Better Red, Then Dead

Can a plan to divert the Red Sea save the Dead — and offer new hope for peace?

Salt water, salt water, everywhere? The Dead Sea is shrinking fast, leaving surrounding governments in a scramble to save it. / Photograph by Alison Wright/Corbis

the dead sea — It’s hot, and I’m feeling light-headed. I reach for my bottle of water. I’ve carried bottled water from the Wadi Rum desert, where Lawrence of Arabia roamed, to the top of Petra’s jagged cliffs, to Mount Nebo, where Moses could only gaze at his Promised Land and never enter. Moses wasn’t quite as lucky as I am. Once, when he was dying of thirst during his forty years in the wilderness, God told him to talk to a stone. The stone, God said, would give him water if he spoke to it. Moses broke the stone in anger instead. I can understand why. The sun is always close to the skin in this desert. Jordan is one of the driest countries in the world, though there’s no sign of drought at the luxury resort along the Dead Sea where I find myself today.

Three hundred cloudless days a year here at the lowest point on Earth, and this is one of them. I’m fully prepared to enjoy it now that I’m hydrated. Television-commercial-blue water laps at the sun-kissed beach. Arabs, Europeans, and Americans relax on the white sand. They look happy. And why shouldn’t they? They’re rich, and this is one of the most beautiful places in the world. A hefty American tourist floats past me on the sea’s famously buoyant and salty marinade. Filled with magnesium, calcium, sodium, and potassium, the Dead, as locals call it, is something of a fountain of youth.

I reach for another sip of water, and my gaze drifts to the opposite shore. “What does Israel have there? Do you know? ” a young hotel employee asks, setting a glass of water down beside my empty bottle. “It’s a mirror image of this,” I answer with a gesture. Jordan and Israel share many resources, and the Dead Sea is one of the most precious. Each country’s coast is fortified with five-star hotels boasting elite spas, mud treatments, and massage therapy. But the Dead is the main attraction, and it is dying.

“This year the Dead is three feet lower than last,” my tour guide, Ibrahim Abdelhaq, asserts. “Last year the sea was three feet lower than the year before.” The sea, which gathers a mere fifty to seventy millimetres of rain annually, is losing water in two ways: to the man-made evaporation ponds that extract salt and minerals for the potash and cosmetics industries, and especially to the inhabitants of the region, who are using an increasing amount of the Jordan River’s water before it can reach the Dead’s shores.

So coveted is this water that during the Six Day War in 1967, Israeli soldiers levelled 140 Palestinian pumps along the river’s shores, diverting the water for agricultural use by their country. In 1994, when Jordan signed its historic peace treaty with Israel, negotiations over water rights were fierce. Jordan secured a slim 3 percent of the river’s water, while Israel is entitled to the other 97 percent. The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, depends on whatever water Israel decides to allocate to it, so many Palestinians rely on imported bottled water or polluted wells.

Abdelhaq is optimistic, though. He says his government will fix the Dead. Jordan’s environment minister, Khaled Irani, confirms this, pointing to an ambitious plan to divert water from the Red Sea to the Dead via a massive canalsystem. “We call it the Red/Dead project,” Irani says. “We’re in the feasibility study phase.”

Because the Dead Sea is shared by Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians, any deal to save it must be ratified by all three parties. At this nascent stage, everyone agrees on the principal idea — the construction of a massive canal that would ascend to 100 metres above sea level then drop 500 metres down to the Dead. The falling water would provide three benefits: power for desalination plants, the drinking water produced by these plants, and relief for the Dead Sea’s receding shoreline.

Jordanians would benefit most from the project, Irani admits, gaining almost 570 million cubic metres of water annually. Another 280 million cubic metres would be shared by Israel and Palestine.And though the cost of the project — between $3 billion and $5 billion (US), according to Irani — seems prohibitive, there is more at stake than just quenching thirst or saving tourist havens. “Water has always been a cause of war in this region,” Irani notes. “These projects can be the building blocks of peace. People come to the table and talk and discover that everyone is human.”

A few days later, Abdelhaq and I stand on the bank of the Jordan River. Two soldiers cradle machine guns beside a basin of holy water, close to the spot where religious scholars believe Christ was baptized. A Jordanian flag hangs above. Across the river, on the West Bank, an Israeli flag droops. Between the flags, the Jordan flows muddy and dark, awaiting its own resurrection. A tourist and a tour guide argue about who owns the West Bank.

Another cloudless day. I drain my bottle. Abdelhaq adjusts his sunglasses just so and takes a swig from his canteen.

Joshua Knelman
Joshua Knelman is a founding member of The Walrus and the recipient of multiple National Magazine Awards. His debut true-crime bestseller, Hot Art, earned the Crime Writers of Canada Best Non-Fiction Book Award and the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. He lives in Toronto.