Sinkholes and the Dead Sea Project: Regional Water Management

The Dead Sea of Israel and Jordan is the Earth’s lowest elevation on land and has a very unique environment.  Throughout history, its unique qualities have brought people from all over the world to visit and bathe in the Sea, which has nine times more salt content than ocean water.  The Dead Sea’s main water source, the Jordan River, has reached the point where the Biblical river’s flow into the Dead Sea has been reduced to a mere trickle.  This is a result of the Jordan River’s flow being diverted to both Israel and Jordan to supply growing water needs.
Dead Sea Evaporation Ponds in Neve ZoharDead Sea Evaporation Ponds in Neve Zohar
Photo: Samuel Willner
In my work at the Arava Institute, I have come across the issue of the severity of the Dead Sea several times.  Each year, the Dead Sea loses around one meter of its surface as less and less water is entering the lake.  In June 2012, the surface of the Dead Sea was 426 meters below sea level.
What is happening to the Dead Sea has raised international concern and has gained coverage in the press.    It has been stated that the unique nature of the Sea is definitely threatened due to changes in the region''s ecosystem.  One can say without a doubt that the Dead Sea is slowly dying.  Surely it will not completely disappear as the current phenomenon continues, but its surface area will shrink considerably until there is a balance in-between the inflow of water and evaporation into the atmosphere.
The Dead Sea region hosts several tourist attractions and important industries, which generate significant income for the region.  A great deal of these infrastructures will be threatened because of the formation of sinkholes.  Warning signs have been posted in many places around the Dead Sea shores to notify people about the issue.
In this blog, I tackle the question: What is a sinkhole, and furthermore, what causes them? 
In order to find out, I took a bus ride to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, a Kibbutz that is famous for its beautiful springs and botanical gardens, and is located right next to the northern basin of the Dead Sea.
In Ein Gedi, I met Mr. Eli Raz, who is an expert in geology, ecology, environment and ecotourism of the Judean Desert and Dead Sea region.  He has special expertise in the Dead Sea crisis and in the formation and development of sinkholes along the Dead Sea shores.
According to Eli Raz, the appearance of the sinkholes (the collapse of the salt layers) is caused by the loss of volume under the salts on the shores of the Dead Sea.  Beneath the Dead Sea coastal plain, two completely different water bodies meet, the Dead Sea water coming from the east, and the ground water coming from the west.   As the water level drops over time, also the level of interface between the two waters drops, exposing the salt layer to rapid dissolution by the ground water.  This causes sinkholes.
If the Dead Sea continues to decline, one would expect to see more sinkholes on the shores.  According to Eli Raz, the formation of sinkholes follows a linear pattern or belt, and overlaps with the geological fault line in the region.  "So I concluded that there is a connection between the geological fault line and the formation of the sinkhole sites, and thus we were able to declare areas near the fault line, which are in very high danger of developing sinkholes", says Eli.
Is there any way one could prevent the sinkholes'' formation?  According to Eli Raz, the first attempt should be to stop the decrease in the Dead Sea level, and for it to gradually gain more water. This could be done by introducing water from outside sources.  After that, the situation needs to be monitored.
The level of the Dead Sea could be raised by conveying water either from the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea or from the Jordan River.  All these options have been discussed.  The higher the level of the Sea, the more areas with sinkholes would be flooded as in the past, which would solve most of the problems related to the sinkholes.
What about water consumption in the region?  The Dead Sea crisis is definitely related to the water use both by households and the industry.  "There is no doubt that water consumption by humans is eventually leading to an environmental disaster," says Eli Raz.
In a region where water resources are scarce, government and environmental organizations work hard to find creative solutions. KKL-JNF, for example, has worked for many years to bolster Israel''s water economy, by developing alternative water sources. KKL-JNF has built about 250 water reservoirs across Israel, which collect, store and recycle rainwater and effluents, providing 50% of the water used in Israeli agriculture.
Desalinization is another long term solution that would need to be implemented. "In addition to saving water, we would have to substitute the pumping of natural groundwater sources with desalinated water.   There is no other solution than desalination when the population is increasing with such a high rate", concludes Eli Raz.
Much of the challenge is related to the energy use.  At the end of the meeting, Eli Raz summed up, and concluded, "When we think about long-term solutions, effort should be invested not in desalination itself but rather in the energy that we use for desalination.  In this case, we have to be brave enough to decide to produce water instead of using water from natural sources, and further, we have to focus on finding proper energy for this."
The issues related to the Dead Sea are complicated, especially when it comes to the use of vital and scarce water resources in the Middle East.  This is why we constantly need to focus on finding and creating new solutions.