Israel Environment Bulletin Winter 1995-5755, Vol. 18, No. 1

The Case of the Jordan Rift Valley

The advent of peace has brought in its wake new opportunities for Middle East cooperation in developing shared resources in an environmentally sound manner. A major focus of development is the Jordan Rift Valley

(JRV), once a barrier between Israel and Jordan, today a bridge toward cooperation.

Development of the Jordan Rift Valley has been on the agenda of the Trilateral (Israel, Jordan, USA) Economic Committee of the Middle East Peace Talks since October 1993. To formulate the optimal development strategy and advance the decision-making process, Israel and Jordan have agreed to launch an integrated program of regional planning and pre-investment studies, which will include environmental impact assessment for key proposed subjects. Significantly, the terms of reference for the study specifically call, inter alia, for the preparation of an environmental profile of the study area which will identify sensitive areas and propose development and conservation options based on the suitability and sensitivity of each area.

In view of the complexity of the development master plan, the parties requested the World Bank to assist in advancing the planning process. In response, a technical mission of the World Bank, which visited the area in September 1994, prepared a working paper on the integrated development of the JRV. The paper presents a brief overview of the development approach envisaged by the parties, suggests specific steps and institutional options to advance the process, and identifies opportunities for donor support.

The proposed development approach calls for implementation in a series of stages: "fast-track" projects designed to reap tangible benefits and build momentum, and development of an integrated planning process which will maximize long-term benefits. In both cases, emphasis will be placed on the sustainable management of natural resources and on the integration of environmental concerns into the planning and implementation process.

Development Potential and Environmental Risk

The Jordan Rift Valley is part of the great tectonic rift that extends from the Middle East into Africa. It stretches along the Israel-Jordan border from Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to the Red Sea coastline and encompasses the Jordan River, holy to the three monotheistic religions, and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. Since antiquity, the JRV has been a vital land corridor between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean coastal plain, between Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. Today, its unique topography, geology, climatic conditions, mineral resources, and natural, scenic, religious and historical sites make it especially attractive for development.

Subjects envisaged for cooperation between Israel and Jordan include new or improved transport and telecommunications links; interconnection of power grids; joint promotion of tourist sites on both sides of the valley; coordinated management of resources such as shared aquifers, desert ecosystems and coral reefs, and exchange of information or joint research in fields such as earth sciences and desert agriculture.

The largest-scale development proposal that the parties have decided to evaluate jointly is the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal. The main objective of this project is to generate electricity and desalinate seawater, using the 400 meter difference in elevation between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Additional benefits may include the construction of storage ponds and seawater lakes to promote tourism and facilitate fish farming. However, the potential risks associated with the project (e.g. contamination of groundwater, impact on the level and composition of the Dead Sea, damage to the Gulf of Eilat coral reef, to name but a few) may outweigh the benefits. Extensive and careful study is imperative in order to assess the project’s technical, economic, financial, institutional and environmental soundness.

The case of the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal illustrates the complexity of the development plans for the Jordan Rift Valley, an area characterized by fragile terrestrial, coastal and marine ecosystems which, once damaged, would be difficult or impossible to restore. The JRV’s development potential, coupled with resource constraints such as limited availability of water, hot desert climate, and fragile environment, create a unique development challenge. It is to the credit of all parties to the initiative that they all understand that the unique environment of the JRV must not be compromised in the flurry of development, and that environmental concerns must be addressed early in the planning process in order to avoid unnecessary adverse impacts.

Towards Environmentally Sound Development

Israel, Jordan and other contributors, within the multilateral track of the peace talks, have developed many proposals for cooperative plans, projects or activities that have a bearing on the JRV and may be integrated either as "fast track" projects or into the longer-term regional planning scheme. Current proposals for early action include the creation of binational parks for the promotion of tourism and joint environmental management of fragile areas.

One plan currently on the agenda is the establishment of "The Lowest Park on Earth" in the Dead Sea area. The park, which will cross the borders between Israel and Jordan, will be under the joint management and planning of the two countries. Professional teams, including tourism and environmental experts, are already consolidating concrete proposals for preliminary planning, surveys, research and monitoring activities before deciding on development options.

A similar project envisions the creation of a Binational Marine Peace Park for the purpose of protecting the Gulf of Aqaba’s sensitive ecosystem. This park too will consist of two components- -one in Jordan and one in Israelwith strong emphasis on close coordination and cooperation in park management. The proposed Binational Marine Park will contribute to the preservation of the coastal and marine ecosystems and their biodiversity, ensure that tourist and recreation activities are environmentally sound, promote sustainable development of the region, rehabilitate damaged ecosystems, prevent deterioration of the existing ecosystem, and promote environmental awareness programs and collaborative research activities.

With the advent of peace, the two countries, with international assistance, should be able to convert the geological rift which divides them into an economically and environmentally flourishing bridge for cooperation. Both tourists and residents will be able to enjoy the scenic and natural sites of the JRV and the Red Sea, visit the area’s religious and historic sites, explore the valley’s geological and ecological heritage values, and witness the seasonal bird migrations which pass through the JRV en route between Africa and Europe.

The Middle East peace process has opened new opportunities for developing the JRV. Hopefully, the cross-border linkages between Israel and Jordan will help cement the peaceful relations between the two countries and will open the way for broader multilateral cooperation in the future, which will improve both the quality of life and the environment for all the people in the region.

(This article is based on the World Bank’s working paper entitled "Integrated Development of the Jordan Rift Valley.)