Sink or swim

The Dead Sea is shrinking rapidly - and the only plan in place to revive it could very well spell its doom.

dead sea works 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
dead sea works 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The tractor ambles along slowly as it tugs two heavy wagons of welded steel benches, but the kilometer-long journey from the indoor hot springs to the muddy banks of the Dead Sea takes only a few minutes. From their smiles and playful gestures toward the waves, it seems the guests of the Ein Gedi Spa actually enjoy the tram ride that brings them to the shimmering, salt-caked crags along the shore. To the old timers from Kibbutz Ein Gedi, however, the very need for the tram is deeply distressing - a painful reminder of the times when such a trip was completely unnecessary. Once, they note with sorrow, the shore was only footsteps away. From the lawn of her home at the kibbutz, high up the orange-brown slope from the hot springs, Miriam Buta peers down toward the diminishing sea. "You see that bay there, next to the spa?" she says, pointing to a broad, dusty arc marked off by signs warning of danger. "That entire dark brown patch once glistened with salt." Flipping through an old photo album chronicling her 46 years at the kibbutz, Buta finds a faded picture of the same spot - covered, as promised, in water. Below, evidence of the Dead Sea's former reach lies in the curved scars ringing the inlet; the water carved them as its waves receded farther and farther into the depths. In geological terms, the change has been extremely rapid: With the water level of the Dead Sea dropping an incredible meter per year, the shoreline has practically galloped away from the line it held, with little change, for centuries. As the water level has dropped, fresh water streams that used to flow higher up in harder rock have cut into the soft, salty earth around the Dead Sea - dissolving the salts, destabilizing the earth and causing it to collapse in spots. In other words, sinkholes form. "We know about more than 1,000 sinkholes that have opened up," says Dov Litvinoff, head of the Tamar Regional Council, which includes the Dead Sea shore. "Although they are mostly in areas that are not usually accessed by the public, there is a fear that they will reach the highway and the built-up area." For a region that yearns to grow and build, the impact is severe. "This has already affected our image, scaring off developers and prospective inhabitants," Litvinoff adds. "If the sea continues to fall - and it will - well, we are watching an environmental disaster in front of our eyes." IT IS COMMON for critics to point the finger of blame at the most prominent inhabitants of the southern part of the Dead Sea: the Dead Sea Works, which mines potash and other minerals from huge evaporation pools, withdrawing some 150 million cubic meters of water from the sea each year. Since harvesting minerals from a shallower sea would be easier and cheaper than having to pump them from greater depths, says Noam Goldstein, manager of the special projects division at the Dead Sea Works, "Some people say that we prefer a lower Dead Sea in the north. But actually," he says, "it would be better for us if the northern half were higher because, as the Dead Sea declines, there is more and more pressure on us to pump less." Although the Dead Sea Works is responsible for some of the sea's severe contraction, it is by no means the only factor, or even the most significant. The amount of water that once flowed naturally from Lake Kinneret to the Dead Sea via the Jordan River was 1.3 billion cubic meters per year. Currently, experts say, only 60 million cubic meters reach the Dead Sea - a mere five percent of the former volume. "That means," Goldstein notes, "that we take only a small fraction of the water that once entered the sea." The Dead Sea Works began its operations in the southern section of the sea in the 1950s, after about 20 years of lighter operations at the very north of the sea. But the sea's decline, Goldstein says, can be traced instead to the construction of the national water carrier in the 1960s, and the damming of the Jordan River's tributaries by Jordan and Syria in the '60s and '70s. The national water carrier alone diverts 1 billion cubic meters of water each year. Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority use several million cubic meters a year, as well. "When the Lebanese take water from the Litani River, no one accuses them of damaging the Dead Sea," Goldstein complains. "And when Mekorot takes water from the Kinneret for the national water carrier, no one comes to them demanding to know why they're preventing water from reaching the Dead Sea; to the contrary, we were raised singing the praises of the project because it was so important to our homeland. But when we take water from the Dead Sea, suddenly everyone wants to know why we're destroying the sea." Not only is the factory unduly criticized, Goldstein says, but its contributions to the state are underappreciated. "Firstly," he says, "we actually pay for the water we take. As far as I know, we're the only ones who do." In taxes alone, the Dead Sea Works paid NIS 140 million to the state in 2005. "The Dead Sea Works directly employs 1,400 people in the chemical industry," Goldstein continues, "and has indirectly created a similar number of jobs in the hotel industry at Ein Bokek. "When you come to these hotels up the road here," he explains, referring to the Ein Bokek resort area, "they tell you that you are at the beach of the Dead Sea. But it isn't really the Dead Sea, it's the beach of our evaporation pools. In essence, we enabled [construction of] the hotels, and the livelihood they provide. Further - aside from the evaporation pools, there is no other place along the Dead Sea suitable for such a thing." Shutting down the Dead Sea Works, Goldstein insists, would not solve the Dead Sea's problems, but compound them. "If you want to close the Dead Sea Works, all you'll get is a rise (in the water level) of about 90 centimeters. And for that, you'll lose thousands of jobs in the Negev, and there won't be tourism here anymore." SINCE SEVERAL nations divert water from the system that feeds the Dead Sea, Goldstein says, no one factor can be held solely responsible. "If all are guilty" in the disappearance of this resource, he says, "then all have to contribute to its rehabilitation." Professor Eilon Adar, head of Ben-Gurion University's Institute for Water Science, agrees. "You can't separate the issue of the Dead Sea from the larger regional water situation," he says. "It's impossible." Jordan uses almost as much of the water as Israel does, Adar notes, so even if Israel were to significantly reduce its diversion of the Kinneret and Jordan River waters, it wouldn't help unless Jordan would also take similar measures. What's more, Adar says, Lebanon and Syria will also have to be involved some day. "You have to take everything into consideration," he says. "Otherwise, nothing will happen." Such thinking is part of the motivation behind the so-called "Red-Dead Plan," according to which a massive pipeline would carry water from the Red Sea at Akaba to the Dead Sea. The pipeline would be constructed in Jordan and be funded - at least in part - by the World Bank. On its more than 160-kilometer-long journey, the water would create hydroelectricity and undergo desalination in a reverse osmosis process. The Red-Dead plan (also known as the Peace Canal or the Two Seas Canal), however, is fraught with troubles of its own. Its multi-billion-dollar price tag is prohibitively expensive, and the amount of hydroelectricity and fresh water it would produce are both less than cheaper alternative methods could provide. On top of that, there is a strong possibility that it will do more harm to the Dead Sea than good. "If you add seawater to the Dead Sea, you create a disaster. Bits of gypsum form in the water, and you get a milky soup that would destroy the Dead Sea Works and undo the UV-blocking effect of the Dead Sea," insists Dan Zaslavsky, a professor at the Technion who studied the problem in-depth when he served as chief scientist of the former Energy Ministry and as the state's water commissioner. "If you're trying to save the Dead Sea," he says, "you won't do it by turning it into a milky soup!" The Dead Sea Works is carrying out tests on small mixtures of Dead Sea and Red Sea water that confirms the findings; although it says it will support any plan to save the Dead Sea, it fears the possible repercussions of the Red-Dead project. Galit Cohen, the Dead Sea pointwoman for the Environment Ministry, is also critical of the plan - which, although agreed upon in 2005, is still awaiting preliminary work on a feasibility study. "To talk about the Red-Dead project as if it were some magic solution that could be executed tomorrow is to speak falsely," Cohen says emphatically. "I'm not at all sure that it's the only solution, or the best one, or even better than what there is already," she says. "It's easy to come and say, 'Just go build the canal already!' But what do you mean, 'Go build the canal?' Are you sure that you want to have gypsum bubbling up from the Dead Sea? Are you sure that you want to change the chemical and mineral composition of the water? Are you sure that you want to endanger the Eilat bay [with construction of an intrusive pipeline]? And are you sure that all this is better than the situation you have now? There are lots of big questions, and still no answers." In Israel, the main proponent of the project has been Shimon Peres. Several sources suggested to The Jerusalem Post that the minister for development of the Negev and the Galilee finds the idea attractive not because of any proven benefit, but because it is a grandiose venture that can be marketed as an international effort toward peace in the Middle East. A spokesman for Peres told the Post that Peres and Jordan's King Abdullah II were promoting the plan because they had received assurances that it would both save the Dead Sea and provide desperately needed fresh water to the region. He criticized alternatives to the Red-Dead plan as "moronic," but allowed that there was no time frame for the completion of the project, or even for the beginning of construction. A National Infrastructure Ministry spokesman who deals solely with the project admitted that a World Bank feasibility study would begin in September at the earliest, and take at least two years to complete. "The only thing there is right now," said the Peres spokesman, "is the effort of Peres to gather a team to deal with the issue." IN THE MEANTIME, the government is not considering any option that includes reviving the Dead Sea from the north. "There has been no study undertaken that looks at the viability of bringing some of the water of the Jordan River back to the Dead Sea," says Gidon Bromberg, head of the Israel office of Friends of the Earth-Middle East, who would like to see an additional 650 million cubic meters per year released to the sea. To do that, however, would be a decisive blow to farmers in the Jordan Valley and the Galilee. To Bromberg, that's not necessarily a bad thing. "We should be looking at the region's current practice of utilizing water resources," he says, "because, frankly, they're unsustainable. In Israel, 30% of fresh water and 50% of total water resources go to agriculture, yet the contribution to GDP is a mere 2%. From a national economy perspective, it's hard to justify so much water going to this, says Bromberg. "In Jordan," Bromberg continues, "the situation is worse: 75% of their fresh water goes to agriculture, and its contribution to GDP is only 5%-6%. "We have done a study with Haifa University that looks at agriculture versus tourism, and that study concludes very strongly that the tourism potential of a healthy Jordan River and a healthy Dead Sea far exceeds the economic potential of agriculture." Adds Adar: "We have to decide what's more important: tourism and the chemical industry, or agriculture? It very well may be that, economically and ecologically, it makes more sense to release more water into the Jordan River and the Dead Sea." A major consideration is the possibility of desalination - which was unthinkable years ago but may now be cheap enough to allow for an end to pumping from the Kinneret. "Don't forget," says Adar, "that, when you pump water from the Kinneret, you are pumping it from more than 200 meters below sea level, then pushing it up the heights of the Galilee and then down throughout the coastal plain. This takes a lot of energy. When the national water carrier was constructed, desalination was prohibitively expensive. But now, it may be that the cost of desalination is low enough to make it a viable alternative." Indeed, the cost of reverse osmosis desalination has dropped to about half of what it was only a few years ago, thanks to advances in the process. Proof is already here in the desalination plant that opened in Ashkelon last year. The world's largest and most advanced reverse osmosis plant, it desalinates more than 100 million cubic meters of water per year, at an investment of $220 million. Constructing enough plants to equal the output of the Red-Dead canal project would cost half the price, or less. Of course, a purely Israeli solution to the problem would discount the needs of Jordan and halt a project that very well could strengthen peace efforts in the Middle East. As Adar says, "Every time you suggest one thing, someone else will come along and say, 'Yes, but...'" Bromberg and Friends of the Earth suggest an immediate initiative to put the Dead Sea at the forefront of both Israel's and Jordan's agendas. "We are calling on the governments to have the Dead Sea registered as a world heritage site because world heritage status means there has to be an integrated master plan for the Dead Sea, and an authority in place to manage such a plan. Part of the problem is that there isn't one right now. "There is a Rhein River Commission, a Danube Commission, a Great Lakes Commission," he says. "Every major shared body of water has to have management in place to ensure that a fair balance is struck. "Israel and Jordan have had a peace treaty in place for over 10 years," says Bromberg. "So it's about time that the two sides rehabilitate the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. There has to be a solution for the future." n