September 30, 2015

Linking the Red to the Dead Sea: is it truly ethical?

The Red-Dead Sea project (hereafter RDS) aims at linking up both seas, thus (1) refilling the Dead Sea with seawater from the Red Sea (mostly desalination brine) over a 180km pipeline, (2) providing desalinated drinking water on the way and (3) generating hydro-electricity due to over 300m difference in elevation (the Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth). Beneficiaries are Jordan and on medium-term Palestine and Israel. RDS infrastructure will be located on Jordanian grounds, in the Jordan Valley along the border (see Map). “Save the Dead Sea!” and regional peace building have been major arguments to get international funding and support.

Courtesy Arirusila @

RDS comes at a time when the Dead Sea is losing around 1m per year; drinking and irrigation water needs increase in parallel to higher energy consumption. All beneficiaries are facing water stress if not chronic scarcity, Jordan and Palestine having lower underground and surface water reserves. Overall demand by far outstrips supply (e.g. Jordan River and basin). The main drivers are population growth and the sheltering of close to 1 million refugees from Syria and Iraq. Desalination requires high upfront investments and a steady energy sources; the latter can only be secured through oil imports or ideally renewable energy.
Courtesy: Feasibility Study p. 17 @
Reviewing the original large-scale project from an ethical perspective invites us to take a closer look at available World Bank reports and mull over a set of cardinal questions:
1)      Are the objectives reasonable in terms of balancing expected costs against benefits, sustainability and risks?
Expected benefits or “tangibles” are desalinated water and hydroelectricity.  Financial costs are estimated to reach around USD 11 billion for all RDS-type scenarios. This estimate takes into account capital, operational and maintenance costs in 2020.
Non-money values
In the final Environmental Assessment and Social Report (ESA), the non-money value of the Dead Sea is defined according to criteria set by the World Heritage Organisation. The Sea is “associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance” (criterion vi); it is an “area of exceptional beauty and aesthetic importance” (criterion vii); it is an “outstanding example representing major stages of Earth’s history, including the record of life” (criterion viii). These criteria are so called “intangibles” because the market does not value them.
The cost benefit evaluation tackles intangibles by surveying public opinions, a common practice in environmental economics. The sticking points are three-fold. First, the survey interviewed around 9000 people in 18 countries. This probably means that a significant number of interviewees were not familiar with the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley’s daily problems, thus fudging their preferences. Second, only a fraction out of 9000 would reflect the preferences of local communities living within the project area. 
Third and most importantly, the survey revolved around two questions valuing intangibles:
a)      What would you be willing to pay to stabilize declining Dead Sea levels and prevent further environmental degradation?
b)      What would you be willing to pay to build a symbol of peaceful co-operation in the Middle East?

Total benefits vs intangibles  

The aggregated answers to both questions were respectively USD 30 and 11 billion. What does it mean? It means that all interviewees are willing to spend 41 billion to save the Dead Sea and support peace in the Middle East. The main problem is that estimated intangibles (41 billion!) are recorded as part of total benefits (See Table infra).  This figure makes up for almost ¾ of total benefits, meaning that the key-objectives of generating water and hydropower, including profits generated by tourism and the chemical industry amount to only ¼ of the total.  This approach “inflates” total benefits, but by deleting intangibles, total benefits fall down to 15 billion! Once adjusted total benefits represent only 15 billion instead of 57 billion, versus 11 billon total costs.

Courtesy Feasibility Study p.72 @
 The stabilization of Dead Sea levels is considered a direct positive benefit, but the promised salvage is not guaranteed. The limit of conveyed Red Sea water is set at 2000 MCM/year because it must be channelled and “available” at different heights. Due to pumping cost and network capacity, this amount will remain a systemic limitation. The working assumption is that at least 1200 MCM are needed to save the Dead Sea annually. This is just enough to halt the process if everything remains stable within the next 30 years. Over time, more freshwater will be required as demand grows. In addition, evaporation rates will rise due to climate change. Realistically, the share of water going to the Dead Sea could become insufficient as it is increasingly reallocated for desalination purposes.

Approach to risk assessments
The Feasibility Study highlights two external risks, namely seismic activity in the region, and potential pipeline damages causing saltwater intrusion. Moreover, the deterioration of Dead Sea water quality causing algae bloom constitutes an additional risk.  Recalling the “heritage site” criterion, the ESA posits that post-mitigation impact will be “moderate”.  So far though, there is no clear-cut evidence that the Red-Dead mixing regime will be harmless. ESA admits that “because of the uncertainties regarding these effects, their potential impact on cultural and natural heritage is considered to be of major significance”.  It therefore deems “additional study from information gained from physical trials” necessary. In other words, this means that the risks related to RDS are not entirely predictable and are likely (if not very likely) to damage the Dead Sea and its surroundings.
Adding to uncertainty, the cost analysis leaves out identified external risk-related costs. The relationship of risks related to environmental damages and potential benefits is of critical importance. In the present case, the costs of risk-occurrence remain unknown. Clearly, it does not mean that because risks are listed on paper, that these cease to exist in reality, especially in terms of damages to the environment and reparation costs. In that sense, both principles of sustainability and precaution constitute weak spots of the RDS feasibility. In this case, it is politically acknowledged that risks are worth taking.  In other words, the costs and benefits of answering growing energy and water demand, in the context of scarcity, are considered more important than identified risks and alternative options.

2)      Are there other alternatives available that can offer lower costs, less risks and more sustainability?
The nature of the landscape and external risks identified call, from a technical perspective, for joint management and cross-border alternatives, decentralised infrastructure and independent power sources, providing desalinated water close to national water networks. This would allow for better maintenance and shorter cost recovery, timely upgrades and adjustments.
Saving the Jordan?
The historical flow of the Jordan River of about 1,300 MCM/year annually has been progressively reduced by upstream diversion – mainly by Israel, Jordan and Syria. The ethical question is; should efforts focus on the Dead Sea, which is already “dead” or should efforts focus on the Jordan River, which is very much “alive” but threatened to disappear completely from the Basin? From an ethical perspective, it would be wise to concentrate all efforts on the Jordan River, and then try to revive the Dead Sea. Reviving the Jordan ultimately means saving the Dead Sea because the Jordan naturally flows into the Dead Sea. Surely, no one will contest that losing the Jordan (and its aquifer) would be far worse than losing the Dead Sea.

The “comparison of alternatives” table in the Final Environmental and Social Assessment compares the costs of each alternative to RDS. The table explains that the identified benefits of RDS respectively to “stabilize the dead sea”, “provide water for three beneficiaries” and “generate hydropower” will not be achieved by saving the Jordan River. Hence, the full range of benefits such as ecosystem restauration, aquifer replenishment, health gains, and touristic advantages etc., fall out of the study. Accordingly, the scenario of the Jordan River’s full restauration is evaluated as “not know; but costly”. This seems vague and insufficient given that saving the Jordan is one of the most important alternatives to RDS.

These findings ignore the wealth of options that could provide water and generate hydropower while saving the Jordan. See for instance the “Jordan River’s full restauration” scenario as described here by a regional NGO EcoPeaceMiddle East in its “Regional Master Plan for the Sustainable Development of the Jordan Valley”.
The intangible valuation of restoring the river would bring about similar or potentially higher results than those obtained for RDS. First, part of the Jordan’s banks and nearby locations are classified as UNESCO “World Heritage” sites. Second, the Jordan River is not only related to Christian baptism, but bears great symbolical meaning for Jewish and Muslims in the region and around the world. Hence, a “Jordan” vs. “Dead Sea” survey is likely to see people choose the river over the sea.
Other alternatives?
The RDS project lifetime calls for other alternatives.  In fact, the first drops of desalinated water will reach the first Jordanian taps in 2020, if there are no delays. By then, scarcity will be more severe even though a fraction of the required capital investments could have financed smaller alternatives with shorter implementation time, lower risks and immediate water or energy outputs. 

Even the ESA report underscores that RDS is not without public concerns. Israeli and Palestinian communities invited to public hearings worried that other strategic alternatives, such as the restauration of the Jordan Valley, were being dismissed too rapidly.
Other interrelated alternatives that could deliver an immediate positive impact on water availability and bring peace in the region include;
  • Regulate the chemical industry’s rate of extraction and increase water efficiency in the agricultural and tourism sector.
  • Reduce water loses within national water carriers and restore the old-aged piping infrastructure in Jordan and Palestine.
  • Maximise rainwater harvesting during winter precipitations in Palestine and Jordan thus minimizing treatment and pumping cost.
  • Share water equitably along the Jordan and its tributaries e.g. starting with Lake Tiberias (see red pin on the Map) in Israel or the multiple dams build on the Yarmouk River in Syria.
The last option would require joint diplomacy to achieve long-lasting peace because water is always related to national security in the Middle East. So far, multiple security deadlocks tremendously impair the much more sustainable aim of cross-border water sharing. The total cost of these alternatives could be higher than RDS, but there is no doubt that their benefits, taken separately or not, would be higher, less risky and more sustainable.

Courtesy Google Map
3)      Are information disclosure and public participation guaranteed at all stages?  
The World Bank has made all studies available on its website. Hence, the public disclosure of background documents is largely fulfilled. However, the involvement of Palestinian, Israeli and Jordan civil society by the World Bank and state parties cannot be qualified as progressive. In fact, even though NGOs and private sectors have expressed their views during public hearings, no democratic participation mechanism were set up by the beneficiary parties or by the World Bank.  Hence, civil society is not be included in decision-making.  Consultations were limited to public statements and sharing opinions but did not grant further rights to representatives from civil society and communities. There is no need to explain that this could potentially back fire in the future (e.g. civil disobedience, lack of ownership, free riding and non-payment of tariffs).
Finally, is RDS ethical? In the light of the previous points, it seems not. This brief review leaves me with two nagging questions. First, can ethics be sacrificed to provide water and energy in times of scarcity and war? Second, can ethics exist without democratic participation? Despite the tangible benefits of the project, it seems that its main shortcomings are mostly the result of the political deadlock in the region. Hence, instead of strengthening political peace, decision makers have chosen an ambitious technical substitute. However, RDS remains potentially unethical in its grand design. It is up to decision-makers to feel out whether it is the right way to revive the Dead Sea, or whether efforts should focus on more ethical alternatives.


1 comment:

  1. you shared a valuable information here. BTW where did you find the sources for this article? I was absolutely no idea how the water ethics department is working through and doing some great work. Highly appreciable really...