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The Death of the Dead Sea

Can an audacious desalination project save what’s left of one of the world’s most unique bodies of water?

ByElisa OddoneNOVA NextNOVA Next
The Death of the Dead Sea

A portion of the Dead Sea near Jordan’s border with Israel shows signs of the shoreline’s vast recession.

Abdul Alhay Alhwemen, 50, is a Jordanian farmer, just like his father, grandfather, and great grandfather used to be. His family’s humble plot sits along Jordan’s shores of the Dead Sea, the landlocked salt lake that stretches across more than 60 miles of Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank.

Walking through perfectly aligned rows of ripe, juicy tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers just days from being sold on produce stands in Amman, the capital, Alhwemen stops and scans the horizon. He points to a distant thin line of silver sea in the blinding midday light. “Look,” he says. “When I was a child, the Dead Sea used to wash the coast a few yards from our field. Now it lies far—over a mile away.”

Raising both hands to shield his eyes, Alhwemen shakes his head. “In 20 years, no one will know there was something called the Dead Sea here. We will be forced to leave our fields because of the erosion of the coast and the danger caused by the mile-wide sinkholes emerging where the water used to be.”

Abdul Alhay Alhwemen, a Jordanian farmer, shows his fields, which used to be only a few paces from the shoreline when he was young.

Alhwemen is no expert, but his prediction matches the concerns held by academics who are quarrelling over when the Dead Sea might die. Its water has been receding by over three feet each year for the past 50 years. No one has come up yet with a definitive solution for stopping either.

At 1,407 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea is the lowest place on the surface of the planet and, though its name suggests something more massive, is little more than a lake at the mouth of the Jordan River. Only microbial life can survive its saline waters, which are ten times saltier than the oceans.

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The Dead Sea’s origins trace back some 15 million years ago. “At the beginning, it was merely a depression on land,” says Elias Salameh, a professor of hydrogeology and hydrochemistry at the University of Jordan who has studied the Dead Sea for almost 20 years. In the beginning, fresh surface water poured into the depression and progressively became salty over the course of millennia, Salameh says. Spurred on by evaporation, Lisan Lake—the ensuing land-locked body of brackish-to-salty water extending from the Gulf of Aqaba in the south to Sea of Galilee in the north—started shrinking some 200,000 years ago. The modern Dead Sea is the result of a series of water bodies that stopped reaching Lisan Lake some 12,000 years ago, he says.

The salty deposits found at the bottom of the Jordan Valley and on the lake’s bed today are the consequence of hundreds of thousands of years of salty water in the area.

The lake has a storied place in history. The biblical Sodom and Gomorrah reportedly overlooked its shores, while King David allegedly sought relaxation there in 1000 BCE. A few paces away, on the mountain top of Masada, Herod the Great built palaces, and in 73 CE, a thousand Jewish zealots chose death in their fortress over surrender to the Romans. Centuries later, Byzantine monks lived in monasteries overlooking its shores, and Crusaders built their castles.

But since the 1960s, the sea has had a more troubled history. That’s when Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel started building dams and diverting the rivers for drinking, irrigation, and industrial use, the same waters that have been feeding the Dead Sea for millennia.

Downward Spiral

The Dead Sea had stayed roughly the same for some 10,000 years, but the dams and diversions took their toll. “Half of the demise of the Dead Sea is caused by the Jordan River no longer flowing and the diversion of waters that used to run along Jordan to the Dead Sea from the Yarmouk River,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli head of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), a joint Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental group. In just 50 years, the lake’s depth dropped by 112 feet, reducing its surface by 30%.

“The effects of the drop can be seen on all its shores in the degradation of land, erosion, landslides, and new saline shores that have started to affect roads, buildings and farming lands,” Salameh says.

On Jordan’s northern shores, swanky five-star hotels struggle year after year to move their beach resort facilities closer to the sea’s shores, while bathers have to descend flight after flight of steps and terraces to reach the water.

While the Dead Sea shrinks and its salinity rises, the rate of its evaporation is also diminishing. This has led to a decrease of the relative humidity of the surroundings which severely affects plants, animal, and human life, leading to further desertification.

But more ominous are the sinkholes that have suddenly appeared over the last 30 years. They can be up to two stories deep and anywhere from the size of a room to half a soccer field.

“These sinkholes can appear overnight,” Bromberg says. “Their number is tremendous. While on the Jordanian side there are over a thousand, on the Israeli side there are over 4,000.”

Sinkholes, Bromberg explains, started appearing in this region in the 1980s, the result of underground fresh water coming into contact with the old subterranean salt layer, depositing there for thousands of years. The freshwater washes the salt away, creating an underground void into which the surface collapses. Scientists don’t know when, and sometimes even where, a sinkhole may swallow the next patch of land.

Cracks and mile-wide sinkholes still partially filled with water dot the landscape where once the Dead Sea used to be.

In Ein Gedi natural reserve, on the Israeli shores of the Dead Sea, the government closed the last free beach a year ago, along with a gas station, a refreshment kiosk, and a newly-built camping area. Many miles are now enclosed by barbed wire fences to keep out curious passersby, while signs in Hebrew and English warn of the danger.

“We invested some $1.3 million into renovating the beach and its facilities,” says Dov Litvinov, head of the Tamar Regional Council, whose jurisdiction includes Ein Gedi. “The day we were supposed to open it, we closed the nearby road, preventing access to the beach. A few months later we closed it altogether.”

Now what is left of a charming sea resort perched on a steep saline coast is a ghost-like lunar landscape littered with craters, some of them up to 114 feet deep.

Eliminating Water Sources

The 155 mile-long Jordan River that flows into the Dead Sea is fed by three rivers: the Dan in Israel, the Banias in the Golan Heights, and the Hasbani in Lebanon, which merge at a point near the northern Israeli border to flow south to join the Sea of Galilee.

From this point down, and after receiving water from the Yarmouk, the river is called Lower Jordan River which then flows into the Dead Sea. In the 1950s, over 420 billion gallons of water made it to the Dead Sea every year. Today, only 53 billion gallons do. The Jordan River alone to provide 362 billion gallons of freshwater a year, but today it discharges a mere 39 billion gallons.

“Before the establishment of Israel in 1948, the Lower Jordan River was more or less a freshwater resource mainly diverted for irrigation purposes,” says Munther Haddadin, a key member of the Jordanian delegation to the Middle East Peace Process that brought peace between Israel and Jordan in 1994. “But serious projects started when Jordan sought assistance from the U.S. to irrigate the Jordan Valley by using the Yarmouk, leading to the first phase of the construction of the King Abdullah Canal in 1960,” he says.

According to Haddadin, Israel also sought help from the U.S. to take water from the Sea of Galilee. By that time, Israel had also started on its Seven Year Plan to bring water to the country’s south, which would pump some 95 billion gallons of water a year. Meanwhile, diversion works were also carried out in Lebanon on the Hesbani and in Syria on the Yarmouk.

“If one adds up what has been taken by all the parties, everyone is equally culpable. Half of the guilt would go to Israel, the other half to Jordan and Syria,” Haddadin says. “But while Jordan and Syria return most of the freshwater taken from the system as drainage water, Israel cannot, as its water diversion happens outside the river’s basin,” he adds.

Losses Above and Below

“If the drop continues, we won’t have any Dead Sea left in 2050,” Salameh says. “We will only have salt deposits absorbing humidity from the air. To maintain its current size we need to pump back at least 160 billion gallons of water a year.”

Groundwater has limited the drop somewhat, but it’s also lead to a further problem. “Because the Dead Sea is sinking, the groundwater is also adjusting to it,” says Nader Khateb, the Palestinian director of FoEME with 30 years of experience in water and environmental engineering. “The more the Dead Sea lowers, the more groundwater flows out of the aquifer towards the Dead Sea. This is draining the eastern aquifer of Palestine, the only one at our disposal since Israel controls the major renewable water resources throughout the West Bank.”

The overall yearly loss of freshwater is estimated at 112 billion gallons. But, Bromberg explains, another major factor contributing to the demise of the Dead Sea is the mineral extraction industry in Jordan and Israel.

In Israel, the only beaches still open are in the hotel area a few miles south of the Ein Gedi reserve. But the shallow water in front of the hotels isn’t the Dead Sea. Instead, it’s the artificial result of what dried up in the 1980s, a reservoir that is maintained by the Israeli Dead Sea Works, a company pumping water from the northern to the southern part of the lake, where it is evaporated to extract minerals like potash and bromide.

On the opposite shore, the Jordanian Arab Potash also pumps out massive amounts of water to fill its evaporation pools to extract minerals, primarily potash and magnesium.

Bromberg says the evaporative losses are so large because water has been provided to the industry free of charge on both sides. It’s a view supported by Hazim El Naser, Jordan’s Minister of Water and Irrigation. “They are wildly taking water from the Dead Sea and no limitations to that output are currently planned.”

Tovi Shur, manager of infrastructure at Dead Sea Works, takes issue with that, saying that the industry’s guilt depends on how one calculates the water flows. “Our yearly net pumping amount, which takes into account the water we return to the Dead Sea after extracting the minerals, is some 40 billion gallons of water out of a total of 106 billion gallons. Jordan’s net pumping is around 32 billion gallons a year.”

Shur says that the mineral extraction industry is 38% culpable for the Dead Sea’s decline. (He arrived at that figure by taking the ratio of the water extracted by the two companies—62 billion gallons—to the 160 billion gallons deficit needed to stabilize the Dead Sea). But according to Shur, this is just one way to look at it.

“We have no influence on the evaporation of the Dead Sea and its deficit because what we are doing follows the same rhythm of the natural evaporation that used to happen in the then-south basin. Others set our share to some 14% because they consider the whole quantity of water that used to get into the Dead Sea before the 1960s,” he says. “We are not different from the big pipe that pumps out water from the Sea of Galilee and spread it all over the country. Meanwhile, we also generate tourism and pay royalties to the government.”

The Red-Dead Connection

In a very rare case of regional cooperation in 2013, Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank signed a memorandum of understanding for a $1 billion project that would supply water to the area, as well as increase the flow of water into the Dead Sea. The construction’s first phase is set to start next year.

Backed with U.S. funds and money from the private sector and regional and international partners, Israel and Jordan inked a bilateral agreement last February to exchange water and funnel Red Sea desalination brine to the Dead Sea. It’s an idea that was first conceived more than 30 years ago.

The initial phase of the plan involves constructing a desalination plant in the Jordanian city of Aqaba capable of pumping 17–21 billion gallons a year, from which Jordan will use 8 billion gallons and Israel will be able to purchase 9 billion gallons to funnel to Israel’s southern desert. Once that plant is expanded, Israel will be able to buy an additional 13 billion gallons from the facility. The West Bank will receive 5–8 billion gallons a year from existing Israeli sources. (Local activists are doubtful, fearing that they will be left empty-handed, pointing to the lack of updates from the Palestinian Authority concerning the progress of the project.)

“As part of this deal, the Israelis will pay the full cost of desalination at around $1 per 260 gallons. In return, Jordan will be able to buy an additional 13 billion gallons of Sea of Galilee water from Israel annually at 40 cents per 260 gallons, more than doubling its current allocation and serving an ever thirstier northern population,” El Naser says.

“A 124 mile pipeline will bring northward to the Dead Sea about 26 billion gallons of residual hyper-saline water, or brine, in addition to another 35 from the Red Sea,” El Naser adds. “This will reduce the annual decline of the Dead Sea by almost half. So instead of having the Dead Sea disappearing in 50 years, it will disappear in a hundred years.”

Environmentalists praise the idea of the water-swapping system, but, according to Bromberg, many reject the plan of taking the residual desalination brine to the Dead Sea. “We don’t think that the brine should come to the Dead Sea,” Bromberg says. “The ecological implications have never been thoroughly studied. The big pipe will be carrying brine to the Dead Sea, which is even more saline and dangerous if it leaks.”

At some $325 million, the cost of the pipe alone could make the whole desalination process untenable, making it difficult to find the necessary funds to finance an already very expensive project.

To tackle the Dead Sea’s deficit, environmental organizations instead suggest addressing the root causes. “Israel today is producing more water through desalination than it is able to consume,” Bromberg says. “Thus it has started releasing a small amount of water, 2 billion gallons from the Sea of Galilee, down to Jordan. There is a commitment to increase that to 8 billion and then up to 16.”

Rather than rely on desalination, environmentalists suggest letting the Jordan River flow again. Bringing back 105 billion gallons to the river would not only rehabilitate the Dead Sea, but also the river itself. It could be partially fed by a mix of freshwater, saltwater, and treated wastewater. The rest, they say, should come from regulating the extraction industries and reforming the region’s water systems to eliminate waste.

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Jordan’s government shrugs off the criticism. “The Dead Sea can easily absorb up to 105 billion gallons of brine water, according to the studies we conducted with the World Bank,” minister El Naser says. “This is the only solution that provides huge bulks of water to the Dead Sea. Our freshwater resources are already overstretched and this is also the case for the other parties. At least in this way we can win some time.”

Though the plan is still years away from reality, one thing most can agree on is that time is running out for the Dead Sea. Soon, instead of the world famous holiday and religious site, tourists might be flocking to a steep slope of a dry wasteland, the only remnant of a millenniums-old natural wonder.

Photo credits: Alisa Reznick

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