Sink holes along the Dead Sea shore. Caused by the receding waters, these holes have begun appearing spontaneously in recent years. (image: he.widipedia.org).
Despite harsh criticism and a host of skeptics, the Red Sea to Dead Sea "Peace Conduit" plan is proceeding apace. Although construction has not yet begun, the project is expected to be presented to the Israeli government for approval this summer.
This week, however, the Israeli press reported that developers are planning on building enormous industrial and residential projects along the route of the canal, on both sides of the Israel-Jordan border, irrespective of whether the controversial canal eventually materializes or not.
According to Ha'aretz newspaper, Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva, who made headlines recently when he bought New York's Plaza Hotel, intends to attract 3 million Israelis to the Arava, the remote strip of desert where the canal is to be built, by the year 2050 - with or without the canal. For comparisons' sake, that is roughly equal to the entire population of metropolitan Tel Aviv today.
How did the worthy, yet flawed, plans to save the Dead Sea from a slow and painful demise morph into a Dubai-style real estate fantasy, no longer dependent on the actual canal itself?
Saving the Dead Sea
The idea for a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal has been around for several years. The lowest place on earth, exploited by industry and deprived of its water sources, the Sea is disappearing at an astounding pace, its waterline retreating by about a meter every year. The government's proposed solution is to channel sea water from the Red Sea though a "Peace Corridor" to the Dead Sea, creating opportunities for desalination and industry along the canal's route.
Though still theoretical and unproven, the idea has many powerful advocates, including the ever-energetic President of Israel, Shimon Peres, the World Bank, the governments of Israel, Jordan and France, and a host of wide-eyed business tycoons. Opposing it are local environmental organizations, led by Friends of the Earth Middle East, which has cast doubt on the logic of the idea, and even presented alternative solutions.
A Privately Funded, Public Project
The proposed canal carries a price tag in the billions of dollars, making it prohibitively expensive for the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governments. Enter the private sector. Tshuva and several other businesspeople, including a Saudi prince, offered to foot the bill, on the condition that they be allowed to build a string of real estate projects along the route.
Now, ironically, the original canal idea (touted as the Dead Sea's savior, but expected by many to actually damage the Sea) may give way to an unabashed real estate land grab. The Red-Dead Canal has encountered opposition, needs government approval and will take years to build in any case. But the project's momentum may be sufficient to get some big construction projects approved, even without the canal itself as a centerpiece.
According to Israeli newspaper The Marker, Tshuva and his fellow businessmen are expecting to receive cooperation and significant benefits from the Israeli government. And as for those pesky environmentalists, the developers plan to garner their support (or at least lessen their opposition) for the new cities, hotels and factories in the desert by proceeding according to sustainability principles (these principles, according to The Marker (Hebrew link) are: no construction in nature preserves, preservation of ecological corridors, basing new development on renewable energy and meeting environmental regulations.)
Dear Mr. Tshuva, Prince Al-Walid bin Talal, & Others,
Conforming to regulations and not destroying nature preserves are great ideas, and using renewable energy is even better. However, in light of climate change and other global crises, it might not be wise to look to Las Vegas and Dubai's development models for inspiration. Instead, please consider as models Masdar, Xeritown and other examples of sincere attempts at sustainability in the Middle East. While this may mean a more modest project, we believe that a truly sustainable development project is more likely to benefit the planet and your bottom line, and stands a much better chance of bringing peace and prosperity to the Middle East in the long run.