Israel's incredible shrinking sea
By Haim Watzman
July 31, 2007

The stark, barren shores of the Dead Sea are dotted with ruins of people's attempts to create paradises: Herod's desert palace of Masada; Qumran, the ancient religious commune near which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found; the shattered homes of the Beit HaArava kibbutz, where in the 1940s Zionist pioneers tried to create a utopian society on land no one else wanted.

Thirty years ago, when I first saw it, the Dead Sea - one of the world's saltiest lakes - vaguely resembled a dumbbell. It had two basins, a deep northern one and a shallow southern one. But by the mid-1980s, the southern basin had dried up, leaving a vast expanse of salt flats. The Dead Sea Works, a chemical factory built to extract minerals from the water, had to start piping in water from the northern basin. The luxury hotels and spas to its north created an artificial pond to provide vacationers with a beach.

The northern basin is also shrinking. Eerily, the road that runs along its west side retains, like a fossil, the imprint of the sea's outline from decades ago. What were once shoreside amenities now stand forlornly in the middle of the desert, a 300-meter hike from the beach.

The problem is that the Jordan River, the Dead Sea's principal tributary, is a trickle once it reaches the sea because Israel, Jordan and Syria siphon off 95 percent of the water for drinking and for irrigation. Over the past century, the water's surface has dropped 80 feet; in the last two decades, the sea has shrunk by a third.

Sinkholes have caved into the former seabed, and its water has become saltier, strangling even the unique one-celled microbes that long ago adapted to this poisonous environment.

In April, the World Bank asked for bids to study a bold, high-tech solution - a 110-mile-long canal that would channel water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The project, estimated to cost $5 billion, would have additional benefits - the water cascading from sea level at the tip of the Red Sea to minus 1,400 feet at the Dead Sea would create hydroelectricity. The system would also desalinate sea water - one reason the scheme is popular with the Kingdom of Jordan, which suffers a severe water shortage.

Unfortunately, like many bold, high-tech solutions, it would likely have unintended consequences. The Dead Sea has never received water from the Red Sea. The Red Sea's water, less salty and with a chemical composition quite different from that of the Dead Sea, would float on top, creating an environment inhospitable to the Dead Sea's native biota.

The reaction between the two kinds of water would most likely cause the precipitation of gypsum, turning the blue sea white, and the release of large quantities of hydrogen sulfide from the lower level.

Hydrogen sulfide is rotten-egg gas, not what you want to sniff if you are vacationing at a beachside hotel.

The canal itself has been routed through a seismically active region, which means an earthquake could crack it and send saltwater flowing into the surrounding lands.

A low-tech alternative solution, promoted by the environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, is to restore the original system and allow fresh water to flow from the Jordan into the Dead Sea. The only way to replenish the water of the Jordan is to radically change the consumption habits of the millions of people, Jews and Arabs, who now drink that water and consume the crops that it irrigates. It means switching to less thirsty crops and creating a system of water salvage and reuse.

These are all measures that the countries should take anyway to preserve their water resources. And it is possible to make these changes, with a major commitment on the part of all the countries involved.

Unfortunately, their governments are too preoccupied with the rising tide of fundamentalist Islam, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the muck of Iraq and Iran's nuclear dawn to make such an investment of effort and resources. The Red Sea-Dead Sea canal is much easier politically. So the Dead Sea may rise again, but it will be a ghost of its former self.