Building the wrong canal: An alternative to the Red-Dead Canal

by Maskil on May 27, 2008

The notion of a canal or tunnel from the Mediterranean or Red Sea to the Dead Sea has a long and distinguished (if somewhat fruitless) history. In the last years of the 19th Century, the concept of a canal and/or tunnel from the Med (running through the south of the Holy Land) was proposed to and embraced by Theodore Herzl.

Other backers of the concept over the last century included Walter Clay Lowdermilk, who included his proposal in his book “Palestine, Land of Promise”. (I still treasure a copy of the 1944 edition.)

Palestine, Land of Promise,

In the wake of the oil crisis, the idea was promoted through to the early 1980s. This time, the proposal was for a canal from the Mediterranean near Katif, to the Dead Sea south of Masada. The +/-400m drop was to be utilised to generate anything from 300 to 600 megawatts of hydroelectric power per annum. The idea was eventually scrapped amidst concerns that it would raise (!) the level of the Dead Sea and dilute its chemical properties.

The above is by no means a comprehensive overview of the evolution of this idea.

The latest incarnation of the concept is in the form of a proposed joint venture between Israel, Jordan and the PA, and calls for a conduit from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Despite serious concerns regarding the financial and ecological viability of the scheme, it appears to be gaining some traction, judging by recent newspaper reports in Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post.

In a brief posting on this blog last year, I suggested that a better alternative to the Red-Dead Canal may be a Med-Kinneret Aqueduct (Mediterranean Sea – Lake Kinneret Aqueduct). I also undertook to produce a more detailed piece outlining the concept. Given the momentum gathering around the Red-Dead Canal concept, I felt it was time to fulfil that undertaking. Here it is.

Outline of the Med-Kinneret Aqueduct (Mediterranean Sea – Lake Kinneret “Water Conveyance Concept”)

Instead of a canal or conduit between the Mediterranean or Red Sea and the Dead Sea, the Med-Kinneret Aqueduct proposal envisages a conduit from the Mediterranean (in the vicinity of Haifa) to Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). The “potential difference” in height between the Med and Kinneret would be converted to energy by means of a hydro-electric station. This energy would in turn be utilized to desalinate the seawater at a suitable stage between the intake (Med) and outlet (Kinneret).

  • The Med-Kinneret Aqueduct project envisages an underground aqueduct (pipeline) between the Mediterranean Sea (in the vicinity of Haifa) to Lake Kinneret (or one of the streams feeding into it from the Galilee).
  • The aqueduct would be no longer than +/-45km; less if the outflow can be directed into a tributary stream of Lake Kinneret.
  • Unless there are major geological obstacles, the aqueduct could follow an almost exact west-east axis, south of the 33rd parallel.
  • It is envisaged that the aqueduct would be constructed using state of the art tunnel boring machine (TBM) equipment and techniques.
  • Water flowing through the aqueduct into Kinneret would be desalinated in transit, although perhaps not to the level of purity required for drinking water.
  • The +/- 200m drop between Sea Level and the level of the Kinneret would be used to generate the energy required to desalinate the water. Any surplus or shortfall would be added to or taken from the national grid.
  • Depending on all the other factors in Israel’s water supply and demand equation, water from the Med-Kinneret Aqueduct would be apportioned between consumption and nature. The allocation for consumption would be distributed by means of the National Water Carrier and related infrastructure, while the allocation for nature would be achieved by allowing the Kinneret to top up and releasing a portion to replenish the lower Jordan and eventually the Dead Sea.
  • For any benefit to accrue to the Jordan River and Dead Sea, it would be necessary for Israel, Jordan and the PA to all undertake not to draw on the artificially replenished Jordan south of Kinneret.

Disadvantages of the Red-Dead Canal (Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Concept)

There are many concerns regarding the mainstream Red-Dead Canal concept. The Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) has done the work of documenting and consolidating these concerns in various papers available on their website. My shortlist of concerns may be somewhat different:

  • The proposal addresses only the problems and threats faced by the Dead Sea itself. It does not address those relating to Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and the lower reaches of the Jordan River (south of Kinneret).
  • It requires the agreement and cooperation of two of Israel’s Arab neighbours, the chaotic and homicidal PA and the anachronistic but somewhat more robust Jordan. A joint venture of this magnitude may well work, but a less risky approach would to first test the water with smaller examples of regional cooperation.
  • The canal and other facilities will not be contained within the borders of Israel. By some accounts, it would be almost entirely within Jordan’s territory. While we would all like to believe that peace between Israel and Jordan will endure, is it worth a $5 billion bet? (The lessons from the Erez industrial zone experience should not be forgotten.)
  • At almost 200km, it has the longest of all the routes ever proposed for a canal terminating at the Dead Sea, originating at either the Mediterranean or Red Seas.
  • While the Dead Sea is approximately 400 metres below Sea Level, the terrain of the Arava region dictates that the water first be pumped upward before flowing downward via natural elevation decline to the Dead Sea. This would detract from the ability of the scheme to function as a closed system, providing its own energy through hydro-electricity.
  • No assessment has been made of the likely impact of the construction and operation of the canal on the fragile desert ecosystem.
  • A great deal of uncertainty exists as to the ecological impact of introducing untreated water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea.

Advantages of a Med-Kinneret Aqueduct

While I’m not suggesting that this Med-Kinneret Aqueduct scheme is without flaw, its flaws are fairly obvious and on a manageable scale. It also has some distinct advantages:

  • The concept does not rely on agreements or cooperation between Israel and any of its neighbours. While this may or may not be an advantage in times of peace, it is definitely an advantage in the current climate of low level conflict (in the case of the PA) and distant peace (in the case of Jordan).
  • Likewise, the aqueduct and related facilities would be entirely within the sovereign territory of Israel.
  • At about 45km, the Med-Kinneret Aqueduct would utilise the shortest possible route between the sea and any part of the Jordan valley, by crossing Cisjordan (i.e. Palestine west of the Jordan) at its narrowest point.
  • As the Med-Kinneret Aqueduct assumes an underground aqueduct constructed using tunnel boring machine (TBM) technology, pumping would not be required.
  • The use of TBMs would also minimise the impact of the construction project on the ecology of the Galilee region, through which the aqueduct would pass.
  • All sea water would be desalinated before being introduced into the Jordan River system, thereby avoiding most of the ecological “unknowns” around the Red-Dead Canal. (This is not to say that the Med-Kinneret Aqueduct would be without ecological impact.)
  • Apart from the aqueduct itself, the scheme would utilize the existing Mekorot and National Water Carrier infrastructure, rather than requiring a whole new water supply network (at least within Israel).
  • The proposal would address all the problems and threats currently faced by the Jordan River ecosystem; the dangerously low level of the Kinneret, the woeful state of the lower reaches of the Jordan itself, and the drying up of the Dead Sea. It would help to rehabilitate the entire length of the Jordan River below Kinneret.
  • There would be indirect benefits to Jordan and the PA in terms of an improved Jordan River and Dead Sea system. The scheme may also generate a surplus of water which could then be supplied to Jordan, the PA or both.
  • The Med-Kinneret Aqueduct could be tackled as part of an integrated plan to address Israel’s water supply and demand situation, and its need for water security, instead of a single megalomaniacal project.

Integrated water supply and demand planning

No single scheme can provide a complete solution for Israel’s water crisis. As mentioned above, any solution needs to mesh with a broader exercise to integrate Israel’s water supply and demand planning. An exercise such as this would need to take at least the following into account:

  • A comprehensive plan to rehabilitate all of Israel’s other streams and rivers.
  • At a planning level, contain urban detritus (particularly paving, which prevents absorption) by preventing urban sprawl. Plan for more condensed cities, with clearer demarcation between the urban and the rural.
  • Ongoing water restrictions across all sectors. This would include a ban on watering private and public gardens.
  • A program to assist municipalities and other authorities to ensure that the country’s water supply infrastructure is properly repaired and maintained to prevent leaks.
  • A plan to help migrate the Israeli agricultural sector to more water efficient crops and methods, without damage to this vital sector of the economy and national life.
  • A program to encourage water conservation in the domestic and industrial sectors, e.g. through the installation of water saving plumbing fittings.
  • An even greater emphasis on purifying and reusing waste water, using technologies developed in Israel and now being exported elsewhere.
  • Stricter measures to prevent the pollution of water sources by industry or through agricultural runoff containing fertilizers and pesticides.
  • Move ahead with current plans for the desalination of sea water at national and municipal levels.
  • Continue and intensify afforestation projects to ameliorate the effects of climate change and Israel’s normal climate.

The concept of a Med-Jordan canal has a solid Zionist pedigree. Let’s review all competing proposals (including this one) before committing to what appears to be a glorified joint Israel/Jordan/PA theme park or Disneyland Middle East in an inhospitable natural and political landscape.

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