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Red-Dead Conveyance: Balancing Peace and Sustainability

Curricular materials created for the 2015 SAIL seminar:

Sustainability on the Margins: Investigating Adaptation and Change in Jordan

This module asks students to research the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea water conveyance – as well as the accompanying changes to water rights and availability in the Jordan River Valley – and to prepare a policy memo in the role of adviser to a contracting firm considering whether or not to bid on the project. The project requires that students consider social, political, environmental, economic, and technical feasibility issues in their analysis. Students work in teams to prepare a short policy memo as well as a short presentation; teams should also come to the presentation prepared to ask questions of other teams and answer questions posed by a guest expert.

Note: Content adapted from submitted curricular project.

This module was first piloted in an Environmental Studies course, cross-listed with Geography and Political Science, called Water and Power. Prerequisites include one of the following courses: People, Agriculture, and the Environment (Geography), Environmental Geology, or Environmental Science. We expect students in the course to have working knowledge of major water issues from either a scientific or social scientific perspective.

Water and Power develops an interdisciplinary approach to studying water resource development, drawing from geography, anthropology, history, politics, hydrology, and civil engineering. With a focus on large river basins, the course examines historical and emerging challenges to the equitable and sustainable use of transboundary waters. After first exploring the history of American water development, we will turn our attention to issues around sanitation, food production, gender and privatization in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

The assignment was given to students in the last third of the course. Students had already encountered technical background on different kinds of water infrastructure and indicators of water scarcity. They also engaged with different political models for governing water, learned about different approaches to privatizing the water sector, and already written a similar policy memo on a Great Lakes pipeline issue.


Upon completing this module students are expected to be able to:

  • Identify the major issues and actors relevant to the modern Jordan River/Dead/Red Sea system.
  • Compare various alternative options for water management/use.
  • Argue for their group’s preferred water policy.
  • Write a clear, persuasive policy memo using accurate, relevant sources.

This module requires students to conduct interdisciplinary work. The region’s major issues are complex, from refugee and political issues to climate and environmental issues, to urban vs. rural population shifts and the associated demands on water. To advocate for or against bidding on the project, students will need to learn about the region from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Perhaps the most important thing students will learn is the difficulty in comparing and prioritizing options that weigh uncertain long term consequences (including the impact of climate change) against very real short term needs.


Red-Dead Conveyance: Balancing Peace and Sustainability


The Problem

The Dead Sea has fallen from 394 to 423 meters below sea level since the 1960s. The water surface has also shrunk dramatically from 950 to 637 km2. The Jordan River once fed the Dead Sea with 1.3 billion m3/year of fresh water. Now, that is less than 100 million m3/year, most of which consists of agricultural run-off and sewage. This is the result of many dams, canals and pump stations upstream and on tributaries.

Engineering Plans

In February 2015, Jordan and Israel signed an agreement to begin implementing the first phase of the project. This includes construction of a 320 million m3/year desalination plant, to be located 15 km north of the southern Jordanian port of Aqaba (with aims to double capacity by 2060) and a 200-kilometer (124-mile) canal to the Dead Sea.

This will be a private sector build-operate-transfer project. Project tenders are set to be issued by year-end.  Israel will purchase water from the plant for use in southern Israel. Under the agreement, Israel will release water to Jordan from the Sea of Galilee, its largest reservoir, to meet needs in northern Jordan. The Palestinian Authority is not signatory.[1]

World Bank Study

In 2008, the World Bank examined the feasibility of constructing the project. The study considered three possible ways to connect the two seas: a tunnel, a tunnel and canal combination, and a pipeline conveyance. The pipeline needs the least initial capital investment and may be the most flexible in terms of its route, thus preserving the natural regions. However, it will demand the highest energy consumption due to the large pumping stations. It also has the largest carbon footprint and the highest running costs. In 2013, the study was released with a finding that the pipeline/desalination plant was technically “feasible”.


Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) and other environmental groups argue the only solution to the problem is to limit withdrawals from the Jordan River by Israel, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. They are also concerned that the intake pipe at the Gulf of Aqaba would have an unknown effect on species of fish and coral reefs. The conduit would run through the Arava Valley, a haven for rare gazelles, hyrax and hares. Finally, the discharge of concentrated brine will change the Dead Sea’s chemical composition in unknown ways.

Your Project

Your group is tasked with preparing and presenting a policy memo on Tuesday April 12 addressed to the head of the Middle Eastern division of the firm Bechtel (an American firm) with your recommendation about whether or not to bid to develop and execute the project on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis. Your recommendation should describe the value of the project and the challenges to achieving success. In considering your recommendation, focus on the political feasibility of the project rather than the cost/profit motivation. Also, consider only the technical version agreed on in February 2015, rather than the alternatives that have been posed over the years. However, you may recommend against bidding if you believe one of the alternatives proposed would have been more feasible.

Our in-class guest will be Louisa Bradtmiller, Interim Policy Advisor to the company on water and climate affairs. 

The Presentation

Similar to the last project, your group will have 10 minutes in class to present your recommendation. I suggest that no more than two people in your group deliver the presentation. You will be taking questions from our guest and classmates.  You should be able to respond to these intelligently.

The Written Report

Your final memo is due on Moodle on Tues April 12th prior to class.  See the guidelines for writing a policy memo document on Moodle. Your memo should be no longer than 4 pages. 


Similar to the last project, you will receive a group grade on this project. The group grade is based on the final products, with individual adjustments based on the peer assessments.  At the end of the project, meaning by Friday April 15 5pm, you will also need to complete the project survey on Moodle describing how you, and each member of your group, performed on this project, as well as what you learned from the exercise.

Dissemination Strategies

This module is designed to help students understand the ongoing water shortage in the Middle East in the context of relatively recent changes in water policy and population dynamics, as well as long standing concerns about the environmental impact of proposed solutions, and even the future impacts of climate change. It is designed for use in a mid-level Environmental Studies course, and assumes that students have some familiarity with a multidisciplinary approach to environmental problem solving.

This project was introduced toward the end of the course when students had a solid background in basic water science and policy. The course met twice per week (T/Th) for 90 minutes each. We introduced the project two and half weeks before the presentation and policy memo submission date. During the following three class periods, students had approximately 45 minutes of class time each day to work together on the project. Successful projects would also require additional work outside of class. 

The project was designed to be done in small groups (3-4 students per group), but it could be modified to be an individual assignment. Two faculty members designed the project, only one of whom was teaching during the pilot semester. The other faculty member played the role of Interim Policy Advisor for the firm considering bidding on the project. She came prepared to ask questions and identify where groups made particularly compelling arguments, or where analysis might be lacking. This role could easily be played by the course instructor, or a faculty member from another department.

Resources & Materials

Teaching Materials

Project description

Students received a handout at the start of the module describing the scenario and assignment. It was supplemented with a list of references.


Background Reading Resources

This list was provided as a starting point for students’ research.

Could the 180km pipeline and world’s largest desalination plant bring peace to the region? | Water and Wastewater International (2009) 

This article has a thorough overview with good graphics- a great place to start your research!

Red Sea – Dead Sea Canal and the Feasibility Study of the World Bank (2009) | Global Nature Fund

Provides a decent analysis of the proposed project and conclusions drawn from the World Bank study; includes a great section on ”what do supporters say?” And “What do opponents say”

An Analysis of the Latest Research Commissioned by EcoPeace / FoEME on the Red Sea to Dead Sea Conduit and its Relevance to the World Bank Led Study (2007) | Friends of the Middle East

Includes a section called: “The hard questions that should be studied.” An excellent read to understand the various studies already conducted (and the failures of such studies).

The Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance (RSDS) Project: A Solution for Some Problems or a Cause for Many Problems (2009) | Palestine Academy Press with sponsorship of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Programme of Assistance to the Palestinian People (PAPP)

Academic article which highlights the importance of this project to various sectors (humanitarian, tourism, ecological) in various countries (Israel, Jordan, Palestine). Very thorough.

Tapped Out: Water Scarcity and Refugee Pressures in Jordan (2014) | Mercy Corps


Questions from Policy Advisor

This is a list of questions that could be used as a starting point for someone playing the role of Policy Advisor. It is not meant to be exhaustive, but simply includes topics related to the readings we assigned as well as some common themes that emerged from several groups’ presentations.  


Policy Memo Description and Example

Students in this course were already familiar with the policy memo format from a previous assignment, and so this description was not included in our module. We include it here for others who may not be familiar with this style of document.

Outcomes and Significance

Students enjoyed this role-playing exercise given its contemporary relevance to world affairs.  It was important to make the role playing exercise real. They addressed the instructor and guest formally and were kept to their allotted time. It was also interesting to see their varied recommendations to bid or not bid, given that students often agree with one another. They required surprisingly little support, most likely due to the fact they had already completed a similar group assignment. 

We assessed the learning goals by evaluating policy memos written by students, as well as by evaluating their oral presentations and ability to ask and answer questions during the Q&A portion of the presentation. In addition, we included the following questions in a post-project survey administered within our course management software. We provide some sample responses.

How well did this assignment allow you to grapple with long-term vs. short-term issues of water scarcity in the Red/Dead region?

“Our group was very concerned with the short-term tradeoffs for building the canal. We saw water scarcity as a huge problem that needed immediate intervention. Because of this, we looked more favorably on canal building. Conservation and environmental protection would likely have addressed water scarcity and Dead Sea health in the long run, but due to climate change and the refugee crisis, we saw water scarcity as an issue that needed instant action. “

“This project challenged our ability to predict future benefits or issues that could occur for our firm. The short term goals were fairly simple to predict and seemed to be mostly beneficial, for example we would develop economic growth from the completion of this project. The long term factors were harder to predict, such as the environmental issues that could develop from potential unknown outcomes like abnormal mixing of saltwater and freshwater. It was hard to choose trade-offs, deciding to provide fresh water to a water scarce nation or focusing on environmental and political sustainability in the region.”

“It was very interesting to force me to put my personal environmental values to the test …Personally I don’t think I would have wanted to put in the pipeline, until I put in time to research how water scarce Jordan actually was.”


You were tasked with playing the role of advisor to a private firm. How might your policy memo have been different if you were working for a government or NGO? Choose one and briefly describe how your recommendation(s) would change.

“This project was a fun exercise of creativity, spatial thinking, and understanding real world private interests. I had a good time writing the memo because it allowed me to expand on the positive sociopolitical facets of corporate international engineering that I don’t usually think about. I enjoyed this project because it allowed me to use rhetorical tools to make Bechtel seem like an international benefactor with peace and stability as its primary goals. If I were tasked with writing from the position of an NGO or government office, I would have taken a 180 approach to the detriments section. There are so many social unknowns… it is difficult to say with any certainty if Bechtel’s economic interests will align with the goal of common, sustained resource use. “


Consider the resources you used as background research and describe why it is important to consider this problem in a multidisciplinary way.

“We used NGO websites, World Bank reports, international donor responses to the project, and environmental activist organization articles to address the issues presented in a meaningful way. There is much more at stake than making the Dead Sea less salty or ruining some coral— if this project is met with a civil war, bombings, Palestinian aggression, or an external source of conflict, this could not only kill the project and its investment flow, but could permanently damage relations between the signatory nations. We need to hear from many sides to gain an adequate representation of the risks, benefits, and their points of overlap.”

This problem is so complex, it is very important to approach it from multiple angles. We read sources both for and against the project, and tried to understand the perspectives of people living in each of the three countries. So many people would be affected by this project that it is necessary to try and hear everyone’s point of view.”


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