The Dead Sea: From world wonder to sinkhole nightmare

The problem of sinkholes along the Dead Sea is getting worse and is negatively affecting tourism.

A sinkhole forms when a layer of solid salt is dissolved from sweet groundwater, after the sea recedes. (photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
A sinkhole forms when a layer of solid salt is dissolved from sweet groundwater, after the sea recedes.
(photo credit: ARIEL BESOR)
They covered the first sinkhole with gravel and hoped it was a one-time occurrence.
But then a cleaner fell into a three-meter-deep hole with her cleaning cart. The camping site was closed down that same day. They surrounded it with barbed wire and no one has gone inside for 17 years.
A year later, Gavri was walking in the date orchard when suddenly he disappeared into a sinkhole.
Twenty-five of the 40 acres of the date orchard are currently off limits.
There’s a sign on the fence: Danger: sinkholes.
And then last January, a sinkhole formed on Route 90, the main highway, cutting off the entire area, including Ein Gedi.
Mazor, who’s been a kibbutz member since 1974, parked his car next to the bridge over Nahal Arugot. In 2005, the bridge collapsed following a huge flood. In 2009, the bridge was reopened with great fanfare, following a NIS 55 million investment. It was constructed according to the strictest of standards which took into consideration the unique climate conditions. Today, the bridge sits desolate and unused.
(Photo: Ariel Besor)
Mazor shows us where the bridge is leaning at an angle, and the wide cracks in the asphalt that are the result of radical changes in the ground below.
“Everything is being destroyed,” he says. “Everything you see here will collapse at some point. Nothing will remain.
There’s a line of sinkholes, and where there are sinkholes, there is destruction.
This area is already a difficult place to live in. There’s the intense heat and dryness, and now there is complete chaos. Our natural surrounding is disintegrating right in front of our eyes. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. And people need to know that this isn’t a natural disaster but one we caused with our own hands.”
JUST FOUR years ago, the Dead Sea was a candidate for one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Ein Gedi beach was the only free beach in the area. Recently, Israel invested NIS 4.5m. to make the beach more accessible for tourists.
But two days after it reopened, the authorities closed it down and now it’s like a ghost town.
The restaurant and the gas station at Ein Gedi are also empty, as though a deadly plague had been discovered here.
We passed by the barbed wire and went inside the camping site. There are still electric poles, but the buildings have all fallen down and the huge sinkhole in the middle looks ominous, almost as though a nuclear bomb had fallen here.
It’s absolutely cruel and devastating.
The kibbutz would love to renovate the area, but no insurance company will cover them for sinkholes. And so the years pass and the sinkholes have turned into depressing monuments in a place that used to be filled with so much happiness and activity.
“People remember the way the Dead Sea used to be, but no one seems to listen when we tell them it’s fallen 25 meters so far, and continues to drop an entire meter every year,” Mazor says sadly.
“There is no other lowest place on earth, and yet the Dead Sea is treated like the periphery of the periphery. The roads are terrible and unmaintained, even though over a million cars drive here every year. Only when problems directly affect Tel Aviv does anything get done.
Who cares about a few sinkholes?” This phenomenon reared its head for the first time 30 years ago.
The Dead Sea Works began operating, the Jordanians began using the sea, the Deganya Dam was built and very little fresh water flowed into the Dead Sea, and the Jordanians pumped huge amounts of water out of Nahal Arnon.
All of this together is what has caused the sinkholes.
One of 5,000 sinkholes near the Dead Sea. (Photo: Ariel Besor)
How does a sinkhole form? There’s a subsurface layer of solid salt, and when the sea recedes, the sweet groundwater seeps in and dissolves the salt, creating a vacuum, and eventually the ground collapses.
At first, it was unclear what was happening in the Dead Sea area. The first sinkhole appeared in the late 1980s, not far from the hotels. A group of geologists determined that it was the result of the reduced water level, but they thought it might be a one-time occurrence.
No one predicted it would spread.
Eli Raz, a geologist who is also a resident of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, brought everyone back to reality, though.
“I claimed that the drop in water level was occurring all over the region, and that sinkholes would appear all along the coast of the Dead Sea,” he says. “When I made this prognosis, I think everyone wanted to stone me, including my best friends living on the kibbutz. I became persona non grata.
People don’t like receiving bad news, and so they punish the messenger. But it’s not my fault. I was able to predict the catastrophe. It was so clear to me what was going to happen, but they all jumped on me and told me this would kill tourism.”
So, for a while, Raz kept his ideas to himself, but he continued checking the worrisome phenomenon. When he saw that it was worsening, he decided that he could no longer remain silent and gave an interview to a reporter, following which he was summoned to the kibbutz secretariat for a rebuking.
But then people began falling into the sinkholes. The cleaner, who was the girlfriend of the guard at the camping site, was the first victim. Yoram (Charlie) Tzuri, one of the first kibbutz members, tells how Gavri fell in a hole.
“Gavri yelled out, ‘Help, help! And luckily a young Australian tourist had gone to relieve herself as she waited for the bus and heard him yelling. Gavri told her to go get help at the camping site. They thought she was crazy. They threw down a tube and used a pulley to pull Gavri out.”
Raz also had his own escapade with sinkholes. On Succot eve in 2003, he took a jeep and went out to check a new sinkhole he hadn’t yet seen up close.
As he was investigating, all of a sudden he found himself falling in a cloud of dust and then hitting the ground. For 12 hours he sat waiting inside the hole for someone to notice he was missing.
He had some toilet paper in his bag, so he began writing out a last will and testament on it. He kept trying to imagine himself being saved in order to stay optimistic.
“I had told the guys that I was taking the team’s jeep for a short ride,” he said. “I was optimistic. I figured they’d need the jeep and so they’d come looking for me. But they didn’t end up needing the car until the evening, and that’s why it took them so long to find me. It’s a very interesting experience to fall into a sinkhole.
And incredibly frightening.”
SOME ESTIMATES claim there are already 5,000 sinkholes in the Dead Sea area and hundreds more are created every year. Most of them are small, but some of them have a diameter and depth of 3 meters. Some of them have filled up with water and people have even predicted that they will be the focus of a new form of tourism in the future.
This is a serious problem, and not just for Kibbutz Ein Gedi but also at Kibbutz Mitzpe Shalem, a 20-minute drive north of Ein Gedi. Mitzpe Shalem is in particularly bad shape.
On the first day of 2015, the Mineral Beach, which is the kibbutz’s main form of income, was closed due to a huge sinkhole that formed in the parking lot. Since that day, a fence has been constructed around the site and it sits empty, and a second sinkhole has swallowed up a few buildings.
Kibbutz members are wallowing in desperation. Just last year, the kibbutz made a profit of NIS 4m. and employed 20 people to work at the beach.
“These sinkholes are man-made, and now nature is having its revenge,” says Davidi Merom, the kibbutz secretary. “This is a serious crisis.
People here grew up on the beach; they believed in it. The water is more than just a source of income; it’s our life. The Ahava factory is a huge employer.
Imagine if tomorrow someone told you your salary would be cut by 30 percent – how would you react? This is a hopeless situation.”
When asked what the government is doing to help, Merom replied, “The government is talking but not taking action. We hope they find alternative means of production for us. We would like to grow, not leave everything here behind and move somewhere else. We’re hoping this is temporary. It’s not our fault that this is happening.”
Less than a month ago, the Knesset Interior Committee convened to discuss the sinkhole issue and the distressing developments. Merom and Mazor participated in the meeting and were shocked that so many Knesset members were not even aware of the situation.
Rachel Azaria, from the Kulanu Party, spoke at the meeting, saying: “This is a long-term phenomenon that is getting worse and is significantly harming the surrounding area. If this were happening in central Israel and not in the periphery, we would have already found a solution to prevent sinkholes. And we all know why this is happening.
“I would like us to discuss the state’s role in this crisis and how we’ve brought this disaster upon ourselves.
We need to figure out how to prevent more sinkholes from appearing. And we need to find a long-term solution so we don’t find ourselves right back at this table two years down the road still dealing with the same problem.
This is a man-made problem, and so it is our responsibility to fix it.”
MK Bennie Begin (Likud), who has a doctorate in geology, recently stated that “the sinkholes will continue to plague us for decades. We cannot get rid of them. Anyone who takes the time to understand the physical and biological aspects of this problem will realize this immediately. Anyone who thinks that adding some water to the area will make the sinkholes disappear does not understand how sinkholes are formed.”
At the committee meeting, Begin said that “if someone expected us to allocate funding to reconstruct buildings that have fallen due to sinkholes, he is wrong. There is no sense in rebuilding this area since the damage is too great and the land is too dangerous.”
Dov Litvinoff, the head of the Tamar Regional Council (which includes Ein Gedi), sighed more than once during the committee meeting.
One of 5,000 sinkholes near the Dead Sea. (Photo: Ariel Besor)
“I have a feeling of déjà vu, because we had a very similar discussion in 2003 and then again in 2007,” Litvinoff told those present. “And I said it again in 2009, but nothing’s been done.”
For 11 years now Litvinoff has headed the council, which covers a huge amount of land. It takes an hour and a half to get from one end to the other, and there are seven communities with a total of only 1,350 people living there.
“Not only does the public not know what’s happening in our region, but our elected leaders are also completely ignorant,” Litvinoff says with more than a little bitterness in his voice. “I’m sitting in the meeting and then a new Knesset member arrives and opens her mouth and it’s like we don’t live on the same planet. Her parliamentary aide gathered some material for her and then she ran off to her next committee meeting.”
When asked if the kibbutz houses are in danger of collapse, Litvinoff replied that “Ein Gedi is not in any immediate danger, but if the state wants the communities to attract new families, we must take a look at the big picture here. If we don’t fix the situation, the entire region will be in danger. The situation here won’t improve unless we do something about it. The sea level will continue to fall and I’m not very optimistic.
More land will fall as sinkholes expand, and we might even have a situation where a few sinkholes combine into one huge hole.
Infrastructure might be damaged if that were to happen.”
LITVINOFF HAS spent a lot of time with Raz, who years ago was considered a false prophet, but who everyone is looking to nowadays every time they have a question. Raz sits in his office and goes over the data gathered by an Italian satellite. In conjunction with a colleague from the Geological Institute, Raz is trying to figure out where new sinkholes might form.
Raz is working nonstop, as if he’s on a mission. He arrived in Ein Gedi in 1973, and since then he has been busy mapping this area that he is so crazy about. But, apparently, his work will be coming to an end – the regional council announced that the budget has been depleted and so the sinkhole project will be shut down.
“This is a very sad and painful situation,” Raz says. “The sinkholes are getting wider, and so we should actually be doubling our efforts. The work is physically draining and no company is willing to insure me. I’m doing this because no one else will. Their solution was to end the project, so from October this all ends. It’s completely idiotic. They need to understand that the sinkholes aren’t going away.”