The entire Middle East is in turmoil. Despite the drastic changes in the regional arena, several environmental disasters continue loom in the near future. In Israel, the Dead Sea continues to shrink with an annual drop of around one meter in its sea level, paving a road to a new gloomy reality. The environmental consequences of this phenomenon are clear: most notably significant number of dangerous sinkholes have appeared on its shores.
Sinkholes are not the only negative impact of the disappearing sea; the Dead Sea will gradually reduce into such size which would only be a fraction of what it used to be in its old glory. What could be done to change this development? What can we learn from the past?
While the sinkholes problem is deteriorating at the Dead Sea, there are cases of similar salt lakes from all around the world, ranging from Aral Lake (between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan), Lake Urmia in Iran and Lake Mono in the United States. These examples can provide invaluable information for the research to save the Dead Sea. These cases have highlighted that the environmental impacts of drying seas can be devastating; causing salt storms, erosion and drop in ground water levels, and further, endangering human lives. Sometimes draining natural watersheds can be useful, but sometimes problematic as the case of draining of the Hula Valley in the 1950s has demonstrated.
In the 1950s, the government of Israel decided to drain the Hula Valley for agricultural purposes. The swamps of the Hula Valley were also known for their devastating malaria-bearing mosquitoes that plagued the local population, causing many deaths. The draining operations began in 1951 under the management of the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael – Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) and were completed by 1958. This drainage project was conducted using two main engineering methods: the deepening and widening of the Jordan River downstream, and constructing canals that diverted the waters of Jordan River at the north of Hula Valley. The project was, at that time, considered a major national achievement. Later on it was realized that it had changed the local ecosystem, causing erosion and even underground fires that were difficult to extinguish, fueled by the heat generated by the oxidization process of biodegradable materials in the soils.
Several decades later, after several thorough assessments, KKL-JNF decided to rehabilitate part of the Hula Valley in the 1990s and bring it back to its original state, creating a beautiful lake in the middle of the valley. Today this lake serves as a rest stop for millions of migrating birds every spring and fall. The Hula Valley project has proved to be very successful, and it can serve as an example of rehabilitation of other natural watersheds.
In the case of Dead Sea, however, much larger changes would have to be initiated.
It has been argued that the Dead Sea water level is already so critically low, and the negative impacts are already so severe that only a dramatic change in diverting water to the sea could change the current situation. In order to stabilize the water level of the Dead Sea and prevent further decline in the level of the Dead Sea, about one billion cubic meters of water needs to be brought to the Dead Sea annually to balance out the evaporation.
While it is important to determine a solution to the problem quickly, such a solution should be economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable for the future, keeping in mind the potential for drought and increased population and water demand.
The drastic increase in the number of sinkholes – a direct consequence of decreasing water levels – already has negative impact on tourism, industry, agriculture and other infrastructure in the Dead Sea region.
As the water level of the Dead Sea declines, tourism areas will have to move their beaches and recreation areas to stay with the coastline; industries requiring access to the Dead Sea water will have to construct additional infrastructure for pumping the water to a higher level to keep their access to the water; and as the in the cases of other dried out salt lakes such as Aral have shown, agriculture may be faced with the possibility of salt storms ruining crops. All these negative impacts are looming in the future of the Dead Sea.
The water situation can be improved by increasing the efficiency of water use, and thus, adding to the amount of water available. Higher utilization of rainwater harvesting and recycled water is a tool to obtain more sustainable solutions for water management, but they will not save the Dead Sea from drying: the population growth and the economic development will increase the water consumption. Policy changes, if done right, would be the least costly and most sustainable option for maximizing the efficiency of the existing water supply in the region. By improving existing infrastructure, it is possible to significantly reduce water use in the region.
On the other hand it has been argued that Israel should divert more water to the Dead Sea from its freshwater reserve, the Sea of Galilee. This, however, does not seem to be a realistic option for increasing water levels. It is true that over the coming years, Israel's dependency on the Sea of Galilee will decrease as more coastal desalination plants will become operational. However, this does not necessary mean that Israel should divert the excess water to the Dead Sea. Rather than "wasting" the water of the Sea of Galilee in such a way, it should sell the excess water to Jordan by using the existing water infrastructure that already conveys over 50 MCM annually to the Kingdom of Jordan based on the understanding of the Israel-Jordan peace agreement signed in Camp David in 1993.
It seems that the only viable solution to reverse the declining water level is to convey water to the Dead Sea from either the Mediterranean Sea or the Red Sea. A conveyance in the form of a tunnel, pipeline or canal is the only economically feasible option to increase the water level, as it would simultaneously produce hydropower utilizing the 400 meter difference between the seas and providing a means for seawater desalination.
As the world’s oldest environmental organization, KKL-JNF, together with the Government of Israel, can make a significant contribution to sustainable development of water resources in both Israel and abroad. As the current water situation in the region only worsens, bold initiatives are required. A water conveyance can be one of these alternatives. As new technologies have made such a project technically feasible, realizing the negative environmental impacts of a deteriorating Dead Sea, in addition to recognizing its high economic potential, could pave a way for such an ambitious venture.
(The article is based on a soon-to-be-published research article: S.E. Willner et al., 2015, Saving the Dead Sea and Reversing the Sink Holes Phenomenon (draft title), Arava Institute for Environmental Studies)