Dead on Arrival

Wednesday, 15 Feb 2006

Dead Sea, Israel

The public beach on the Dead Sea is filled with gleeful voices: Russian, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish, heavily accented English, German, and Armenian. Chris Bowser, a graduate student from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., laughs as he paddles on his back, his feet in the air, his head, shoulders, and half his chest well above the surface.

Frolickers like us can still walk to the public beach, but the walk has gotten longer every year. And reaching the fancy beach at the Ein Gedi Spa now requires a mile tram ride. The snake-like road from spa to beach must be extended annually in order to reach the edge of the Dead — a shrinking body of water that has lost about one-third of its surface area over time.

Dead Sea salt.

Photos: Eric Pallant.

The famed sea is actually a terminal lake. Water flows into this, the lowest point on the earth’s surface, from the River Jordan. Its only way out is evaporation. But the last time any fresh water from the Jordan reached this point was in 2005.

As Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, puts it, the one-meter-per-year drop in the level of the lake is the best example of international cooperation in the Middle East: “Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan have all worked together to drain it.”

The Jordan River flows through the Sea of Galilee on its way to the Dead Sea in a nearly straight line from north to south, along the border between Jordan and Israel. North of the Galilee, its tributaries in Syria and Lebanon are dammed. Farther downstream, it is piped to farms in southern Israel. Water is extracted from the Sea of Galilee to supply Israel and Jordan. By the time the river exits the Sea of Galilee to continue south, it consists of brackish water and sewage.

To compound matters, an enormous industrial complex at the southern end of the Dead Sea — known as the Arab Potash Company in Jordan and the Dead Sea Works in Israel — has established evaporation ponds to extract commercially important salts. The factories produce magnesium, bromide, potash, and phosphorus fertilizers for export. Through evaporation, the two companies are responsible for approximately 30 percent of the Dead Sea’s demise.

In the last decade, 800 sinkholes have opened on the Israeli side of the lake. The holes have absorbed highways, bridges, and date orchards. When rainwater or fresh springwater washes away salts in the soil, craters 30 feet deep and wide enough to swallow a bus open without warning.

Sinkholes forming on the former lake bottom.

Eduard Interweis, a German ecologist at the Institute for International and European Policy, said it best — while standing next to a sinkhole the size of a condo. “How can I make it clear to my mother? She goes to the store to buy peppers. They come from Israel. Those peppers contain water that once flowed into the Dead Sea and fertilizers manufactured by the Dead Sea Works. How do I explain to her that the salad she prepares for me is killing the Dead Sea?”

The water exported in those vegetables could have been used to support people in Jordan, foster agricultural development in Palestine, preserve endangered riparian species in the Jordan River Valley, or prevent the Dead Sea from drying up.

The Dead Sea won’t disappear. Springs on its floor supply some water that can’t be tapped by surrounding countries. Furthermore, as the lake shrinks, salt concentrations will get so high the rate of evaporation will eventually decline. Nevertheless, in just a few decades, one of the world’s most unique resources — a lake known for millennia for its ability to buoy bodies and spirits — will become a tiny, painfully salty, human-made puddle.