Feature: Dead Reckoning
Its salty waters have made appearances throughout recorded history, and today, the Dead Sea region is vital to Israel’s tourism industry. But is the lowest spot on earth slowly losing its main attraction?
The stretch of parched plateau is bare but for a single structure: a wooden pier with a life preserver slung over one of its tall beams. The picture has a surreal quality that evokes a Dali landscape. But it is a disturbingly real scene, repeated, with slight variation, along much of the coast of the Dead Sea.
There are outdoor staircases that lead nowhere, lifeguard stations overlooking dry banks and signs jutting out of graveled terrain warning “Caution: Deep Water.”
All are evidence that the Dead Sea—the unique body of water at the lowest point on earth—has shrunk. It is one-third smaller than it was 50 years ago and 82-feet lower than it was during much of the last century.
The sea level continues to drop by an average of just over three feet a year, causing the shoreline to retreat even further.
The pier that stands forlornly at the northern tip, built in the 1930s to serve the area’s first potash processing plant (precursor of Israel’s Dead Sea Works), is now two miles from the nearest strip of water.
At Ein Gedi, the water’s shrinking has been so great that visitors to the kibbutz’s spa, once on the coast, have to be shuttled to the beach. A few miles north, at Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem Mineral Beach, manager Ovadia Rappaport has rebuilt the lifeguard station twice in the last 12 years, each time bringing it closer to the retreating shore. This year, he put up a mobile station. “I got tired of running after the sea,” says Rappaport, peering at the newest station a few hundred yards away from the original one.
Actually an endorheic lake between Israel and Jordan in the Jordan Rift Valley, the Dead Sea—the Salt Sea or Yam Ha-melah in Hebrew—was apparently named by Christian monks struck by the absence of life in the mineral-rich waters. The Dead Sea has made appearances throughout recorded history. It was the setting for the biblical story of Lot and his wife; its minerals were harvested by Cleopatra. Today, the elixir of minerals that induces both relaxation and healing, the beauty of the region and the abundance of sun—with much of its UV radiation blocked by the thick atmosphere—combine to make it a popular vacation spot.
The southern basin of the lake consists of evaporation ponds operated by the Dead Sea Works to mine valuable minerals. The ponds are maintained through the pumping of water along a canal connected to the northern basin. The plethora of hotels along the southern shore would have no beaches at all if not for these artificial pools.
The shrinking is due largely to the rerouting of the Jordan River and its tributaries by Israel and Jordan to supply water for drinking and agriculture. The result: The flow of the legendary river, which used to replenish the Dead Sea, has been reduced to a trickle.
The evaporation of the lake by the Dead Sea Works and its Jordanian counterpart, the Arab Potash Company, exacerbates the situation. “At the current rate, the Dead Sea will continue to sink rapidly for another 150 to 200 years and then slow down and stabilize at about [1,800 feet] below sea level…,” says Eli Raz, an independent geologist from Kibbutz Ein Gedi.
The dipping water levels have been accompanied by an alarming phenomenon. A short distance away from where bathers frolic in the mud, the land is pockmarked by craters.
They first appeared in the 1980s near the southern part of the lake, one of them emerging right on the main highway leading to Eilat. Initially, scientists were puzzled. But by the year 2000, they had concluded that these sinkholes, which were popping up with increasing frequency, were the direct result of the Dead Sea’s dropping water levels.
As the sea retreats, subterranean blocks of salt are exposed to less saline ground water that causes the salt to dissolve. As the salt melts, huge cavities appear. There are an estimated 3,000 sinkholes, says Raz, one of the first researchers to study them. “They range in size from small holes to craters that are 82-feet deep and 130 feet in diameter,” he notes.
On the Jordanian side, the gaping holes have appeared in ploughed fields, endangering farmers and causing damage to the Arab Potash Company. In Israel, they have prompted a freeze on the construction or expansion of communities and tourism sites in parts of the region. Roads have been rebuilt and authorities are considering shutting down at least one of the area’s beaches. A trailer park near Kibbutz Ein Gedi that was forced to close down a decade ago today looks like an earthquake zone, buried in rubble.
Geophysicists and geologists have developed methods to help predict where the next sinkholes will appear, but even the most sophisticated technology is not foolproof. “One day we were shocked to discover that, during the night, a sinkhole 16-feet wide and 26-feet deep had appeared in a parking lot in the region,” says Uriel Aharonov, engineer of the Megilot Local Council, which encompasses communities in the northern Dead Sea region. “I breathed a sigh of relief that it happened at night when no one was there, but it was very disturbing because it appeared in an area that wasn’t designated as dangerous.”
The sinkholes may be the most glaring consequence of the Dead Sea’s retreat, but there are other casualties. The runoff rainwater that flows down the mountains into the Dead Sea every winter now has a longer route and a sharper decline, causing flash floods.
In addition, species of flora and fauna endemic to the region are at risk. As its name implies, the Dead Sea supports little life (but for a few types of bacteria and microbial fungi). But the area around the lake teems with flora and fauna. A series of springs next to the northern shore host a variety of fish and shellfish. Nubian ibex, Syrian hyrax, the red fox and Afghan fox, wolves, striped hyenas, wildcats, hares and jackals roam the rugged Judean Mountains nearby. Even a few leopards, an endangered species, have been spotted in the Ein Gedi area, an oasis that boasts a rich variety of tropical, Mediterranean and desert plants.
“I’m worried about the impact on ecology because that is irreversible,” says Raz. “How do you put a price tag on the disappearance of a unique species of fish or crabs?”
It is no wonder that driving along the coast of the lake, one sees a plethora of cars with the same bumper sticker: “Save the Dead Sea.”
But how? What can be done to raise and maintain the water level of the lowest lake on earth?
Many who are trying to save the Dead Sea fear that apathy and ignorance may doom it. They have launched various programs to boost national and international awareness, including an annual Dead Sea cycling race that brings Israelis and even a few Jordanians to the Israeli side of the lake and a campaign to have the Dead Sea declared one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The lake recently made it to the quarterfinals of that competition, run by New 7 Wonders (www.new7wonders.com), a Swiss-based organization.
The lowest lake in the world is competing with 260 other nature and heritage sites, such as the Grand Canyon, Loch Ness and Niagara Falls, with the semifinalists to be announced in July. “The Dead Sea is one of the wonders of nature that we were privileged to be entrusted with,” says Mordechai Dahan, head of the Megilot Regional Council, which nominated the lake. “Hopefully, the Dead Sea’s election would help raise awareness to the importance of finding a solution to the sea’s grave condition.”
The most talked-about solution is the construction of what would be the longest canal in the world to relay water from the Red Sea 115 miles to the Dead Sea. The difference in the gradient—the former is at sea level and the latter is 1,378 feet below sea level—would be exploited to produce hydroelectric power, which would be used to operate a desalination plant. The project would replenish the Dead Sea and supply much-needed water for drinking and farming, mainly to Jordan but also to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The governments of Israel, Jordan and the P.A. have embraced the project, expected to cost about $5 billion, which would presumably be funded by various international bodies.
Last May, Israeli real estate tycoon Yitzhak Tshuva—owner of the Plaza Hotel in New York—proposed his own version of the project: a Peace Valley that would transform the Arava Desert, which touches the Dead Sea at its southern tip, into what he calls “the Las Vegas of the Middle East,” an entertainment center full of hotels and beaches. In Tshuva’s version, the canal would be on the Israeli side of the border, whereas in the Red-Dead plan, the canal, mainly a closed pipeline, runs primarily on the Jordanian side.
At hearings held last summer by the World Bank, which is conducting a $14 million feasibility study of the Red-Dead Canal, environmental groups in Israel expressed vehement opposition to both versions. They say that the mixing of the Red Sea with the Dead Sea, which is 10 times saltier, could have dire consequences for both bodies of water.
Marine biologists in Eilat, on the Red Sea, are concerned about the impact on the fragile coral reefs there; other experts forecast the development of gypsum and algae on the Dead Sea surface, which could devastate both tourism and the chemical-mining industries. What happens if the saltwater pipeline, situated near vital ground-water resources, leaks? And the canal would run along the Syrian-African Rift, a prime area for earthquakes.
Environmental groups propose a more modest alternative: restoring at least part of the historic flow of the Jordan River and its tributaries. This would necessitate an ambitious water-conservation program with reductions in the use of both drinking and irrigation water in Israel, Jordan and the P.A. The plan also calls for the Dead Sea Works and its Jordanian counterpart to develop new technologies for extracting minerals without evaporating water from the lake. “The demise of the Dead Sea is man made,” notes Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, which demands that the parties who created the problem take steps to resolve it.
Raz points out that in the ongoing debate, other proposals that could help replenish the lake and provide potable water for the region have been overlooked. These include ways of conveying either seawater or desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River and Dead Sea (through a Med-Dead Canal).
Raz is one of a growing number of experts calling on the government and the World Bank to explore the alternatives. He was commissioned to do just that in 2003 by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but the study was aborted with Sharon’s incapacitation and subsequent change in government.
In the meantime, in 2007, the Samuel Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology, an independent think tank at the Technion Institute in Haifa, published a report comparing the alternatives. It called the option of returning the flow of the Jordan River to what it was at the beginning of the 20th century “not realistic due to the increase of population in the Dead Sea watershed….” And while the Red-Dead Canal was deemed the most “politically feasible” since it has the agreement of the various governments, it is also the most expensive and environmentally risky. Bringing seawater from the Mediterranean—rather than the Red Sea—is less expensive and has environmental advantages (such as rehabilitating the Jordan River), according to the report.
But Israel’s Foreign Ministry claims on its Web site that the Red-Dead Canal “provides perhaps the only means to preserve the Dead Sea.” The current World Bank feasibility study is also only examining that option.
The Red-Dead Canal appeals to Jordan because it is the only plan that enables the Hashemite Kingdom to increase its water supply without relying on Israel as a middleman. President Shimon Peres has long been Israel’s most ardent supporter of the project, which he regards as a cornerstone for regional collaboration.
The Neaman report also examined the option of not doing anything—which on the face of it requires no expenditure. But researchers found that this is the worst choice of all, estimating that long-term costs to tourism, agriculture, industry and infrastructure would amount to $90 million a year.
If, until a few months ago, the Red-Dead option seemed to be gathering steam, the world economic slump is certain to stall and perhaps postpone forever that $5-billion scheme.
That may bring a sigh of relief to some environmentalists and other residents of the region who were concerned about the project’s impact.
But that relief is not deeply felt. “There is a time element here,” notes Aharonov. “The Dead Sea isn’t waiting for anyone. While we’re weighing options, it keeps receding.”
“Maybe we’re living on borrowed time,” Rappaport says. He has seen his beach recede each year, watched a flash flood destroy infrastructure and now surveys encroaching sinkholes. “Until a few months ago,” he adds, “the world had lots of money and didn’t do anything to save the Dead Sea. So now what will they do? Nothing at all. That’s the worst option, but the most probable one.” H