CAIRO -- When you first wade into the Dead Sea, it feels like you’re drifting in outer space. Your body floats with ease in the ancient lake, eerily devoid of plant or animal life, its salty waters and rich mud famed for their therapeutic qualities. Tourists flock to the body of water by the bus-full, both on the Israeli and Jordan sides.
But the Dead Sea, which faces a rapidly shrinking water level, has been a source of constant quarreling in a water-scarce region plagued by seemingly endless political turmoil. On Monday, in a moment of rarity, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed a historic agreement at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C., aimed at fostering water cooperation and initiating a project to help "save" the body of water.
The first phase of the agreement is "limited in scale and designed to accomplish two objectives: to provide new water to a critically water short region; and the opportunity, under scientific supervision, to better understand the consequences of mixing Red Sea and Dead Sea waters," the World Bank said in a statement.
An agreement among Israel and its neighbors on anything, especially something as highly politicized as water, is worthy of a headline in this region, and it has been applauded as a huge move in the right direction.
"This is a major step; both on substance and in being a major trilateral agreement in the current environment," Natan Sachs, a research fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told The Huffington Post.
The Dead Sea's water level has been dropping at least 3 feet per year because water was redirected over time from the Jordan River, the Dead Sea’s main feeder, to neighboring countries for agricultural and domestic use amid an increase in population and development. Factories extracting minerals from the lake have also contributed to its quickly shrinking shores.
As part of the agreement, a desalination plant, which removes salt and minerals from water, is set to be constructed in the southern Jordanian city of Aqaba and would provide fresh water for Israel and Jordan from the Red Sea. In addition, a 112-mile pipeline would transfer the brine byproduct from the plant into the Dead Sea. In return, Israel would send fresh water from the Sea of Galilee back to Jordan, and the Palestinians in the West Bank would be able to buy up to eight billion gallons of additional fresh water from the Israelis.
Environmentalists and critics say they fear that pumping water from the Red Sea into the Dead Sea could further fuel the lake’s deterioration.
"It's worth noting," Sachs warned, "that there are environmental concerns involved with such a project. The waters of the two sources are very different, and the already eroding ecological environment of the salt-saturating Dead Sea (where valuable minerals, especially potash, are mined) will be affected."
Environmental groups have, for years, slammed any such Red Sea-Dead Sea pipeline as potentially catastrophic.
"Friends of the Earth Middle East is very much supportive of a 'water exchange' project,' where Israel will benefit from the desalination plant in Aqaba, and northern Jordan will benefit from receiving more water from the Sea of Galilee in Israel," the organization’s foreign media officer Mira Edelstein said in an email from Tel Aviv.
But, she warned, the mixing of waters could change the chemical composition of the Dead Sea.
"This is a great deal," she said, speaking of the water-sharing agreement. "But the problem arises when the parties want to include the Dead Sea into this water sharing arrangement. The Dead Sea should have nothing to do with it."