For Dead Sea, a Slow and Seemingly Inexorable Death

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 19, 2005

EIN GEDI, When the Ein Gedi Spa opened in 1986 to pamper visitors with massages, mud wraps and therapeutic swims, customers walked just a few steps from the main building to take their salty dip in the Dead Sea.

Nineteen years later, the water level has dropped so drastically that the shoreline is three-quarters of a mile away. A red tractor hauls customers to the spa's beach and back in covered wagons.

"The sea is just running out, and we keep running after it," said Boaz Ron, 44, manager of the resort. "In another 50 years, it could run out another kilometer."

It may sound redundant, but the Dead Sea, one of the world's cultural and ecological treasures, is dying. In the last 50 years, the water level has dropped more than 80 feet and the sea has shrunk by more than a third, largely because the Jordan River has gone dry. In the next two decades, the sea is expected to fall at least 60 more feet, and experts say nothing will stop it.

The decline has been particularly rapid since the 1970s, when the water began dropping three feet a year. That created a complex domino effect that is slowly destroying some of Israel's most cherished plant and wildlife reserves along the Dead Sea's shores, a key resting stop along the annual migration route for 500 million birds that fly between Europe and Africa. The receding waters have left huge mud flats with hundreds of sinkholes that threaten to collapse roads and buildings and have forced a development freeze on Israel's side of the sea, which lies on the border with Jordan.

The Dead Sea
"I'm looking at the reality, and nothing will change in the next 20 to 40 years -- the sinkholes will continue opening even more, the infrastructure will be destroyed from stream erosion, the water level will drop and affect the ecosystem," said Galit Cohen, head of environmental policy at Israel's Environmental Ministry. "The forecast for the future is very bad."

The main problem, experts agree, is that most of the water that once flowed into the sea -- the saltiest large body of water in the world and, at 1,371 feet below sea level, the lowest point on Earth -- is being diverted for drinking water and agriculture, so there is not enough to offset the high evaporation rate. In addition, Israeli and Jordanian industries on the south end of the sea are letting 180 million gallons of the mineral-rich water evaporate every day -- about 66 billion gallons a year -- to extract chemicals.

"The situation of the Dead Sea is something that happened because there's a water shortage and it's needed for other uses," Cohen said. "You can say, 'Don't think of anything else. Let the Dead Sea have the water,' but no one will listen. They'll say, 'So we won't have water in Tel Aviv or the Negev or where?' "

The best hope for a solution, some believe, is to pump salt water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea via a proposed 120-mile Red-Dead Canal, a $5 billion project that the Jordanian government is pursuing with international donors. The World Bank will help fund a $20 million study of the idea.

But Israeli experts say similar proposals -- including a Med-Dead canal to pump water from the Mediterranean -- have been around for more than 30 years and are unlikely to work. According to Amos Bein of the Geological Survey of Israel, chemical and biological reactions produced by mixing Dead Sea water with seawater could change the blue color of the Dead Sea to white or red or create deadly gases.

In the end, he said, the sea will continue falling about three feet a year for the next 150 years or so, until the water becomes so supersaturated with salt that evaporation effectively stops. At that point, according to Bein, the surface of the Dead Sea will be one-third smaller and about 434 feet lower than today.

"It's possible to see the half-full part of the glass," he said. "The Dead Sea will never dry up."

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The Dying Sea
The Dead Sea has shrunk dramatically in the past five decades, sinking farther below sea level because its main water sources, the Jordan River and its tributaries, are being heavily tapped for drinking water and irrigation.
The Dying Sea
SOURCE: Geological Survey of Israel | THE WASHINGTON POST
© 2005 The Washington Post Company