A sinking feeling: The beautiful tragedy of Israel's Dead Sea

The Dead Sea's water levels have been on the decline and sinkholes have converged throughout the area. Why did this happen and can we stop it?

 The sinkholes at the Dead Sea have a wide range of colors. (photo credit: LIAM FORBERG)
The sinkholes at the Dead Sea have a wide range of colors.
(photo credit: LIAM FORBERG)

“We all live downstream.”

It was nearly 4,000 years ago that the legendary cities of Sodom and Gomorrah found their epic destruction, stemming from human wickedness and divine retribution. Fast forward to the dawn of the 21st century, and a mysteriously foreboding, yet gorgeous, phenomenon can be found on the shores of the widely loved Dead Sea, surrounding the biblical ruins, possibly indicating a second coming of the sinners’ fate in our time. And the severity of our crimes is not one to be understated.

That description is, of course, a little dramatized. Nobody is going to turn into a pillar of salt; however, one of Israel’s crown jewels of nature may soon not be there for our mud-applying, “Look, Mom, I’m levitating,” hyper-saline adventures.

The phenomenon I’m referring to is the convergence of sinkholes, snowflake-esque in their individual uniqueness, forming in sea levels that 60 years ago were completely covered by water. In fact, levels have declined by roughly 33% since The Flintstones started airing [1960] and are declining by a meter (three feet) every year.

The history of the Dead Sea’s decline is curtained by disingenuousness. 

In part, the reason that many of the tourists who visit the area are not aware of its situation also contributes to its decline. The hotel area in Ein Bokek has remained steadfast at 392 meters below sea level for as long as one can remember, allowing for carefree vacationing, and maintaining a saccharine facade of the fact that an artificial pool, called “Pool 5,” is transferring water from the rest of the sea’s upper basin and passing it through the Dead Sea Works factories, where it goes through an evaporation process to produce minerals, mainly potash, rendering the upper basin defenseless and drier than Gandhi’s flip-flops. 

 The spectacular sinkholes can be deceptively inviting. (credit: LIAM FORBERG) The spectacular sinkholes can be deceptively inviting. (credit: LIAM FORBERG)

If one were to travel Highway 90, Israel’s longest road supposedly built to a “sinkhole-proof” design, across the Dead Sea, one would be able to spot the desolate, rundown areas, e.g., Kibbutz Ein Gedi’s hotel resort, demolished by the sinkholes’ convergence. Not only does this present a huge threat to Ein Gedi’s income and infrastructure but also a danger, as one of the hotel employees fell a few meters down into the sinkhole. Ein Bokek’s crowds of tourists have abandoned the upper basin of the sea for the most part. After Ein Gedi’s beach was declared unfit in 2020, the only other accessible beach fit for visiting is Kalia beach in the northeastern tip of the basin.

The main reason for the sea’s decline, at least in terms of numbers, is the mass industrial redirection of water from the Dead Sea’s main water source, the Jordan River, for irrigation purposes, called The National Water Carrier. It starts from the Sea of Galilee and continues to the lower part of the river leading on to the Dead Sea, which has now taken on a café au lait shade. It consists mainly of untreated sewage, groundwater seepage, agricultural return flows, and is surrounded by infrastructure and large-scale pumping stations that would give the Unité d’Habitation building in Marseilles a run for its gray, brutalist eyesore money.

With Israel monopolizing the river and Lake Kinneret’s water, withdrawing between 580 to 640 MCM (million cubic meters) annually, Jordan withdrawing 290 MCM per year, and Syria, while having no access to the river itself, building dams across the Yarmouk sub-basin, the largest tributary of the Jordan River, and using about 450 MCM of surface and groundwater resources, the Jordan River’s current annual discharge to the Dead Sea is estimated at 20-200 MCM, compared to the historical 1,300. I’m no math expert, but that’s a lot of water.

Another large water source supposedly discharging into the Dead Sea is Wadi Mujib, biblically called the Arnon Stream. During the last Ice Age, the Dead Sea reached 180 meters below sea levels (about 240 meters higher than today), flooded the canyon, which formed bays and accumulated sediments. Eventually when water level dropped, leaving the canyons blocked, the lake had to break through a cleft in the sandstone, creating the gorge of Wadi Mujib, with an enormous drainage basin to the Dead Sea. However, in 2004, the Mujib Dam was formed between the cities of Madaba and Kerak, withholding thirty-five million m3 (1 billion US gallons), to supply Amman with water due to Jordan’s severe water scarcity, exacerbated by forced immigration after its many wars, population growth, and water being lost through leakage, underregistration and corruption.

Despite all of this, researchers assure us that the Dead Sea will never dry up entirely. The rate of the water’s evaporation in the sea decreases as the saline levels in the water increase. Eventually, these levels will stabilize, supposedly in a few decades. However, this is not until the sea will lose another third of its volume. According to expert researcher of soil and water Guy Golan, the salinity of the sea currently stands at 34.7%, almost ten times more than the Mediterranean’s. By the time the sea reaches an equilibrium, it will “not be fit for humans to enter the water,” he says.

Golan moved to the Dead Sea area five years ago and created Dead Sea Secrets – seven unique trips showcasing the hidden parts of the area, such as “Land of the Sinkholes.” He provides the tours due to the otherwise inaccessible beauty of the land, and it being fairly dangerous for unassuming visitors to wander around on their own.

“I wanted to take all the scientific tools in my arsenal to emphasize this incredibly beautiful place so that people can see what exactly is happening to the Dead Sea. The area is going through incredibly fast a unique process unlike anywhere else in the world,” he says.

“I wanted to take all the scientific tools in my arsenal to emphasize this incredibly beautiful place so that people can see what exactly is happening to the Dead Sea. The area is going through incredibly fast a unique process unlike anywhere else in the world.”

Guy Golan

The wild, dynamic, ever-changing nature of the sinkhole area surrounding the coast of the Dead Sea has turned it into quite the attraction, drawing many a photographer to its jagged precipices.

“I didn’t have fond memories of the Dead Sea as a child,” Golan says. “I just thought it always burned when I swam in it, and that’s all there is to it. When I approached the area again as an adult with groups of tourists, slowly migrating to the areas ‘forbidden’ to enter, I discovered incredible worlds and landscapes I hadn’t seen anywhere else on the globe. Especially how fast the area changes. I go to a spot and see one thing; and if I go back to the spot after a month, I magically see completely different phenomena.”

The sinkholes form when roughly 10,000-year-old, 5-20 meter-thick salt rocks (halite) at depths between 5 to 65 meters along the shores, newly exposed from the receding sea levels, are dissolved by unsaturated groundwater. They form cavities that eventually collapse as sinkholes.

Over 6,000 have been mapped since the 1980s, with a persistently increasing formation rate that peaked with 700 new sinkholes during 2015 alone. Their diameters start from less than one to forty meters and are clustered in roughly fifty sites.

The Geological Survey of Israel developed several methodologies to track and monitor sinkholes along the coast and their temporal and spatial progress, using InSAR (Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar) and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging).

I went on one of Golan’s guided tours. The group met up with our guide Ori at sunrise, 6:30 a.m., at the Metzoke Dragot junction in a small parking lot adjacent to the road. We traveled down toward the coast, having to carefully cross a barbed wire fence that other travelers had kindly cut a hole in. The tour continued, with explanations about the geology of the area; discussions about morality and where we go from here; and photo taking while scouring the many different shapes formed, passing over the canyons that collapsed inward, using Ori’s ladder. We reached a stream going through a canyon in which we “body rafted,” allowing ourselves to give in to the flow and be guided by it all the way to the intersection point with the sea, where we then had a nice warm cup of tea and headed back.

Getting a bird’s eye view of clustered sinkholes might be a trypophobiac’s worst nightmare if it wasn’t for the gorgeous clear water in the sinkholes, ranging widely in color and shade, due to the rain and groundwater flowing to the sinkholes, passing through different minerals and algae on their way there. Some unique ones we encountered were emerald green waters that met with oxidized copper en route. Or a unique type of seaweed called Dunaliella salina, found especially in hyper saline environments, that secretes beta-carotene, the same material that gives flamingos or salmon their pinkish color. It creates vibrant, fiery red sinkholes.

The Dead Sea’s ebb and the sinkholes’ convergence have prompted many winged creatures (i.e. Ardeinae, Grebes and Coots), mammals and fish to come and hang out in the area, as well as and a growing number of fauna, creating a completely new ecosystem from practically nothing. “From the sea’s demise came new life on the coast,” Golan says.

 It is still possible to reverse the environmental results. (credit: LIAM FORBERG) It is still possible to reverse the environmental results. (credit: LIAM FORBERG)

The declining Dead Sea: Do we try to live with it or change it?

From here on out, there can be two approaches to this reality. The first is to try to live with it. Realists will say it doesn’t matter whether we shut down the mineral and potash industries and stream water to the sea or not, development will remain the same.

What we can do is adopt a revitalized approach to the phenomenon. Instead of discarding the area and labeling it forbidden to enter, we can embrace the extraordinary and build a safety net to encourage a new age of tourism, allowing the public to explore the area, using safer methods such as kayak trips and monitoring the gradual change in landscape to mark secure trails for visitors. 

The other approach is an optimistic one. But like every other optimistic solution to issues, not all people think is important. It will rely on getting people on board. And not just any people but governments. “The government, no matter which side of the political spectrum it is on, in every formation, is obligated to do everything it can to stop the regression of the Dead Sea,” says Nir Wanger, head of the Tamar Regional Council.

“The government, no matter which side of the political spectrum it is on, in every formation, is obligated to do everything it can to stop the regression of the Dead Sea.”

Nir Wagner

See, people have tried. You can’t take that away from them. There have been ideas reaching far back, even farther back than Israel’s independence, as far back as 1855 when unaware of the Dead Sea’s situation, British naval officer William Allen suggested what would be the blueprint to the Mediterranean-Dead Sea Canal (MDSC). It has then been picked up by many people, including Theodor Herzl, who mentioned it in Altneuland, unfurling from Ashdod all the way to the Dead Sea. However, like many ideas being presented in Israel’s history, commitment was too half-hearted, and the project was caught in a loop of being brought up and completely abandoned over and over due to economic and financial doubt.

An even worse case study of the overinflated vainglory of the governments is the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance (RSDSC) or the Two Seas Canal having a similar origin to the MDSC, as well as passing through Herzl again. It entails a canal running from Aqaba in Jordan to the Lisan area of the Dead Sea. The project was much more of a cooperation between Israel and Jordan, resting entirely in Jordanian territory. It was proposed at the end of the 1960s, running adjacent to the peace process between the two countries. It has since passed through many prime ministers, being dubbed “the peace conduit.” In 2009, a pilot project was announced, with plans to extract 400 MCM a year, 190 of which would go to the Dead Sea, and 210 serving as freshwater, which would not only help Jordan’s water crisis but also help create housing for 1.36 million people south of Amman. In 2013, an agreement was signed, and in 2016 Jordan announced that it received 17 international bids to construct the pipe, supposedly beginning in 2018 and finishing in 2021.

This, of course, never happened. The project was completely abandoned, with the only explanation given being a “lack of interest by Israel,” a huge slap in the face to every person affected by this.

There is still a ray of hope in all of this. In November 2022, Israel, Jordan and the UAE signed an MOU [memorandum of understanding] for their deal to swap 600 megawatts of solar power capacity provided from Jordan, for 200 MCM of desalinated water to help with Jordan’s crisis, provided by Israel. There is still initiative.

There’s a bit of a parallel between the Dead Sea’s condition and the concurrent water crisis in Pakistan’s Indus River. Israel managed to over-engineer itself into an unsustainable catch 22. The massive amount of infrastructure built around the Jordan River has brought it to a situation where not only is its water contaminated, but due to lack of natural components, such as wetlands or floodplains that would have collected or slowly filtered water when the river would be over-saturated, there are dangers of flooding if water discharge into the river is not heavily regulated. Unfortunately, many people’s idea of a solution is to build even more infrastructure to prevent flooding, showing no intent to stop the industrial mindset.

What separates Israel from the situation of the Indus River is that Israel can manage to sustain a healthy production of water and not put its citizens at risk, and its sovereignty over the Jordan River doesn’t have to be struck with an iron fist. Through its innovative desalination technologies, Israel now produced 20% more water than it actually needs. 

It is still possible to reverse the environmental results little by little, step by step, dam by dam. The Netherlands, for example, is remaking the natural land around the Rhine River, letting rainwater come in, embracing floods in the process. If it ever sought to do so, it could create a balanced relationship between sustenance and respect. Respect for its land. Respect for that land’s people. And respect for nature, ever so punishing in its abandonment.

The only rational strategy for human survival is to work with Mother Nature, not constantly fight against her.  ■