish or other aquatic life, it is an essential element of the unique eco-system that surrounds it. Its geological deposits and natural features have also become a key source of income to the industries and, increasingly, spa resorts that line its shores.

But help may be at hand. Faced with the loss of a world heritage site, the international community is now considering a plan to build a massive pipeline that would carry water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The plan involves building a 180-kilometre-long conveyor to carry about 870 million cubic metres a year from the Red Sea near Aqaba to the Dead Sea, taking advantage of the 400-metre drop below sea level. En route, fresh water will be extracted by a desalination plant and pumped via pipeline to other areas in Jordan, as well as Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The World Bank is taking the lead and is due to issue expressions of interest to international companies for a $15.5 million feasibility study by the end of October, once funding is secured.

The plan is highly controversial. Environmental groups are already questioning the bank’s terms of reference (ToR) for the study and there are suspicions that the best interests of the Dead Sea are not the primary aim of the project. ‘There is a lot of political pressure on the World Bank,’ says Gideon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth (FoE) Middle East. ‘The Red-Dead project is being sold as a peace project to unite all the countries affected.’

FoE’s main criticism of the ToR is that they do not address the root causes of why the Dead Sea is shrinking. ‘This is a man-made problem,’ says Bromberg. ‘The sea is disappearing due to the diversion of water upstream from the river Jordan and the economic activity [potash extraction] further south. We can stabilise the sea or raise it to a higher level but we can’t bring it back to its original level.’

An alternative solution would be to restore the water flows to the lower Jordan River. ‘The historical source of water

for the Dead Sea is the river Jordan. At present, 60 per cent is diverted to Israel and 40 per cent is diverted to Syria and Jordan combined. But there is growing support from all sides [Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians] to come together over a plan for the river,’ says Bromberg.

But until that happens, the bank is pressing ahead. International donors include Agence Francaise de Developpement (AFD), which in early April approved grants totalling

Eur 3 million ($3.7 million). Others lining up to support the study include the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which will contribute $1 million-2 million, Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) andthe Netherlands. The Royal Scientific Society in Jordan, the Geological Survey of Israel and the Palestinian Water Environmental Development Organisation have already carried out an environmental study.

Despite the international commitment, realising the project will be quite an achievement. Ambitious in scope, the scheme involves pumping water from the Red

Sea up about 125 metres over mountain ranges and along a conveyor at a rate of

60 cubic metres a second before dropping it about 600 metres through a tunnel to the Dead Sea.

In the second phase, the energy of the falling water will be harnessed to generate power, which would in turn fuel a desalination plant. Separate conveyors would then transport 570 cubic metres a day (cm/d) of water to Jordan and 270 cm/d to

the Palestinian Territories and Israel. Separate pumping stations would be built alongside each conveyor, with