Jordan’s desalination project advances

Plans to build a new desalination plant on the Gulf of Aqaba are moving forward. While critics argue that the $1bn project, which aims to address a chronic water shortage and save the shrinking Dead Sea, is expensive and potentially damaging, advocates insist the need to proceed couldn’t be clearer.

Freshwater produced by the new facility would be piped to users in adjacent areas of Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank; in return, Israel would increase the amount of water it sells to Jordan from the Sea of Galilee, which is closer to Amman and other population centres in the kingdom’s north. In addition, some or all of the brine – the high-salt concentrate left over from the desalination process – would be piped some 200 kilometres north to help replenish the Dead Sea, the level of which has been dropping by as much as a metre per year.

The planned size and scope of the project have varied over the years, as have the nature and extent of the role(s) to be played by Israel and/or Palestine, but following completion of a World Bank feasibility study, the cabinet announced in August that it had decided to start with a single plant with an output of 85m-100m cu meters per year. Jordanian officials say they expect grants from foreign governments and/or multilateral institutions to cover $300m-400m of the costs involved, and that while water bought from Israel will be priced at about $0.42 per cu metre, the Israelis will have to pay $1.40 or so for the supplies they receive. Finally, in addition to opening up thousands of hectares of land to irrigated farming, the plant is expected to provide between 400 and 500 well-paying jobs for local residents.

Some environmental groups have spent years trying to block the venture, arguing – among other things – that conservation has never been given a chance to either cure water shortages or reverse the shrinking of the Dead Sea. The only way to start restoring the latter’s natural balance, they say, is for Israel to sharply reduce the amount of water it collects from the Jordan River Basin, including the Sea of Galilee; the amount of water the Jordan carries into the Dead Sea and its basin, they note, is estimated at less than 10% of what it was a century ago.

The same critics warn that while the aforementioned brine may temporarily slow or even reverse falling water levels in the Dead Sea, it also will irreversibly alter the latter’s appearance and chemical composition, reducing the value of its contents for cosmetics, tourism and even industry. They also argue that the added expense of the brine scheme will make the desalinated water four times more expensive than competing products elsewhere in the region. Alternatively, they fear that if the first desalination plant is a success, the government will make good on follow-on plans to build four or five new and larger ones, and to power them with nuclear energy.

Advocates of the plan say they have nothing against conservation but that Jordan is in no position to either impose it on the Israelis – or, as the fourth-driest country on the plant, to wait any longer for more water. Years of talks with both Israel and the Palestinian National Authority have already brought lengthy delays, and the influx of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war is putting added pressure on water resources, making the need for action more urgent. As for the cost of the water to be produced, they predict that higher expenses associated with the brine will dwindle to insignificance in the long term, particularly when planned expansions of desalination capacity achieve greater economies of scale. They also cite assurances from project engineers that the brine will be piped in deep below the surface of the Dead Sea and remain there, never mixing with the water at the surface.

Jordanian officials say their people, their farms and their industries need the water now, arguing in effect that to change course at this stage would be to forsake a practical, achievable good for a theoretical perfection that has yet to be defined. They also staunchly defend the nuclear strategy, which, along with extensive shale gas reserves, would finally end the kingdom’s need to import virtually all of its energy requirements.

The government is banking on these and other mega-projects, including shale oil- and wind-powered power plants and a new pipeline carrying Iraqi oil, to fuel a national economic revival. In addition to the incomes and spin-off effects to be generated by their own construction and operation, the hope is that expanded water and energy sectors will take other industries and the economy as a whole to another level of development – and keep them there.

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