Trying to revive the Dead Sea
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
As the banks of the historic sea recede, Israel and Jordan work to figure out how to save it.
Published October 20, 2003
[Times photos: Jamie Francis]
|Visitors to the Ein Gedi spa on the Dead Sea wait for mineral-laden mud to dry on their skin before washing it off. The shores of the sea used to come up to the spa. Now visitors take a trolley a half-mile to reach the water.
|As the waters of the Dead Sea recede, the lowest point on Earth continues to get lower, now 1,360 feet below sea level.
ON THE SHORES OF THE DEAD SEA - Aristotle marveled at its unusual characteristics: "Very bitter and salty water in which no fish can live and where neither man nor animal can sink."
Cleopatra was so taken with its beauty-enhancing minerals that she begged Marc Antony to make it part of the Roman Empire.
And it was along its shores that King Herod built a mountain fortress; that an ancient Jewish sect hid the now-famous scrolls; and that Lot's wife looked back at the burning of Sodom and Gomorrah - and was forever turned into a pillar of salt.
Throughout human history, the Dead Sea has amazed, healed, sheltered and soothed. But now the sea is dying. Or at least shrinking to an alarming extent.
In less than 50 years, the lowest point on earth has dropped even lower - from 1,294 feet below sea level to 1,360 feet. The Dead Sea covers a third less area than it did a century ago; in some places there's so little water you could walk from the Israeli side to Jordan.
By all accounts, it is a disaster of global magnitude, threatening a place of vast religious, historic and environmental significance. Yet what to do about it is proving problematic.
In a rare show of cooperation in a region rife with conflict, Israel and Jordan are considering a plan to refill the Dead Sea with water pumped 190 miles from the Red Sea. The downward rush of water from one sea to the other could also generate hydroelectric power that could be used for desalination, easing the critical shortage of fresh water in the region.
But environmentalists say not enough research has focused on potentially harmful effects, including damage to the Red Sea's spectacular coral reefs.
"I myself look at the Red Sea as the only hope for the Dead Sea, but we need to really study the project properly," says Munqeth Mehyar, Jordanian director of the Friends of the Earth-Middle East.
"If the impacts are tolerable, we can work around them. . . . My worry about the Dead Sea is for us to sit and do nothing. At the rate we are going we are losing a very, very beautiful and important place."
Eons ago, a massive earthquake created a rift into which the Dead Sea sank and was deprived of its natural outflow. With nowhere else to go, water evaporates in the hot, dry air, leaving behind fantastically shaped deposits of salt.
The Dead Sea is now the saltiest body of water on earth - its salinity is 33 percent, compared to 20 percent for Utah's Great Salt Lake and just 3 percent for the Mediterranean 50 miles away.
Indeed, the water is so salty it is impossible to sink. Bathers bob around like apples in a tub, in a semirecumbent position that allows them to read a book or magazine as they soak in water soothingly oily to the touch.
The Dead Sea's only sources of water are sparse rainfall - less than 3 inches a year - and the Jordan River. But Israel and Jordan have diverted so much of the river's flow for agricultural use that the Dead Sea gets just 10 percent of the water it once did.
At the same time, the sea's own waters are being sucked out by Israeli and Arab companies that extract the potassium and other minerals for use in fertilizers and cosmetics. The result? The level of the Dead Sea is dropping by more than 3 feet a year. At the current rate, the more shallow southern part of the sea will be gone in 50 years.
Along the Jordanian and Israeli shores, it is a catastrophe in the making.
"DANGER," warn large signs stuck in parched earth where water used to be. "DO NOT LEAVE THE PATH. DEEP PITS."
In several areas, the water has receded so much that sinkholes now pock the landscape. Some are so potentially dangerous that more than 3,000 people have been evacuated from the Jordanian side. Hundreds of acres of valuable farmland could be rendered useless.
The disappearing sea threatens another vital industry.
Although the Mideast conflict has devastated tourism elsewhere, thousands of visitors still flock to the Dead Sea for its therapeutic benefits. The dense, hazy air, which filters out most of the sun's harmful UVB rays, is a boon to those with psoriasis and other skin conditions that improve with prolonged exposure to the sun.
The health-conscious can also slather themselves with thick, black mud, rich in minerals that are said to improve circulation, relieve muscle tension and ease rheumatic pain.
"My legs were a little bit sore, but I feel this helps me," said Zamira Siukava, a Russian physician who had smeared mud on everything but her eyes and blue bikini. "My skin also feels very soft."
On a recent Saturday, Siukava was among hundreds of visitors to the Ein Gedi Spa, an hour's drive from Jerusalem. Just a decade ago, guests could walk right up to the Dead Sea and scoop mud off the bottom. But the sea has receded so far, at least half a mile, that guests now ride a trolley to get there.
At the new Marriott and Movenpick resorts on the deeper Jordanian side, the sea has dropped rather than receded, forcing guests to walk down several steps.
If the sea keeps shrinking, "the Israelis will use carriages and we'll use elevators to go down to the water," jokes Mehyar of Friends of the Earth in Jordan.
At one time, Israel considered a plan to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Mediterranean, but ruled that out as too expensive.
Now attention is on the so-called "Red Sea-Dead Sea Peace Conduit," discussed in June at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. That plan also would be costly, as much as $5-billion, to be paid with a combination of grants and loans. But the project would save the Dead Sea, supply drinking water to millions and serve as a symbol of peace and cooperation in the Middle East, according to a World Bank Report.
But Friends of the Earth and other groups say a detailed environmental study is needed to address several concerns:
Would the pipes or canals needed to transport the water disturb the habitats of leopards and other rare wildlife along the Dead Sea shores? Could saltwater leak from the the pipes and contaminate the groundwater?
Would taking so much water from the Red Sea damage the fragile coral reefs that draw divers from all over the world? And would dumping so much water into the Dead Sea churn it into a milky morass and destroy its magnificent sapphire hue?
This being the Middle East, politics also enters the debate. Egypt, which borders the Red Sea, says the project would violate Arab League resolutions banning cooperation between Israel and Arab states.
Such talk angers Mehyar.
"Some people are saying, "How come you're speaking about this when there's a political crisis?' But I cannot wait for a political solution and then talk about an environmental solution. If people do not take care of this problem now, the whole region will be suffering."
- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com
World and national headlines
Trying to revive the Dead Sea
Gay bishop-elect holds steady amid turmoil
Election 2004Graham's chance for No. 2 slot debatable
IraqAs more die in fighting, Iraqi urges calling out old army
Nation in briefSeparated twin breathes on own
World in briefU.S. to authorize new agency for Iraq donors