Are We Killing the Dead Sea?

Stories from Moment.
Sept. 17 2013 5:20 AM

The Dead Sea Is Dying

Sinkholes. Habitat destruction. 
Perilously low water levels.
 Can a dying sea be saved?

Once covered by water, this former site of Numeira Salt Industries near Haditha, Jordan, is now riddled with sinkholes.
Once covered by water, this former site of Numeira Salt Industries near Haditha, Jordan, is now riddled with sinkholes.

Photo by Paolo Pellegrin/Magnum Photos

EIN GEDI, Israel—Ten years ago, during a routine early-morning solo tour of the area surrounding his kibbutz, Ein Gedi, on the shores of the Dead Sea, geographer-geologist Eli Raz heard an ominous rumbling noise. Raz, who is widely considered Israel’s foremost expert on sinkholes—those terrifying crater-like holes that open up without warning—immediately knew that he was about to be swallowed up.

Sitting in his windowless, cramped office on the kibbutz, Raz, 70, a wiry, sun-wizened man with thick silver hair, tells his tale calmly. “I fell in, tumbling down, deeper, deeper. I thought I’d be buried alive. Instinctively, I started to dig upward, and realized that I was lucky—not much earth had fallen in, and I had landed on a sort of ledge. I could breathe. As the dust settled, I could see the sunlight at the top. But climbing out wasn’t an option—I was afraid the hole would collapse on top of me. I was even afraid to move.

“I realized that I had my pack with me—a camera, a flashlight, a pen, a piece of paper, and toilet paper. I didn’t have water. I had my cellphone, too, but it doesn’t work from deep inside the earth,” he adds. He was confident that the kibbutz rescue team—which he had established and trained—would eventually realize that he was missing and come rescue him. Meanwhile, Raz, ever the industrious scientist, began taking photographs. “After all,” he quips, “how many times do we get an opportunity to take pictures of a sinkhole from inside?”

Advertisement

As time passed, he began to write to his wife, children, and grandchildren to help keep calm. He wrote on the piece of paper and then the toilet tissue, finishing by nightfall. In his office, Raz fishes through an office cabinet stuffed with documents and takes out a small tin box. Carefully, he unrolls the toilet paper, covered with his neat, thin writing and shows it to me. “I won’t tell you what I wrote,” he says. “It was meant only for my family.”

Sinkholes in this region, he explains, are the result of the interaction between freshwater and a subterranean salt layer, buried beneath the surface. The freshwater dissolves the salt, creating an underground void, which causes the surface to collapse suddenly. Scientists have no way to determine when, or even precisely where, a sinkhole may open. But they are opening around the Dead Sea at an alarming rate of nearly one a day. The first ones appeared in the 1980s, and by 1990, there were about 40. Today, Raz estimates, there are more than 3,000 around the Dead Sea on the Israeli side alone. The reason? The Dead Sea is drying up, and dropping salt water levels mean there is more fresh water to eat away at the salt. “Sinkholes are caused by human irresponsibility,” he says. “For more than 30 years, I’ve been studying them and trying to warn everyone—especially government officials—that if we don’t do something about the situation in the Dead Sea, the sinkholes will swallow us up.”

Sinkholes along the Dead Sea.
Sinkholes along the Dead Sea.

Photo by Heidi Hansen/Moment Magazine

After 14 hours, the kibbutz rescue team found Raz and extracted him from the sinkhole, which was nearly 27 feet deep. He was dehydrated, and his muscles ached from crouching for an extended time in the same cramped position, but otherwise he was unharmed. It took a few days before the irony dawned on him—the Dead Sea had taken its revenge on him, of all people.

* * *

The Dead Sea is known by many names: In Hebrew it is Yam Hamelach, the Salt Sea; in Arabic it is al-Bahr al-Mayyit, the Dead Sea and also Bahr Lot, Lot’s Sea. Spanning more than 60 miles through Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, it sits 1,388 feet below sea level and is the lowest place on the surface of the planet. The appellation “sea” is a misnomer: It is technically a lake at the end of the Jordan River. Its waters are salty, not because they are seawater, but because there are no outlets, and untold quantities of minerals, including salt, have been deposited there. The Dead Sea, in fact, is more than 10 times saltier than the northern Atlantic Ocean, making it unable to support any life other than microbes.

The sea has survived for millennia thanks to a steady equilibrium between water flowing in from the Jordan River and water evaporating out in scorching heat that, on summer days, often tops 120 degrees. This equilibrium between water flowing in and out was maintained as long as the region was sparsely settled, as it has been throughout history. Thought to be the site of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah, the basin and surrounding hills attracted fanatics and hermits, believers and contemplators, but never in great numbers. A temple high up in the hills overlooking the sea dates back to the Chalcolithic period (between 4500 and 3500 BC). At the beginning of the Common Era, the mysterious sect of Essenes set up their community in the remote region, leaving behind the Dead Sea scrolls buried in jars in nearby caves. Not far away, on the rocky plateau of Masada, Herod the Great built palaces for himself, and in 73, 960 Jewish zealots committed suicide en masse rather than submit to Roman rule.* According to first-century historian Josephus Flavius, Emperor Vespasian threw chained slaves into the body of water to test its legendary buoyancy. Fortunately the salt-laden heavy water kept them afloat. Later, Byzantine monks built their monasteries here, Crusaders their castles.

But over the past 50 years, increasing numbers of people and industries have been drawn to the Dead Sea’s environs. Even more of a problem, the combined population of Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories has nearly quadrupled from some 5.3 million to more than 20 million. These countries—plus Syria and Lebanon—have tapped the Jordan River and its tributaries, and the Dead Sea has paid the price. A few generations ago, more than 343 billion gallons of fresh water rushed from the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) through the Jordan into the Dead Sea; today, fewer than 26.4 billion gallons trickle in.

Israel’s largest water project, the National Water Carrier, diverts water from the Kinneret that would have fed the Dead Sea to supply the center and the southwest of the country. Jordan, through its King Abdullah Canal, reroutes more than 90 percent of its share of the Jordan River to farmland, taps, and bathrooms. Then there’s Syria, which siphons off water from the Jordan’s northern tributary, the Yarmuk River. At the same time, the Israel Chemicals Company and the Jordanian Arab Potash Company located on the southern rim of the Dead Sea pump out giant amounts of water to fill the evaporation pools needed to extract minerals, primarily potash and magnesium. This alone, experts say, is responsible for about 30 to 40 percent of the decrease in water levels.

Receding waters, as seen from Masada. The ancient fortress city stands on a rocky plateau at the western edge of the Judean Desert.
Receding waters, as seen from Masada. The ancient fortress city stands on a rocky plateau at the western edge of the Judean Desert.

Photo by James Gose/Creative Commons

As a result, the Dead Sea is shrinking by more than three feet a year and receding from the shore at an even higher rate. “Human intervention has just about killed the Dead Sea,” says Alon Tal, professor in the Department of Desert Ecology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, author of Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel and an expert on the Israeli environment and ecology. “It will take extraordinary human measures—careful, wise intervention and positive regional cooperation—to save it.”

Tal has seen this scenario before in Israel. He is reminded of the Hula Valley where early pioneers forced “nature to bow to their demands” and drained the valley’s swamps to make room for farms, upsetting nature’s balance and creating unforeseen problems. More recently, “We took the waters that fed the Dead Sea to make the desert bloom and created Hebrew agriculture,” he says. “But we killed the Dead Sea in the process.”