Don’t look back now, Mrs. Lot. The entire Dead Sea is disappearing. The salt pillar commonly described in Israel as Lot’s wife, the biblical character punished for turning around to see the divine destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, teeters precariously near the southern part of the Dead Sea. However, the kidney-shaped body of water once seen on postcards and maps no longer exists. The northern part of the sea is completely separate from the southern half, where the hotel and tourism areas can be found and whose water is now a series of industrial evaporation pools.
I traveled to what is known in Hebrew as Yam Hamelah, the Salt Sea, with my son during the Sukkot vacation last week, only half joking that I wanted to see it while it still exists.
Our trip was no usual one. We didn’t take touristy photos of people floating in the salty waters at the lowest spot in the world and we didn’t plaster ourselves with the black mud famous for its healing properties and for being one of Cleopatra’s preferred cosmetics. Instead, we took a sunrise boat excursion to learn more about the unique site, taking photos of the extraordinary formations and digging in the mud for black “salt diamonds.”
We were part of a small group guided by Noam Bedein, who heads the Dead Sea Revival Project and is passionate about saving the body of water. Bedein believes in environmental advocacy through education and for the past two years has been documenting the Dead Sea’s decline in a series of stunning photographs and time-lapse images. (Details of the boat tours and a selection of Bedein’s photos can be found on his website: Deadseastory.com.)
One of his well-documented geological landmarks, a huge salt column that began to emerge from the dropping water level of the sea two years ago, crashed a month before our visit, underlining the ever-changing – and precarious – nature of the area.
The column played a role in setting photojournalist Bedein on his new path as Dead Sea documenter and activist. Previously he established and ran the Sderot Media Center to draw attention to the southern town that has come to symbolize the rocket attacks from Gaza. Now he often takes the story of the Dead Sea’s beauty and woes abroad.
“At sunrise on a September morning in 2016 I captured this unique salt formation. As I got near enough to photograph it, I suddenly realized that I had documented this same formation only five months before, while it was mostly under water,” he recalls.
“Only when people see it, do they understand what it means when we say that the Dead Sea is drying out,” he adds, posing for a picture holding time-lapse images of the rise and fall of the salt structure.
The morning was full of surprises. In order to reach sites that are otherwise inaccessible, Bedein takes small groups out in a rubber dinghy skippered by Jacky Ben Zaken, a member of a nearby kibbutz, and equally intent on saving the Dead Sea.
Bedein prepared us for the fact that there are waves, some quite powerful, which bathers close to the shore don’t see. But we did not need to wear life jackets because in the (unlikely) event of an emergency we would float.
Using the Zodiac boat, our group of 10 was able to land on newly created and rarely visited beaches, some with “salt pearls” like a rough white sand, others with a moonscape scenery, multicolored layered rocks, and caves with salt stalactites that could have provided the backdrop for a fairy tale.
The tremendous loss of water is evident. “The equivalent of 600 Olympic pools of water are emptied every day from the Dead Sea,” says Bedein. This means the water level drops by about 1.5 meters a year. “The next generation is not going to know the Dead Sea as we know it,” he says. “Scientists reckon that by the year 2050, there will be equal quantities of freshwater and salt water and by then it will remain only as a small pool.”
The Dead Sea, situated about an hour’s drive south from Jerusalem, creates a natural border with Jordan, which Israel supplies with large quantities of water under the peace agreement.
The three main causes of water loss in the Dead Sea are lack of water flow from the Jordan River, climate change and industrial use, says Ben Zaken. “The Jordan River used to be some 70 to 100 meters wide,” he says. “Today, it is only some 2.5 meters wide.”
Ben Zaken’s vessel, the Dead Sea’s only expedition boat, allows Bedein to sho
w the hauntingly enchanting landscape which makes it clear why the area was nominated as one of the natural wonders of the world.
The boat passes by a cliff with stripes – each layer representing a year, much like the rings of a felled ancient tree. We see the white strata from the summer season and the much thinner red strata of the brief winters. The three white strata at the base are noticeably deeper than those on top, a very visual sign of the recent drought years.
The bright side to the Dead Sea’s decline is that the loss of water reveals “hidden treasure,” as Bedein puts it. Among them are the salt chimneys. These form where freshwater from the Hebron Hills flows into the Dead Sea and the microorganisms of the freshwater form a protective barrier. As the water levels drop, these chimneys emerge but cannot survive. “The tragic part of the story is that once a treasure is no longer covered by the water, it dries out under the sun and eventually crumbles and disappears,” says Bedein.
On one beach we tread – carefully – around sinkholes, a problem now so prevalent that roads passing by the Dead Sea have had to be rerouted and former tourist beaches abandoned. Bedein says because the sinkholes fill with freshwater, he has seen people fishing in them. We speculated about how the fish might have got there – whether by human hands or being dropped by birds or spawned from a fish as a bird grabbed it. It seemed to echo Ezekiel’s prophesy (47:8-10), “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and ... the water will become fresh... and there will be very many fish.”
Both Bedein and Ben Zaken note the tremendous amount of interest in the area because of its biblical history and its unique geophysical nature and mineral-rich properties. Scientists and scholars often take their rides. Naturally, there are many different ideas on how to stop the Dead Sea’s deterioration. These include constructing a canal from either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean to supply more water. Ben Zaken, however, notes the difficulty in predicting what effect the vastly different water would have on the Dead Sea. “It could cause an environmental disaster instead of solving it,” he warns, adding that laboratory tests are limited in scope and might not indicate what will really happen.
Bedein and Ben Zaken favor treating the problem at source: The main problem is that almost no water flows into the Dead Sea from the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) via the Jordan River anymore, because of water diversion projects. They suggest focusing on replenishing the Sea of Galilee (which is also shrinking).
Our trip lasted three hours, but time seemed to take on a different dimension amid the dramatic scenery. Ben Zaken notes that visitors always feel better at the Dead Sea, partly because of the high oxygen levels.
With its rich history, compelling beauty and unique therapeutic properties, it’s tragic to think the Dead Sea might cease to exist in the not so distant future. It can’t heal itself. That’s why Bedein and Ben Zaken want to spread the Dead Sea’s story and help avert a tragic ending. The Dead Sea need not die.
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