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The Dead Sea: Deader than ever and getting more so

There is dead and there is dying. The Dead Sea manages both. It's dead because the water in it contains way, way too much salt — eight times as much as the oceans — for virtually any living thing to survive. With a shoreline at the lowest land point on the globe — 1,388 ft. (423 m) below sea level — and no outlet, millennia of evaporation has left the seabed so caked with minerals the freshwater that flows in turns immediately lethal. 

The dried-out center of the hypersaline lake [Credit: David Silverman/Getty Images]
Not that much freshwater flows in these days. That's why the sea is dying, or drying up, at the rate of more than 3 vertical feet (1 m) per year — which on the gradual slope of the western shore can translate into 65 ft. (20 m) of exposed seabed. Most of the damage has been done in the last half-century, when almost all the water that once reached the Dead Sea was diverted to farms and taps. The Jordan River, so mighty in the Bible, is today a puny creek that draws snarls from disappointed tourists. "Everything changed when we started diverting water from the Sea of Galilee," says Mira Edelstein of Friends of the Earth Middle East. "The Jordan River used to bring 1.3 billion cu. ft. [37 million cu m] of water a year. Today it's 50 million. That's 2% of what it was." 

At the same time, a unique and thirsty industry has been taking water from the sea, accelerating its decline. At the southern tip of the sea, the sprawling Dead Sea Works leaches huge quantities of the fertilizer potash from the seawater by funneling water through a canal into vast evaporation ponds in what once was the sea's southern basin. The Israeli company puts some of the water back, but combined with a similar operation on the Jordanian side, the result is a net loss for an already shrinking lake. "It's the combined issue of the Jordan River not flowing in anymore and industry drawing out water from the south," Edelstein says. "No wonder the Dead Sea is dying."

It's a spectacular death. Huge sinkholes are opening up, the earth's crust collapsing as freshwater springs follow receding seashore downhill. When the freshwater encounters massive subterranean boulders made of salt, it dissolves them, leaving the crust to collapse under its own weight, or, say, the weight of the woman who dropped 25 ft. (8 m) into the first one to open at the Ein Gedi campground in 1998. The same process is killing sumptuous oases. Three gardens fed by springs are drying as the water heads downslope, the plants unable to follow because the former lake bed is lethally saturated with salt. "Huge oases are disappearing," says Ariel Kedem, an instructor at the field school in Ein Gedi, Israel. 

What to do? One especially extravagant option: pipe in water from the Red Sea, 118 miles (190 km) to the south. The Red-to-Dead canal would cost at least $17 billion and risk throwing the ecology of the Dead Sea wildly out of balance, not least because the Red Sea is a piece of the Indian Ocean, while what's been flowing into the Dead Sea for millennia is freshwater. Still, the plan has a fan in the Kingdom of Jordan, which would build a desalination plant on the canal and thereby supply its capital region with badly needed (and hugely expensive) drinking water. 

Among those leery of this plan is Dead Sea Works, which has based a $20 billion business (the market cap of owner Israel Chemicals) on the current ecology. "We are afraid the mixture of waters will create something we don't want to see," says Noam Goldstein, vice president for infrastructure. 

Potash is usually mined, but at the Dead Sea it is gathered by moving water from one evaporation pond to the next. In the first, the salt falls away, collecting on the bottom. In the next pond what gathers are crystals of carnelite, which are 25% potassium chloride. That's dredged and piped to a nearby factory that looks like something from a fanciful children's book as bulldozers move like toys atop a massive snow white mound of potash. The viewing point off Route 90 is almost a better show than nearby Mount Sodom, the massive, sinister-looking salt mountain with the outcropping known as Lot's wife. 

"The real canal to the Dead Sea is the Jordan River," says Edelstein, of Friends of the Earth. "Not everywhere in the world do you have the Jordan River — which we've killed — a river that's holy to half of humanity." Reviving the Jordan, however, would require cooperation from all the countries currently draining it, including two technically at war, Israel and Syria. Such cooperation is also a precondition to the Dead Sea becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation that seems reasonable enough given its current position as a finalist to be named one of the Seven Wonders of Nature. 

"The only thing that can really help is if the Dead Sea won the Seven Wonders," says Kedem, who sees tourism as the best protector of the place. Just now, though, tourism itself is in jeopardy, at least Israeli tourism. Jordan's plush resorts remain unthreatened, but every hotel on the western side was built not on the sea itself but on the shallow evaporation ponds to the south. This was a dubious choice in more ways than one. Guests peer from beach chairs at berms and earthworks. And the ponds are slowly filling up with salt — which means their water levels are actually rising. By 2030, six hotels will be flooded unless Dead Sea Works agrees to dredge the salt. It says it will, but is negotiating with the Israeli government and hotels over who should foot the $1.5 billion bill (about a year's profit). 

It's a peculiar twist, given that receding water is the area's paramount problem. Even so, Dead Sea Works wants to dig yet another massive evaporation pond, filled with more water pumped from the actual Dead Sea, further accelerating its demise. Goldstein points out two other factors: the new pond would let visitors to the nearby mountaintop fortress of Masada look down on water again. And, not least: "We would be more profitable." 

Author: Karl Vick | Source: Time Magazine [July 20, 2011]

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1 comment :

  1. Try not to shave anything for a day or so before dipping in the dead sea The water is very salty and you WILL feel the burn! The same goes for skin scrapes and cuts. While salt water can actually speed up healing, the burning sensation is not a treat.


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