Jordan and Israel are moving forward with the first phase of their ambitious Red-to-Dead Sea project to build jointly new pilot-scale facilities to boost the water supply to both countries and replenish the severely depleted Dead Sea, which borders both nations. The countries reached an agreement on the project, sponsored by the World Bank, last February.

Israel’s Interior Ministry, Jordan’s Ministry of Water and Irrigation and the Jordan Valley Authority issued on Dec. 1 an international build-operate-transfer tender to prequalify firms to build a desalination plant in Aqaba, Jordan, a water pipeline to the Dead Sea and a possible hydroelectric powerplant.
Bids for the estimated $800-million to $900-million project are due by March 30. “There are a lot of Israeli and foreign companies interested in the project as it is one of the largest desalination projects in the planning stages,” says Avraham Tenne, former desalination director at Israel’s Water Authority. 

The initial phase calls for construction of a 65-million-cu-meter-per-year reverse osmosis desalination plant and related infrastructure as well as a 170-kilometer pipeline to convey brine residual from the desal process to the Dead Sea. The hydroelectric plant would supply 20% of the desal facility’s power and possibly be grid-connected, but its construction faces further review of costs and feasibility, said Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom.
Officials are set to select a bid by the end of next year. The winning firm or consortium will set up a special purpose company under Jordanian law to manage and execute the project and secure necessary financing, largely from investors in the desal plant. Construction is set to start in 2017 and finish by 2019.
As part of a regional water swap, Jordan will use 30 million cu m annually of the new water supply and Israel will purchase the remaining 35 million cu m to meet demand in the city of Eilat, located opposite Aqaba, and in the southern Arava region. Once the desal plant is expanded to 85 million cu m per year, Israel can buy the additional volumes. 

In return, Jordan could purchase 50 million cu m per year of water from the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel for use in its northern region, where there is high demand and short supply. “The water-swapping agreement makes this project economically viable,” said an Israeli source familiar with the project. Palestinians would receive 20 million to 30 million cu m per year from existing Israeli water sources because of the high cost to build a pipeline to the West Bank from the desal plant, says Venture magazine.

The Dead Sea pipeline is the project’s most controversial element. It will test the impact of mixing water from the Red Sea and Dead Sea. Some 100 million cu m per year of brine will flow into the 233.6-sq-mile water body, which has dropped by more than 25 m in less than 50 years and could dry up totally in four decades without intervention. Regional groundwater sources are also affected. 

But the resupply approach has critics. “The pipeline alone will increase the cost of the project by $400 million and carries with it substantial environmental risks,” says Yuval Arbel, project manager for EcoPeace Middle East, an environmental group active in cross-border projects.
Both Israeli and Jordanian companies produce potash, bromine and other minerals from the Dead Sea, and there is concern that mixing of the waters could impact their multibillion-dollar annual operations. The pipeline will dramatically raise the price of desalinated water, Arbel adds. He suggests returning the water to the Red Sea in the same way Israel returns the water from five desalination plants along its Mediterranean coast. The Jordan Valley Authority has estimated that the cost of the water will be less than $1.40 per cu m. 

Hazim El-Nasr, Jordan’s water minister, said his country is seeking $350 million in grants from international lenders to cover the cost of the pipeline, with some contributions already in hand. He added that his ministry is planning to initiate a donors’ conference to obtain financing.