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For Dead Sea, a Slow and Seemingly Inexorable Death

A River of Sewage

The Dead Sea covers about 250 square miles in a deep valley bordered by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank. But to understand why the sea is dying, begin about 60 miles north, at a spot just below the Sea of Galilee that today is the northernmost source of water for the lower Jordan River -- an open drain that pumps out 720,000 gallons of raw sewage a day.

White foam flutters in small pools around rocks. Chunks of concrete, strips of plastic piping, bicycle tires and other litter clutter the shore. The stench of human waste fills the air. If the scene is not cautionary enough, a sign warns: "Danger! Don't enter or drink the water."

"This is the end of the Jordan River as far as clean water is concerned," Gidon Bromberg, head of the Tel Aviv office of Friends of the Earth Middle East, said as he walked around the site. "From here down to the Dead Sea, the Jordan River has been turned into a sewage canal -- little more."

The Jordan -- best known as the river where Christians believe Jesus was baptized -- used to be the main source of water for the Dead Sea, delivering about 1.3 billion cubic meters of water every year, or about three-quarters of all the water that flowed into the sea.

Today, virtually every major spring and tributary that once flowed into the Jordan has been dammed or diverted for drinking water and crop irrigation by Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The Jordan now delivers less than 100 million cubic meters of water a year to the Dead Sea, and as much as half of that is raw sewage, according to Bromberg and other environmentalists.

Months go by in the summer when parts of the river are dry. At Jesus's baptismal site, five miles north of where the Jordan trickles into the Dead Sea, pilgrims fill souvenir bottles with greenish-brown water.

"The irony is that today the Jordan is being kept alive by sewage," Bromberg said.

As the level of the Dead Sea falls, it affects everything around it. Underground pools of fresh water are retreating, pulling water away from plants in major wildlife areas bordering the Dead Sea. The fresh water is hitting pockets of salt deep underground and dissolving it, causing the earth above to collapse into giant sinkholes, which recently forced the closure of an army camp and a trailer park. As the shoreline shifts, rain runoff digs deep gorges in the newly exposed landscape and wipes out roads and any other infrastructure in its path.

"The real solution is that we need to be smarter and use our water in a wiser way," said Ariella Gotlieb, a biologist with Israel's parks authority who works at the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, an oasis of dense tropical plants, hyenas, ibex, wolves and more than 200 species of birds. The reserve is one of several plant and wildlife sanctuaries threatened by changes in the local ecosystem.

Gotlieb and others said the traditional Zionist dream to "make the desert bloom" has to be updated to reflect the scarcity of resources in a more densely populated country. She pointed to the reserve's neighbor, Kibbutz Ein Gedi, and said it was no longer appropriate for residents there to use natural spring water to tend fruit groves and a botanical garden with more than 800 species of exotic plants in the middle of the desert. Of the 3 million cubic meters of water that flow from Ein Gedi's four springs, not a drop reaches the Dead Sea anymore, she said.

"The Dead Sea is receding because the Jordan River is dead -- it has no relation to the botanical gardens," responded Meir Ron, a founder of the 550-resident kibbutz. He said the problem was a classic battle between man and nature.

"When I was born in Haifa in 1935, there were 600,000 people in Israel, and now there are more than 6 million," he said. "What can we do?"

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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