All is not well with the river Jordan and its largest tributary Yarmouk. The state of Jordan is one of the 10 most water-deprived nations in the world. Jordan's annual water use exceeds the natural replenishment of Yarmouk, and its local aquifers are becoming salinized as a result of over-pumping. The abstraction from groundwater aquifers is exploited at more than double their sustainable yield in the average. Use of groundwater is a serious problem. Ancient groundwater being tapped by Jordan has been found to contain twenty times the radiation considered safe for drinking water. The combined activities of 228 radium and 226 radium – the two long-lived isotopes of radium – in the groundwater tested in a new study are up to 2000 percent higher than international drinking standards.
As for the Jordan river itself, huge withdrawals for irrigation, rapid population growth, and a paralyzing regional conflict have drained nearly all the water from this river immortalised in the Bible. In the summer of 2008 large sections of the Jordan river were reduced to a trickle, the water so low that grass fires spread freely across the Jordan Valley between Israel and Jordan. Steadily drained over the past half century to quench the thirst and grow the crops of the people of Israel, Jordan, Syria, and the Palestinian territories, the Jordan River has been dealt a deathblow recently by a severe drought and by yet another tributary dam, this one on the Jordanian-Syrian border. Will the Jordan River run dry?
Because of the river's catastrophic water flow reduction from a historic level of 1,300,000,000 m3 annually to only about 70,000 m3 now the surface area of the Dead Sea has shrunk by a third in the past 50 years and the level of the sea, the world's lowest point, is dropping by a meter a year. The change in water level is not only due to intensive human water consumption from the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers for irrigation, but also to a minor extent the use of Dead Sea water by both Israel and Jordan for factories extracting potash, salt and magnesium.
There has been different plans to refill the Dead Sea via channels either from the Mediterranean or from the Red Sea. The idea of a canal joining the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea that would exploit the height difference between them to generate electricity was put forward many years ago. The idea was voiced again several times over the years but rejected. On 9 May 2005 Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement on the base of which the World Bank in July 2006 launched a two-year study into the feasibility of digging a conduit from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which would pump water from the Gulf of Aqaba and Eilat into the shrinking lake. There are however environmental fears that this would damage the coral reefs in the Red Sea, change the composition of the Dead Sea waters and upset the ecological balance in the area. I guess that the recent troubles are not exactly facilitating the project.
The projected Dead Sea-Red Sea or Mediterranean-Dead Sea Channels need a significant carrying capacity to re-fill the Dead Sea to its former level, in order to sustainably generate electricity and produce freshwater by desalinization. To address the mounting stress on water resources in the Dead Sea basin and the environmental hazards caused by its lowering a new study suggest that the diversion of Jordan water to the Mediterranean coast could be replaced by desalinization of seawater, causing the recession of the Dead Sea to be considerably slowed, and buying time to consider the long-term alternatives such as the Red Sea-Dead Sea Channel or the Mediterranean-Dead Sea Channel.
The Jordan river follows a transform fault system, the so-called Jordan Rift, which I described here. The fault movements have resulted in a series of pull-apart basins, with the Dead sea lying in the largest of these. The dead sea was long considered to be the saltiest lake on Earth as I commented here.
Anyway there is every need to stress that transboundary cooperation is more than necessary in the Jordan Valley even in spite of any regional conflict.
Abu Ghazleh S et al (2009). Water input requirements of the rapidly shrinking Dead Sea.
PS: Latest news of 21 March 2009 - According to RedOrbit the decision to create a tunnel through the Jordanian desert to the Gulf of Aqaba could be made by the end of next year. In one of the 3 suggested approaches a tunnel would be about 7-8 meters in diameter, and water would take about 3-4 days to run the length of 170 km from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.
PS of 23 March 2009:
Daniel Collins at Cr!key Creek has gathered a collection of links to the synchroblogging activity on transboundary waters in connection with yesterdays World Water day