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?

(Continued from Page 1)

Unlike the Hula Valley, the Dead Sea is not completely under Israeli jurisdiction, and the cause of its ills cannot be blamed on one nation alone. In a region known for its political tensions, possible remedies are entangled with international complexities. So as experts, politicians and diplomats argue over its fate, little is being done to keep the Dead Sea alive. And doing nothing, warns Tal, is the worst alternative of all.

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Carefully, gingerly, Raz guides me through an abandoned campground and spa area only a few yards from Highway 90, the main north-south road on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. “Kibbutz Ein Gedi invested millions of shekels here,” he says. “But eight years ago, one of the women working here was sucked into a sinkhole. She wasn’t hurt, but we couldn’t take a chance. We abandoned the site immediately; we couldn’t even take out the equipment—the insurance companies wouldn’t let us.”

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There are more than a dozen dangerously gaping sinkholes in this area alone. The beach cabanas have tipped over and collapsed. Once-lush greenery planted by kibbutz members has dried up; only a few intrepid Sodom Apple trees, with their delicate geometrically patterned flowers and strange, puffy, and poisonous fruits, hang on.

Signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic warn to stay away and beware of sinkholes. Raz chuckles cynically. “How can you be careful? No one knows where the next one will open up.” He points to one. “That’s new,” he says miserably. “This one wasn’t here a week ago… It’s only a matter of time until we have to leave this entire area.”

Although no one has yet died in a sinkhole in Israel, there have been several serious injuries, and sinkholes are a direct threat to tourism, the main livelihood of the kibbutz and the entire Dead Sea region. Currently, tens of thousands of tourists visit every year, splashing in nearby freshwater pools, floating in the salty sea and slathering themselves with mineral-rich mud. Tourism makes up about 40 percent of the income of the half-dozen flourishing Jewish communities along the northern edge of the Dead Sea, most of them set up after Israel conquered this part of the West Bank in the Six Day War. Jordan is also investing heavily in tourism in the region, and the Palestinians have plans to develop hotels and health spas in their future state.

Sinkholes are also threatening agriculture—mostly date farming—in the region, another major source of revenue for kibbutzim, such as Ein Gedi. Raz points to a date orchard on the other side of Highway 90, also abandoned because of sinkholes. The trees still stand tall, but, without water, the sun has burned them black. “It’s sad to see an abandoned orchard,” says Raz.

Salt crystals along the Dead Sea shore.
Salt crystals along the Dead Sea shore.

Photo by Heidi Hansen/Moment Magazine

The sea’s receding waters have caused other problems. Unsightly mudflats now line the shore where water once lapped. Matthew Sperber, general manager of Kibbutz Almog, located on the shore’s edge, points to the kibbutz’s lucrative beach resort. Only five years ago, the kibbutz built carefully landscaped steps that led to the water’s edge. But now the steps lead only to a dock to nowhere, hanging about three yards above and more than 13 yards from the shoreline. “We’re trying to chase the water,” Sperber says. “Eventually, we’ll lose the race.”

At the southern edge of the Dead Sea, five-star resorts and spas, such as Le Méridien and the Prima Hotel’s Spa Club, are also at risk—of flooding. They are not far from mineral companies such as Israel Chemical’s Dead Sea Works, where the potash extraction process creates an unwanted byproduct: Huge quantities of useless salt sink to the bottom of the evaporation ponds, causing water levels to rise. Several years ago, hotel owners on the Israeli side sued the Dead Sea Works and the Israeli government; as part of a settlement, the companies agreed to mine the salt to lower the water levels. The process, estimated to cost well over a billion dollars, is supposed to begin next year. But it’s still not clear where the salt will be dumped.

If it dies, the Dead Sea will also kill its unique natural habitat. Although the water is barren of most life, the surrounding ecosystem includes springs that support a surprisingly rich range of flora and fauna. One such oasis is Einot Tzukim Nature Preserve—more often referred to by its Arabic name, Ein Feshkha, and also known as the “Concealed Preserve.” Located in the West Bank and under Israeli control, it is open to the public only at pre-arranged times. Here, some 160 underground springs run down from the Judean hills and bubble up to the surface, forming sweet-water pools where fish swim quietly. Rushes and sugar cane wave in breezes cooled by the pools, which are ringed by tamarisk trees and other native plants.

Kingfishers, a sharp stripe of turquoise against the haze, dive for food. Ein Feshkha is a major migration path for birds through the Middle East; some half a billion birds pass through here each season, according to Ariel Meroz, a geology student at Hebrew University who works as a Parks Authority guide in the preserve. The birds are not alone. Numerous varieties of bugs and invertebrates have adapted to life here, and ibex, hyrax, wild boars, desert cats, hyenas, jackals, and wolves come to drink from the pools. Until recently there were leopards here too, as well as in the neighboring oasis of Ein Gedi. Most famously, the leopard of Ein Gedi—Shlomtzion, affectionately named for Jewish queen Salome Alexandra—prowled here for 16 years. Shlomtzion died in 1995, and no one has sighted a leopard since.

* * *

Ibex and other animals roam the nearby mountains. Hundreds of species of insects and birds are native to the region as well.
Ibex and other animals roam the nearby mountains. Hundreds of species of insects and birds are native to the region as well.

Courtesy of Moment Magazine/Creative Commons

How can an environmental catastrophe be averted? One possibility under discussion is a massive public works project on a scale rarely seen on the international scene. This year, the World Bank presented a bold plan to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea, south of Israel.

The idea of a canal linking the Dead Sea to either the Red Sea—known as the Red-Dead—or the Mediterranean—the Med-Dead—dates back to 1899, when Abraham Bourcart, a Swiss engineer and a Christian who enthusiastically supported the Zionist dream, suggested a Med-Dead canal to Theodor Herzl and the World Zionist leadership. The idea has surfaced numerous times over the years. In 1977, facing the oil crisis, the Israeli government even appointed an official committee to come up with operational plans. But nothing ever materialized.

The canal plan was resurrected at the 2002 Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, when Israel and Jordan announced—to the great surprise of many, including members of the Israeli government—that they would be turning to the World Bank to prepare a comprehensive report, including a feasibility study, an environmental study, and a social assessment, for a trilateral plan with the Palestinian Authority for a Red-Dead conduit.

The behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the announcement seemed to promise something for everyone. Jordan, with few freshwater resources and no oil to power desalination plants, had long been considering some form of Red-Dead conduit, even if it meant going it alone. Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president but then its foreign minister, jumped at the opportunity for a large, high-tech, world-captivating cooperative project that would help extricate Israel from its uncomfortable international position and push the region into the “New Middle East.” Palestinians wanted in as well; for them, participation in a project like this would mean world recognition of their status and their rights in the West Bank. And the idea apparently also appealed to James Wolfensohn, then President of the World Bank, who, a source close to him says, “has always had a deep personal hope to bring peace to the Middle East.”

It took years to organize, raise the money and conduct the feasibility study, but the Red-Dead project as put forth in the 2013 World Bank proposal is both conceptually simple and astoundingly complex. It calls for annually pumping up to 528 billion gallons of water through 111 miles of tunnels and pipes on the Jordanian side from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Hydraulic stations would take advantage of the height differentials, and desalination plants would provide potable water for Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel, while the remaining briny water would be pumped back into the Dead Sea to raise its level.

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