Desal worries hover over Red-Dead Sea plan

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The signing of a cross-border agreement on transferring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea is a historic political coup. The desal plant that will drive the project could be a more difficult – and more distant – prospect.

Government planners and developers in Israel and Jordan are struggling to put together a coherent desalination project package, following the signing of an historic trilateral agreement to use desalination brine streams to top up the shrinking Dead Sea.

Earlier this month Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the World Bank to build a pipeline carrying brine from a desal plant at Aqaba in Jordan to the Dead Sea – much to the fury of environmental campaigners.

But questions still remain over the viability of financing and procuring the 85 million m3/yr (232,900m3/d) desalination plant in Jordan that would supply the brine for a pipeline, as well as fresh water for potable uses.

Jordan has said it plans to start a tendering process for the plant in 2014, with a BOT-type contract considered the most likely option, due to the lack of government funding available in the country. It has pursued this project independently for some time under the Jordan Red Sea Project name.

An Israeli government source told GWI that an upcoming agreement to take 50 million m3/yr (137,000m3/d) of potable water from the plant in exchange for increased access by Jordan to northern Israeli sources of water would help provide long-term financial backing for the proposed desalination project.

Next year, Jordan will face the task of finding a developer willing to finance, build and operate what would be the country’s first desalination BOT in a tricky financial climate. Leading Israeli developer IDE Technologies is considered to be a candidate for the project, but declined to comment when contacted by GWI.

Moshe Shahal, a former Israeli energy minister whose office represents Veolia in Israel, said in an interview with a local newspaper that an international consortium of Veolia, Siemens, EdF, Mitsubishi and Suez Environnement – among others – could come together to work on the project. He added, however, that they foresee the project including an energy generation component.

Meanwhile, the future of the pipeline to the Dead Sea itself is still uncertain, despite the World Bank agreement. Environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME) insist that other alternatives for brine disposal are viable.

FOEME director Gideon Bromberg told GWI that he believes the Jordanians should consider putting brine back into the Red Sea or into evaporation ponds.