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A Red Sea Dam: Huge Power and Massive Destruction
18 Dec, 2007 11:30 am
Today?s technological know-how makes it possible to construct a dam across the southern entrance of the Red Sea. Evaporation is high in the Red Sea, and the deficit is made up by inflow from the Indian Ocean. After closure, the level of the Red Sea will start to drop. After many years, the difference in height between the two water bodies is sufficient to use it for hydropower generation. By passing an equal amount of water as evaporates on the Red Sea side through turbines in the dam, up to 50 GW can be generated (the largest nuclear power plant in the USA generates 3.6 GW). This cheap and abundant energy will raise the standard of living for the people around the Red Sea. It also will avoid large CO2-emissions. It will destroy, however, the Red Sea?s ecology, tourism and fishery, and the Red Sea will no longer be available for shipping. The paper discusses the issue of decision making in such macro-engineering projects, where benefits must be weighed against adverse effects .
Although such a dam would be one of the largest constructions in history, it is feasible with present-day technology. Because the Red Sea experiences a hot and dry climate, its annual evaporation excess is more than 2 meters; in other words, after closure the level of the Red Sea will be lowered by 2 meters each year. A power plant will be constructed in the dam. After a number of years, the difference in height between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden is so large that power can be generated by passing water through the hydropower plant. The amount of water that passes through the dam is equal to the amount that is evaporating from the Red Sea. The energy may reach 50 GW (equal to the total power generation of the Netherlands + Belgium + a part of France). This hydropower is free from CO2 emissions, unlike plants that use fossil fuels.
There will come a time that the oil reserves of the region are exhausted. For most of the poor people in the region, this will make life even more difficult. Having a large and inexpensive power supply would boost their standard of living. The power can be used for large-scale desalination, providing safe drinking water as well as water for crop irrigation in this arid region. Energy-intensive industries could be established at Bab-el –Mandab, like magnesium or aluminium plants. The Red Sea brine would provide the raw material for the magnesium, and bauxite ore from India or Australia could be unloaded there and be converted to aluminium metal.
All this, however, would come at a heavy price. An often unique ecology will be almost completely wiped out, fishing and tourism will stop, and there will be no more shipping through the Red Sea. So the question is, what is more important, the well-being of the people around the Red Sea, or the preservation of their present environment? There is no ready-made framework on which to base such a decision. The precautionary principle offers no guideline, because on the one hand it wants to prevent irreversible changes in the environment, but on the other hand it also concerns the longer run and the well-being of future generations.
The Red Sea macro-engineering project serves to highlight these ethical dilemmas. The conclusion must be that there are no easy solutions, but that every novel and innovative project must be judged on its own merits.
Schuiling, R.D., Badescu, V., Cathcart, R.B., Seoud, J., Hanekamp, J. (2007)
'Power from closing the Red Sea: economic and ecological costs and benefits following the isolation of the Red Sea,' International Journal of Global Environmental Issues, Volume 7, No. 4., 341-361.