Israelis decide that it's far better to be Red than Dead: A vast desert canal plan is seen as a key to Middle East peace - or disaster

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AND BEHOLD I give waters in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Thus spake the Lord a few millennia ago. 'And behold the salt shall be removed from the sea and the desert shall be greened in a valley of peace.' Thus, roughly, spake Shimon Peres, the Israeli Foreign Minister, a little more recently.

This time, however, there is a tangible prospect of something approaching a miracle around the desolate wadis of the northern stretch of the Afro-Syrian rift valley, where the Dead Sea is evaporating fast and the once- proud River Jordan is a trickle of sewage.

An extraordinary plan is being devised to build a 270km (168-mile) canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, creating, in effect, an artifical southern extension of the Jordan - except that the water in the canal will flow in the opposite direction.

The plan proposes that, from Aqaba, Red Sea water will be pumped northwards along the Israeli-Jordanian boundary that runs through Wadi Araba, known in Israel as the Arava Valley. About 100km (62 miles) north of Aqaba, the canal will reach an elevation of 200m above sea-level on Mount Edom. From there it will begin the 600m descent towards the Dead Sea, which, at 407m below sea-level, is the lowest surface point on Earth.

About a billion cubic metres of water a year - the volume of the original Jordan - will charge down the valley at the rate of 60 cubic metres a second, snaking back and forth across the Israel-Jordan border, filling boating lakes and fish farms on the way, and generating power to drive the biggest desalination plant in the world, at Sodom.

About 40 per cent of the Red Sea water will become fresh water, to be piped back uphill to make the rift valley bloom and quench the thirst of the region's millions. The left- over brine will be poured into the Dead Sea, which is expected to be restored to its size in the 1960s, when the level was 390m below sea-level.

If this vast engineering feat is accomplished, its proponents say, the biggest practical obstacle to peace in the region - water - will have been overcome. Israel owes a phenomenal water debt to the Palestinians, Jordan and Syria, and desperately needs a means to repay it if peace treaties are ever to be signed.

Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel has been diverting the headwaters of the Jordan and siphoning off most of the fresh water in the main underground aquifer in the West Bank. Israelis now use four times as much water per head as Palestinians.

Jewish settlers fill swimming-pools and water lawns while Palestinians are banned from sinking wells in their own backyards. In Jordan, water consumption is about 80 litres (17.5 gallons) per person a day, while Israel's is about 300l a day - close to the European average.

Some Israeli experts say that if Israel returned the West Bank to the Palestinians and the Golan Heights to the Syrians, and adjusted its borders with Jordan, it would lose 65 per cent of its water supply.

Water is therefore a prime reason why Israel will fight to hold on to the occupied lands, thereby blocking the chances of peace. Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, was reported last week to have been advised by his military chiefs not to withdraw from the whole of the Golan Heights, and water sources were cited as a prime reason.

Settlement-building continues in the West Bank, to maintain Israel's claim to stretches of Palestinian territory that can provide sources of water.

As there is not enough water around, therefore, the simple solution is to make more and share it out. The Middle East population of 314 million is expected to rise by 34 million in 30 years. If nothing is done, the annual water requirement of 470 billion cubic metres will be 132 billion more than the total available. According to estimates by water engineers, the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal could provide enough water to solve the immediate problem and pay off the water debts.

Hardly is the plan on the drawing-board, however, before controversies have begun. This is not the first time engineers have dreamt up ways of harnessing the hydro-electric potential of the steep gradient to the Dead Sea.

Thirty-odd schemes have been devised in the past 150 years. Israeli engineers have recently proposed canals running to the valley from the Mediterranean. Many in Israel say this would be cheaper than the Red Sea option, which early estimates put at dollars 4bn ( pounds 2.6bn).

The so-called 'Red-Dead' plan, originally tabled by Jordan, has gained support as a result of the new Jordanian-Israeli understanding, and has a clear political purpose. By running the canal up the boundary that divides the two countries, Israel and Jordan would be involved in a large joint project serving their mutual needs. And now Bill Clinton, the US President, has appeared to back the scheme by announcing a symposium to examine it.

According to Mr Peres, the scheme could also solve another of the region's outstanding problems - refugees. In one of his wildest flights of fancies, he has proposed that the newly fertile desert could be used to house hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees who still languish in camps. What better way to make 'peace bloom' than by engineering nature, Mr Peres argues, calling the idea a peace valley.

The conservationists listen in horror. Not only is their virgin rift valley to be defiled by theme parks and fish farms, but they fear the natural balance of the area could also be destabilised. What if sea-water leaks from the canal into the aquifer under the rift valley? The valley is subject to regular shocks which could cause cracks and leaks in the construction.

And what would the process to do the Dead Sea? While it might make sense to restore the sea to its 1960s level, nobody can estimate the effect of combining brine with the Dead Sea salt water. The Dead Sea is 10 times saltier than normal sea- water. How would the flooding be controlled? ask the critics. Would the potash and magnesium production at the Dead Sea be affected? Would the curative qualities of the water be reduced?

The thirst of the region might well be quenched. But future bathers in the Dead Sea might sink.