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[AMMAN] Jordanian environmentalists have challenged a government decision to push ahead with a controversial project to channel water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea – which has shrunk dramatically over the past 20 years.

In April, the Ministry of Water and Irrigation is due to select a company to commence construction in June of the first phase of the so-called 'Red Sea – Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project'. The project was approved in 2005 by Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority.

The project will channel water from the Gulf of Aqaba in the northern Red Sea to the Dead Sea 180 kilometres away. Around 1.2 billion cubic metres of water will be removed from the Red Sea each year.

Much of the water will be desalinated to provide drinking water for Jordan, Israel and areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority, while the rest will replenish the Dead Sea. A hydropower station is also envisaged as part of the project.

"The problem of water scarcity is the main reason to establish the Red Sea–Dead Sea pipeline," Musa Al Jamaani, Jordan's minister of water and irrigation, told SciDev.Net, adding that the first phase of the project is expected to cost US$2 billion.

He said an extensive review process by the World Bank had concluded that the project was the best available solution to regional water needs.

"They found that the environmental risks of the project are manageable if the project is well planned and executed," he said. "The result [from] the final report … was a 'go' decision."

"In addition to the water, it will provide us with 600 megawatts of electricity per year from hydropower," he added.

But environmentalists fear the project will have far-ranging negative effects.

Yehya Khaled, director general of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature in Jordan told SciDev.Net that large amounts of Red Sea water could change salinity levels in the Dead Sea, possibly encouraging bacterial and algal growth and mineral build-up that could affect the area's appearance.

"These changes could affect the unique health benefits [attributed to the Dead Sea's mineral composition] of the saltiest sea on the planet, [and diminish] tourists' interest in its environment," he said.

But Eli Elias, a private sector advisor to the World Bank study, said if water inflow was limited to 400 million cubic metres annually, the Dead Sea's biology would not be affected.

He admitted this was insufficient to raise the Dead Sea's water levels, and noted that any moves to increase inflow would need to be carefully monitored.

Environmental groups also fear the project could increase the likelihood of earthquakes in the region, especially if water flow is increased.

"Pumping about 700 million cubic metres of seawater per year into the Dead Sea would lead to strong seismic activity in the region," said Ahmad Al-Kofahi, executive director of the Jordan Environment Society.

A hmed Al Qatarneh, secretary general of the Ministry of Environment, told SciDev.Net the project would be "implemented in phases, [and any] environmental impacts will be monitored closely to study any unexpected impacts and phenomena which may arise".

Link to the World Bank report

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