Dead Sea Dying a Slow Death

The famously buoyant lake is drying up. Can it be resurrected?

Fathi Huweimel leans carefully over the edge of a jagged slab of broken asphalt, peering down into a 60-foot-deep crater that was level ground just a day earlier. All around him sprawl the ruins of Ghawr al Hadithah, once a farming village but now a jigsaw of broken houses, shattered roads and abandoned tomato fields growing wild amid massive holes pocking the earth. To the east, the village gives way to desert fringed by stark, sere mountains. To the west, a few hundred yards away: the glimmering waters of the Dead Sea.

“We’ve had about 75 holes open up in the last two years,” says Huweimel, a thickset man with a broad mouth and deep brown eyes who has lived all of his 45 years in this part of central Jordan. The sinkholes first started appearing in the 1980s, but the pace at which new ones open up has increased dramatically in recent years. “Everyone is leaving,” continues Huweimel, who works as a field researcher with environmental group Friends of the Earth-Middle East (FoEME). “Those who stay are staying because they have no choice.”

Miraculously, no one has been killed by a cave-in yet, though there have been some close calls. A group of seven women—including Huweimel’s aunt—were harvesting tomatoes together one day when the ground collapsed with a roar two meters in front of them. A salt factory that employed a hundred people was evacuated before it caved in.

The cause of all this destruction is water—or, rather, lack of it. The ground is collapsing into sinkholes because the water beneath it is retreating. The water is retreating because the Dead Sea, a storied feature of the landscape since biblical times, is drying up.

The sea—actually a huge lake straddling the Israeli-Jordanian border at the lowest point on Earth, 420 meters below sea level—has been fed for millennia by the Jordan River. But today, so much water is siphoned out of the Jordan to meet the needs of farms and cities that practically nothing is left to replenish the Dead Sea.

Over the past three decades, the sea’s level has fallen by some 25 meters and continues to drop by an average of a meter a year. Its surface area is dwindling apace; the shore has retreated as much as a mile. It’s a severe blow to the hotels and spas dotting what used to be the sea’s beaches. Moreover, as the water retreats, it destabilizes the ground, spawning the sinkholes that have devoured Ghawr al Hadithah.

It’s an extraordinary problem that has generated an extraordinary response. The governments of the three peoples that live along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea—the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians—are working together to promote a potential solution: a conduit to bring ocean water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. It’s being touted as a triple win: The water would replenish the Dead Sea, and in the process generate hydroelectric power, which would in turn run desalination plants to make potable water for the region. As a not-inconsiderable political bonus, it would constitute the first major project ever undertaken by all three nations.

There’s just one problem. The conduit might make things worse.

***

One morning this past spring, Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of FoEME, takes me to the Lido Café at the northern end of the sea on the Israeli side. For decades, the Lido was an elegant open-air restaurant where well-heeled residents of Jericho and Jerusalem would come to have a leisurely lunch, smoke nargileh water pipes and step off the patio for a dip. Today, weeds push through the patio’s broken tiles, and paint is peeling off the parts of the walls that are still standing. A hunched, leafless tree sulks by steps that once led to the water but now stop abruptly three feet above trash-strewn desert. The Dead Sea is barely visible in the distance, across a half-mile of bare, dun-colored earth.

“This place died because the Dead Sea ran away,” says Bromberg, 46, an athletically built Israeli lawyer who speaks with a trace of an accent betraying his boyhood in Australia. He looks slightly disheveled in a rumpled polo shirt, his short hair uncombed. Bromberg knows the area like he knows the neighborhood in Tel Aviv where he lives. He’s been bringing legislators, activists and journalists here for more than a decade to witness the crisis.

Bromberg founded FoEME in 1994, in the heady days after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords, when it seemed that peace might finally be within reach. As thrilling as that prospect was, Bromberg saw a potential downside, one which he investigated in his master’s thesis at American University in Washington, D.C. “I concluded that the peace process would contribute to the demise of the environment,” Bromberg says. “It was all about building hotels, industrial estates and highways. There was no discussion of improving or even protecting the environment.”

That finding inspired him to seek out like-minded Jordanian and Palestinian activists to help create the first civil organization to bring representatives from all three peoples together in common cause. The idea was to address environmental issues that cross borders—water being at the top of the list.

Of course, it hasn’t been easy, thanks to the region’s bitter politics. Within a few years of the group’s founding, the peace process collapsed into the bloody second Intifada. With the body count of both Palestinians and Israelis rising daily, anyone working with the other side risked being seen as a traitor. Bromberg’s car tires have been slashed, his Jordanian counterpart has been shot at, and Palestinian FoEME workers have been kidnapped by hard-line militias.

Yet the group has not only survived, it has grown to 50 paid staff with offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Amman. Funding comes from the U.S. and European governments as well as private foundations. Time magazine declared the group “environmental heroes” in 2008, and last year the Skoll Foundation, which aims to connect and celebrate innovators dedicated to solving the world’s most pressing problems, gave it an award for social entrepreneurship. “I don’t accept everything the Israeli government does, but there has to be a dialogue between the people,” says Baha Afaneh, a Palestinian who works in FoEME’s Amman branch.

Notably, saving the Dead Sea was the very first project the group took on. “We did an inventory back in 1995,” Bromberg says, “and we saw that the Dead Sea faced the gravest threat.

***

The Dead Sea earns its name from the composition of its waters, which are so dense with minerals and salt—ten times as much as ordinary seawater—that nothing but microbes survives in them. The sea has no channel out. Water comes in mainly from the Jordan River and leaves by evaporating under the sweltering desert sun, which routinely drives temperatures up to 120 degrees. For thousands of years, that input/output equation remained more or less in balance. But in recent decades, the area’s booming population has thrown it completely out of whack. Jordanians, Palestinians and especially Israelis pull so much water from the Jordan that only a heavily polluted trickle now reaches the Dead Sea. At the sea’s southern end, enormous factories pump out water to extract minerals. What’s left behind is evaporating as fast as ever, but almost no new water is coming in.

The Dead Sea is unlikely to disappear completely, however. Small underground springs and rain provide enough water that even if the Jordan were to dry up altogether, the sea would eventually stabilize—as an ultra-briny puddle about one-third its original size. If that were to happen, it would mean the loss of a historic site and incalculable damage to the local economy and ecology.

Tourists flock to the area from all over the world for the spectacular desert scenery and history. Masada, the mountaintop fortress where Jewish zealots held out for years against conquering Romans, is nearby, as is the cave where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. But the main attraction is the sea itself, with its mineral-rich, ultra-salty waters, which are reputed to have therapeutic powers and offer the giddy experience of effortless floating.

Yet it gets harder every year for visitors to reach the water. When Israel’s Ein Gedi Spa, a health-tourism complex offering massages and sulphur pools, was built in the 1980s, the Dead Sea came right up to the wall around its outdoor swimming pool. Now, guests have to ride a tractor-pulled tram through a mile of mud flats to reach the shore.

And as the water retreats, more and more sinkholes open up. Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which runs the spa, had to close a nearby campground because half of it was swallowed by the earth. Sinkholes also made it too dangerous to work a date plantation across the road, where the palms have been left to dry up and double over on themselves, as though they’ve abandoned hope. The sinkholes have also forced the Israeli government to scrub plans for five-thousand new hotel rooms in the area. All told, the Dead Sea’s shrinkage is costing Israel $60 million per year in lost tourism revenue, according to an estimate by the Samuel Neaman Institute, an independent multi-disciplinary policy research outfit based in Haifa.

Eli Raz knows more about the sinkholes than anyone. Raz is a sinewy, silver-haired Ben-Gurion University geologist who lives at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, where he works out of a windowless office surrounded by glossy photos of desert rocks, flowers and salt formations. A few years ago, on one of his regular research expeditions, he fell into a 30-foot sinkhole and was trapped for 14 hours until rescue workers pulled him out. “Now I have documented sinkholes from the inside as well as out,” Raz deadpans.

Raz estimates there are more than 3,000 sinkholes on the Israeli side alone. They are the result of a shift in underground currents caused by the sea’s drop. Subterranean Dead Sea water has built up a layer of salt rock under the soil in many areas. As that water withdraws, new water takes its place, slowly dissolving the salt layer—until the ground above gives way.

Sinkholes are just one side effect of the shift in the underground water flow. As the groundwater chases the receding seawater, it is changing the course of the underground springs that feed nearby oases. Sizeable swathes of vegetation are dying as a result. That threatens the ibex, leopards and other rare plant and animal species, as well as the birds that stop to rest while migrating.

“If you disturb this ecosystem, it could have a big chain reaction,” Raz says. “That’s my biggest concern.” But concerned as he is about the damage being done by the Dead Sea’s shrinkage, Raz is deeply skeptical of the plan to save it by bringing in water from the Red Sea.

***

The idea of digging a waterway from the ocean to the Dead Sea has been bandied about for centuries. Athanasius Kircher, a renowned German-Jesuit scholar, proposed it in 1664 as a transportation route; an English admiral named William Allen seconded the notion in 1855. Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, imagined a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea in his seminal 1902 book “Altneuland” (“The Old New Land”).

The Israeli government took a serious look at digging a canal in the 1970s and ’80s, hoping it could yield hydroelectric power that would leave the country less dependent on foreign oil. But the Red-to-Dead project really began gathering steam in the 1990s, amid the exuberance of peacemaking between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians. Former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres is the idea’s foremost champion. In his book, “The New Middle East” (Henry Holt), Peres writes:

“Politically, this earthshaking enterprise can help maintain peace and establish mutual long-term interests. The water will flow along the Arava (the desert valley in which the sea sits), the power stations will give light, and the wasteland will bloom with life. The region will experience peace, serenity and progress. People from other countries will use the seaport and airport, visit the spas and vacation centers and enjoy the products of our flourishing desert.”

The second Intifada bumped the project to the back burner, but in 2006, the governments of Israel, Palestine and Jordan jointly convinced the World Bank to get on board. Everyone involved agrees that saving the sea is a priority, but each side gives different weight to the other expected benefits.

For Jordan, which faces a chronic and deepening shortage of water, developing new, potable supplies is paramount. For Israel, a major engineering project in partnership with an Arab country would constitute a long-sought political milestone. The mere fact that it and its Arab neighbors are talking about such an undertaking earned the participants a pat on the head from the U.S. Senate in 2007, which passed Resolution 387, applauding “the cooperative manner” in which all three sides were working to save the Dead Sea. For the Palestinians, who were originally excluded from the planning for the conduit, it’s crucial to be given a role in the project, to bolster their political standing, and their claims to the region’s water resources. “Though we are occupied by Israel, the Jordan River runs along our land,” as does part of the Dead Sea, says Shaddad Attili, head of the Palestinian Water Authority. “It’s important that we be brought in as partners.”

The World Bank has rounded up $16.7 million from the U.S., France, Sweden and other countries for a series of studies on the feasibility and environmental and social impacts of what is now formally known as the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Program. The project could ultimately take any of several forms—a canal, a tunnel, a pipeline or some combination. In any case, the engineering is fairly straightforward. Red Sea water would have to be pumped over or piped under the hills around Aqaba, Jordan’s sole port, which offers the most promising access point to the Red Sea. After that, it would simply flow downhill to its sub-sea-level destination. Hydroelectric stations along the way would harness the flow to generate power for desalination plants. Estimated cost: anywhere from $5 billion to $15 billion.

And that’s the just the basic version. Peres and Israeli industrial magnate Yitzhak Tshuva want to take things further by building a Vegas-style strip of desert resorts along the waterway. At a recent conference in Jerusalem, Tshuva presented a plan to line the conduit with parks, lagoons, entertainment centers and 200,000 hotel rooms.

It sounds great: Save the Dead Sea, get fresh water, promote regional cooperation and generate thousands of jobs. But FoEME and other environmental groups are concerned that the conduit might do more harm than good.

There are potential problems all along the route. The conduit would suck as much as two billion cubic meters—a little more than half a trillion gallons—of water every year out of the Gulf of Aqaba, a narrow finger of the Red Sea. Pulling out that much water could alter the currents and temperatures in the Gulf, warns the Samuel Neaman Institute, potentially harming sensitive coral reefs. The reefs are a world-class diving destination; losing them would cost Jordan some of the nearly half-million visitors that come to Aqaba every year. The massive, noisy machinery required to pump the water wouldn’t help the tourist trade, either.

Meanwhile, the waterway would run through the Arava Valley, which sits on the border between two tectonic plates. That makes the area prone to earthquakes that could damage the conduit and send salt water spilling into the surrounding desert, which is home to rare palm trees, gazelles, hyrax and other species. “It’s a unique ecosystem,” Bromberg says. “We’re not so worried about a rupture—that would be a one-time thing. It’s a leak that is the biggest worry, [because that] would mean a constant slow seep of a lot of water.”

Mixing regular seawater with that of the Dead Sea, which has a different chemical composition, could also be bad news. Research by the Geological Survey of Israel suggests that the Dead Sea’s calcium-rich brine could react with sulphates in the seawater to form gypsum, which would turn the Dead Sea white. The influx of less-salty water could also stimulate the Dead Sea’s microorganisms, causing an algae bloom that would turn the water red. And diluting the sea’s salinity would likely reduce its famous buoyancy.

“We think the solution is dealing with the root causes of the sea’s demise,” Bromberg says, “not some technological fix that will give rise to a new set of problems.”

*** 

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Jordan River ran big and wild. In 1847, U.S. Navy Lt. W.F. Lynch had to battle rushing rapids and waterfalls on an exploratory expedition down the river. Today, the storied waterway, featured in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity and Islam is heavily contaminated by sewage.

People are to blame. Since 1970, the combined population of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories has more than tripled from 5.3 million to some 17 million. Over the last several decades, they, along with their neighbor to the north, Syria, have tapped, dammed and diverted almost all of the water in the Jordan and the springs and tributaries that once fed it. Originating in the mountains between Israel and Syria, the river runs down into the Sea of Galilee and from there through the Jordan Valley to the Dead Sea. But Israel and Jordan now take so much water out of the Sea of Galilee that almost none flows out into the riverbed.

About a half-mile south of the Sea of Galilee, what little river water does escape comes up against an earthen berm, forming a large pool rimed with scum and trash. Five fat green pipes angle down into the pool, sucking out water for nearby banana and avocado fields. A little water slips out through a submerged conduit, emerging as a trickle on the other side of the berm. Meanwhile, from another pipe gushes a feculent, gray-green stream of sewage. Signs in English, Hebrew and Arabic warn: “Danger! Don’t enter or drink the water!” It flows away downstream, where it is augmented by more sewage, agricultural runoff and fish pond refuse.

About 120 kilometers to the south is the spot where Jesus was purportedly baptized. Thousands of devout tourists come to this tranquil patch of reed-lined riverbank every year to follow his example. On a hot day this past spring, a black-cassocked Greek Orthodox priest held the hand of Kristin Londal, a 40-year-old Bible studies teacher from Bronxville, New York, as she stepped down from a wooden platform into the green-brown water. She was dressed in a plain white robe. Holding her nose shut, Londal submerged herself three times.

“Yes, I know the river is polluted. Jesus will keep me clean!” she told me afterward, standing on the platform dripping and radiant. “But,” she added, “I will take a shower tonight.” As we talked, a water-rat the size of a small dog popped its head up and swam past.

Israel and Jordan are taking steps to clean the river, but they may strangle it in the process. Wastewater treatment plants are being built on both sides to capture and recycle the sewage before it hits the Jordan. That’s progress, but a recent FoEME study warns that if that sewage water isn’t replaced, “the Lower Jordan River is expected to run dry at the end of 2011.”

The most obvious way to get more water is desalination, a technology in which Israel is the world leader. But desalinating enough water from the Mediterranean to take care of the towns and farms that rely on the Jordan would be expensive, and also require large amounts of greenhouse-gas producing energy. There has also been talk of bringing in water from Turkey, another major undertaking.

Bromberg maintains that at least a third of the Jordan’s flow can be restored by using existing water resources more wisely. For starters, if both Jordan and Israel reduced their subsidies to agriculture, they could wean themselves off the unsustainable habit of farming water-intensive export crops in the desert, he says. That’s starting to happen, but only to a limited extent.

“We’ve had to destroy a lot of trees in the last few years because of the lack of water,” says Yuval Malka, a spokesperson for Kibbutz Kinneret, an agricultural settlement near the Sea of Galilee. “We plant fewer bananas, avocados and mangos.” But he balks at the notion of getting rid of them altogether. “Bananas pay well,” Malka says. “We made nearly a million dollars from them last year.”

Other decidedly unsexy proposals for reducing the amount of water drawn from the Jordan and Sea of Galilee include replacing water toilets with composting ones. “It’s a lot of tiny fixes,” Bromberg says. “That’s the problem; no one’s going to get rich from restoring the Jordan. Politicians are more attracted to grand projects that will leave a mark on history—and make their friends a lot of money.”

Beyond the Jordan, FoEME is pressing to reduce the water used by the massive mineral-extraction works at the southern end of the Dead Sea. On both sides of the border, these companies channel Dead Sea water through a system of broad, winding canals into a 150-square-kilometer expanse of shallow evaporating pools, where potash, bromides, magnesium and salt are extracted by floating harvesting machines.

The minerals are then taken to a vast industrial park, where the desert is buried under a massive sprawl of multistory steel scaffolds, conveyor belts, chutes, pipes and power lines. Gray smoke billows skyward from towering chimneys while roaring trucks and top-loaders shuffle between mountainous heaps of raw white potash.

This industry is responsible for some 40 percent of the Dead Sea’s water losses, according to the World Bank. Bromberg says they could cut that substantially if they extracted minerals by pushing the sea’s water through membranes, rather than evaporating it. That would save water, but it would be more expensive.

***
 
In any case, even if the river was restored and the mineral industry reined in, the Jordan would still need more water. The conduit offers the best fix for that and the Dead Sea, its supporters argue. “The environmentalists want to let the Jordan water all flow back, but this is utopian. In my opinion, the conduit is the only valid solution,” says Elias Salameh, a University of Jordan hydrologist who has studied the Dead Sea problem extensively. “Of course, it will have bad environmental impacts. We should study and try to minimize them. But the benefits will be far greater.”

If the conduit could also significantly improve relations between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, as supporters like Salameh argue, it might even be worth a certain amount of environmental damage. Israel’s peace with Jordan is reasonably sturdy but could use reinforcing. Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, on the other hand, fluctuate between bad and appalling. Resolving their conflict would be a boon to the whole world.

“This project brings hope to the region,” Attili says. “Despite all the crisis and conflict, we are talking to each other and working together.”

But the World Bank’s most recent assessment (May/10) of the project’s potential political implications is only guardedly optimistic.

“The magnitude of the [conduit project] is such that regular and close coordination will be necessary. This will bind the parties together in mutual dependency, which can only promote better understanding and ties,” the report says. However, “the relationships between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are dominated by political realities. Implementation of the [project] will not, of itself, affect these issues.” The report projects only “minor to moderate positive impacts” on the political front.

With this in mind, the World Bank recently launched another study, this one examining alternatives to a Red-to-Dead canal or pipeline, including a restoration of some flow to the Jordan River and a water conveyance from the Mediterranean.

In the meantime, however, Jordan plans to start its own, separate project, which would pump Red Sea water to desalination plants near Aqaba and channel the leftover brine to the Dead Sea.

Alex McPhail, the World Bank’s study program manager for the Red-Dead conduit, claims the World Bank is not concerned about Jordan going ahead with its project. “We’re talking about two billion cubic meters of water,” McPhail says. “They’re talking about a fraction of that amount.”

Whether it will save the Dead Sea or damage it further, however, neither project will have any impact for a long time. Each will take an estimated 20 years to complete. In the meantime, the sinkholes devouring the fields of Ghawr al Hadithah and Kibbutz Ein Gedi will keep multiplying. The mud flats in front of the tourist hotels will keep growing. And the Dead Sea will continue to slip further and further away.

A slightly different version of this article originally appeared in Miller-McCune earlier this year.