The implementation of the $10.6bn Red Sea-Dead Sea water conveyance and desalination project has been a long time coming for Jordan. But after years of deliberation and false starts, it seems the latest iteration of the scheme is about to get under way.

Amman is preparing to invite expressions of interest next month from developer consortiums for a new pilot phase of the project, with a view to beginning construction in 2016. The $1bn scheme is significantly smaller than previous proposals, making raising the necessary financing more likely. But perhaps just as importantly, the pilot project has international support and involves collaboration between the authorities of Jordan, Israel and Palestine, in a move hailed as a landmark agreement.

Sharing water

Hosted by the World Bank, high-level politicians from the three countries gathered in Washington in December 2013 to sign a memorandum of understanding for a regional water-sharing development deal, which also marks the first phase of the Red Sea-Dead Sea project.

Under the terms of the agreement, northern Jordan will receive 50 million cubic metres a year (cm/y) of water from Israel’s Lake Tiberius (Sea of Galilee). In return, Jordan will supply 50 million cm/y of water to Israel from a new desalination plant in the south of the country at Aqaba. Israel will then share 20-30 million cm/y of this with the Palestinian Authority. Jordan will buy the Israeli water at $0.42 a cubic metre and the water produced at Aqaba will be purchased at a rate determined by the successful developer consortium, which will construct the facility under a build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract.

Short of an integrated response, Jordan’s freshwater resources will continue to decline

Keith Proctor, Mercy Corps

From an infrastructure perspective, the project has several major elements. Firstly, an intake structure must be built in the Red Sea to allow collection of about 200 million cm/y of water in phase one, which will then be sent to the new desalination facility for treatment. The proposed site for this plant is just north of Aqaba airport and it will have a capacity of 80-100 million cm/y. Although about half will go to Israel, the remainder will be used domestically. A 20-kilometre pipeline of 2.2-metre diameter will convey the Red Sea water to the desalination plant, aided by a pumping station. From the facility, another pumping station will be needed to send water to Aqaba via a 17km, 1-metre diameter pipeline. Another 4km pipeline will take water to the Israeli border, where it will then be fed into the national system.

This is not just a local desalination project, however. Brine from the desalination plant will be moved north to the Dead Sea via a new 200km conveyance pipeline of 1.4-1.8 metres in diameter. Despite the surface of the Dead Sea sitting 426 metres below mean sea level, two booster pumping stations will still be required to ensure the movement of water. The project also calls for a high-level reservoir to be constructed along the route, which is expected to include hydropower in future phases.

First phase

Jordan’s Ministry of Water & Irrigation (MWI) says the cost of this pilot phase is about $980m, “although this could change a little,” says an official. This is a major undertaking, but is substantially smaller than the first phase of the scheme launched in 2011 and subsequently abandoned. That involved the construction of two desalination facilities, one at Aqaba and another at the northern end of the conveyor, to serve Amman. By 2020, the project was planned to have been producing 350 million cm/y of potable water, which would rise in stages to 850 million cm/y by 2060.

As yet it is unclear how future phasing for the revitalised scheme will progress. The MWI says the pilot system is designed to be expanded and the final capacity of the desalination element will be 930 million cm/y, with the potential for 1,220 million cm/y of brine to be sent to the Dead Sea.

One of the world’s most famous tourism sites, the Dead Sea has been shrinking rapidly. Today, its surface area is about 620 square kilometres, compared with 960 sq km in 1960. Its level is also dropping; the body of water is forecast to fall to 550 metres below mean sea level by 2050, compared with 420 metres below today.

By starting with a small-scale pilot scheme, Jordan and the other states have the opportunity to thoroughly assess the impact of the new conveyance system on the water quality in the hypersaline inland sea before increasing the flow.

Typical seawater salt levels are about 35 grams a litre (g/l), but the Dead Sea has 10 times more, at about 340 g/l. Compared with normal seawater, it is richer in chlorides, sodium, potassium, magnesium, calcium and bromide, and is deficient in sulphates. It is these and other features that give it the natural healing properties that have drawn visitors for thousands of years. Critics of the Red Sea-Dead Sea project fear the incoming water could change the chemical balance and negatively affect the tourism industry.

Water supply

However, the aim is the opposite. Revitalising the Dead Sea is one of the four objectives of the project. The others are listed by the MWI as establishing a secure and affordable water supply for Jordan; providing economic growth; promoting regional water sharing; and encouraging the use of public-private partnerships.

Of all these goals, bringing new water supplies online is the most urgent as Jordan’s groundwater resources are drying up or becoming contaminated with seawater. Wells are showing increased salinity and some have had to be abandoned entirely. At a conference at the US’ Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment in late May, the minister of water and irrigation, Hazim el-Naser, reported that groundwater levels are falling by about 1 metre a year in Jordan’s major basins, and in some cases this rate is increasing.

The problems do not stop there. According to international development agency Mercy Corps, Jordan is facing a “perfect storm” of pressures that threaten to destabilise it. Rising demand, dwindling supplies, ageing assets, unsustainable management and increasing pressure from an ever expanding refugee community make water supply arguably the most critical issue facing the government today.

In a report published in March, Mercy Corps warns that despite a culture of hospitality and the blood ties between many of the Syrian refugees and their hosts, “Jordanian patience is wearing thin”. Just as troubling, it says, is growing local frustration with the government. “Frustration over water scarcity has been increasingly directed at Amman,” says Keith Proctor, senior policy analyst and lead author of the ‘Tapped Out’ report. “Meanwhile, the pressures continue to mount. Overwhelmed governance institutions have been unable, since the start of the refugee crisis, to keep pace.”

About 600,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since 2011, bringing the total refugee population to about 1.3 million. This has lifted water demand among asylum seekers from 84,000 cubic metres a day (cm/d) to 98,000 cm/d, says El-Naser. The cost of supplying the water is estimated to hit $849m in 2014. Although donor agencies are supporting the refugee crisis – El-Naser says $750m is to be spent on providing water and sanitation between 2014 and 2016 – this international backing does not help ordinary Jordanians affected by water scarcity and ageing infrastructure. “As summer approaches, and if refugee numbers continue to climb, so will the dangers of the crisis,” warns the Mercy Corps report.

According to the MWI, municipal water demand in Jordan is forecast to reach 345.6 million cm/y in 2015. With supply at 340.8 million cm/y, this leaves a deficit of 4.8 million cm/y. Over the next 20 years, this shortfall is set to increase by an average of 21 per cent a year unless new supplies are developed. By 2035, Jordan forecasts municipal water demand will be 518.5 million cm/y, while supply will total 276.6 million cm/y. This is despite the newly inaugurated Disi conveyance system, which opened in 2013. Built under a $1bn BOT contract by Turkey’s Gama, the 325km pipeline brings 100 million cm/y of water from the southern Disi aquifer into Amman and other cities in the north of Jordan.

Overhaul vital

More water supply is crucial for the country, but experts say reducing leakage and improving the transmission and distribution system is also vital. “Large-scale infrastructure investments are an important part of Jordan’s water strategy, but they are also extremely expensive and time-consuming; particularly in a crisis, they are only a partial response,” says Proctor. “They must be paired with demand management efforts and aggressive upgrades to ailing pipelines, which every year leak billions of gallons of water. Short of an integrated response, Jordan’s freshwater resources will continue to decline, meaning less water for farmers, refugees and the poor.”

Against this backdrop, the MWI has its work cut out. For the Red Sea-Dead Sea project, the signs are positive that finally this scheme (albeit a smaller version) is about to commence. At the signing of the regional water-sharing deal, a World Bank spokesperson confirmed that donors had expressed “significant interest” in supporting the work and that the bank itself would also consider financial engagement once the technical studies have been completed.

Expressions of interest are to be invited in August, with prequalified bidders announced in February 2015. Construction is expected to start following financial close in May 2016 and operations will commence in 2018. This may seem ambitious, but under pressure from an array of directions, it seems the time is right to begin what could be one of the biggest projects ever built in Jordan. Only time will tell if it really will move into construction or whether, like previous iterations, it will fall before the financing hurdle.

Timeline of Red Sea-Dead Sea project phase one

2014

August Invite expressions of interest

2015

February Select prequalified bidders

March Distribute RfPs

August Collect technical and financial offers

October Evaluate proposals and announce preferred bidder

2016

May Negotiation and financial close. Construction begins

2018

Commercial operation

RfP=Request for proposals. Source: Ministry of Water & Irrigation

In numbers

518.5 million cm/y Jordan’s forecast demand for municipal water in 2035

276.6 million cm/y Jordan’s forecast supply of municipal water in 2035

cm/y=Cubic metres a year. Source: Ministry of Water & Irrigation