Environmental activists take part in "The Dead Sea Swim Challenge", swimming from the Jordanian to Israeli shore, to draw attention to the ecological threats facing the Dead Sea, in Kibbutz Ein Gedi, Israel November 15, 2016..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With salty water irritating his armpits and neck, Oded Rahav pushed through the heavy waters of the Dead Sea for 17.6 kilometers Tuesday morning – completing a seven-hour journey that was about much more than physical endurance.
“The sun was on our heads, it was hot, it was uncomfortable,” Rahav told The Jerusalem Post that evening. “When you take the mask off, it drips water into your mouth. It’s like acid.”
Rahav was the leader of a group of some 30 athletes who completed the unprecedented swim across the Dead Sea from Jordan to Israel in a massive campaign to save the dwindling salty lake. The swimmers, who were the first in recorded history to make it all the way, aimed to raise awareness about the continued neglect by the governments of Israel and Jordan, as well as the condition of the sea and the surrounding region.
Overseeing the swim were a variety of parties, including the Tamar Regional Council, Eco- Peace Middle East and Israel’s Regional Cooperation Ministry.
While the Dead Sea itself is drying up at an alarming rate, its depletion is also causing the salinization of regional fresh-water aquifers, organizers said. An additional concern is the development of about 300 new sinkholes in the region each year, which pose a threat to human life and infrastructure development.
“The region is going to pay an irreversible price if the many years of injustice caused to the Dead Sea are not repaired,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East. “In the current technological era, in which Israel has advanced desalination capabilities, it is possible to stabilize the level of the Dead Sea by directing water from the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] southward to the lower Jordan River and the sea.”
“Time is critical, and it is working against us,” Bromberg continued. “After 50 years of feet dragging and ignoring the continued deterioration of the condition of the sea, it’s time for all parties involved, including the government of Israel, to change their ways and take action to save it.”
For Rahav and his fellow athletes, swimming across the salty waters was an opportunity to spread awareness about the cause. Rahav is not new to activist swimming; he was one of six athletes to swim from Cyprus to Israel in 2014 to fight marine litter.
“Once we concluded that swim, we thought we could take a break,” he told the Post
That ended when one of the swimmers, Udi Erell, approached the group with the idea of swimming across the Dead Sea.
“We did all kinds of tests validating that it’s possible,” Rahav continued. “Then, we said, if we are going to do this, we will do it for a cause.”
“We are the last generation that can save the Dead Sea,” he added.
The swimmers then looked for an organization that was already conveying that message and found EcoPeace.
“What we do in swimming, they do in footwork,” he said.
The swimmers wanted to undertake the challenge last year but it was not to be.
“This is the most complicated sport event in the history of this region,” Rahav said, noting how delicate and fragile the process was. “After 18 month, we did not know until yesterday at 6 p.m. [that we would be able to go ahead]” After taking a boat from Ein Gedi to Jordan, the athletes began their swim back to Israel at about 7 a.m.
Joining Rahav and other Israelis were swimmers from the Palestinian Authority, the United States, Australia, Denmark, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa and several other countries.
All swimmers who participated in the event had previously competed in open water races of at least 10 km., and were required to conduct many additional training sessions.The high salinity of the water – nearly 10 times that of the ocean – required that they wear special snorkel masks for the duration of the event.
“The swim is a historical event,” Rahav said. “The Dead Sea is our Northern Light. We owe it so much and it’s our turn to bring it back.”