World Bank: head in the sand over ‘peace conduit’

4 December 2007

NGO Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) has expressed concern over the World Bank’s involvement in the Red Sea to Dead Sea water conveyance project (RDC) or “peace conduit”, in particular the failure of the Bank and beneficiary governments to consider alternatives that would tackle the root cause of the Dead Sea’s degradation.

The shared vision of the RDC is to: “save the Dead Sea from environmental degradation; desalinate water / generate energy at affordable prices for Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority; and build a symbol of peace and cooperation in the Middle East”. It would involve channelling water into the Dead Sea from the Red Sea via the largest seawater pumping plant in the world at the Gulf of Aqaba and a 200km long conduit. The Dead Sea has been devastated over the past 50 years by increased sewage disposal into its sole tributary, the Jordan River, and by the diversion of water from the river by Israel, Jordan and Syria. The sea’s water levels are dropping by approximately one metre per year.

The project is being promoted by the governments of Jordan, Israel and the Palestine Authority. The World Bank is organising donor financing and managing the study programme, which is estimated at $15.5 million. It has provided technical assistance and oversight of the terms of reference for the feasibility study and the environmental and social assessment. The Bank has also set up a multi-donor trust fund which France, Greece, Japan, the Netherlands and the USA have agreed to part-finance. Bank staff sit on the technical steering committee of the project. The work on the study programme was to have begun in September 2007. It will last two years, at the end of which the World Bank will determine whether or not such a project is feasible.

The Bank is simply refusing to listen to real alternatives that have been put on the table

FoEME’s key critique is that though the terms of reference claims to address the declining levels of the Dead Sea, it fails to consider what constitutes the root cause and does not require the independent consultant to consider alternatives to the project. Environmentalists in the region assert that the best and most obvious solution would be to rehabilitate the heavily polluted Jordan River. Quoted in Al-Jazeera, Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FoEME said: “The Bank is simply refusing to listen to real alternatives that have been put on the table.”

Geologists and local scientists have also stated that the project poses a threat to the ecosystems of the Gulf of Aqaba/Eliat, the Arava Valley and the Dead Sea itself and point to the unknown dangers of mixing the waters of the Red and Dead Seas.

FoEME has put forward the Jordan River Alternative- a proposal to rehabilitate the river which was a commitment of the 1994 Jordan-Israel peace treaty. This would involve changing the nature of the region’s agricultural production, focussing on crops with a low water consumption; educating people to use water more effectively; pricing water more appropriately; recycling waste water; and desalination. However this has been disregarded by the World Bank, who states that “no degree of reform and change in management of freshwater resources in the region is likely to keep pace with the demand, attain even the minimum standard of water availability or significantly contribute to the restoration of the Dead Sea”.

According to FoEME agriculture currently consumes “over 57 per cent of Israel’s total water utilisation” and Jordan’s agriculture “uses 73.9 per cent of total water consumption”. The widespread misuse of one of the region’s most scarce resources is due to significant government subsidies for water use in agriculture and a “lack of education and incentives for better conservation”. FoEME call for an independent assessment to encourage better water management in the region. Former Israeli water commissioner professor Dan Zaslavski has estimated that regenerating the flow of the Jordan River will cost about $800 million, significantly less than the estimated $5 billion required to complete the RDC project.

Public hearings held in August on the project in Amman, Ramallah and Jerusalem were apparently poorly advertised. In addition important documents had not been translated into Arabic and Hebrew.

FoEME have been told by World Bank staff that Bank safeguard policies would not apply to the project, given that the Bank is only coordinating donor support and managing the study. The NGO concludes that “a study that claims to save the Dead Sea as its primary objective without an examination of the root causes and an investigation into whether these causes can be mitigated, in the opinion of FoEME puts the credibility of the World Bank into question”.