You are hereMiddle East: Dead Sea is Being Gradually Sucked Dry

Middle East: Dead Sea is Being Gradually Sucked Dry


By verda - Posted on 13 November 2006

CAROLYNNE WHEELER - Globe and Mail

EIN GEDI, ISRAEL — The sign on Route 90 still points to a campground, but what remains is more like a battleground: uprooted, leafless trees; deep, cratered earth; and a single lopsided building, half-buried in sticky soil.

The once picturesque picnic spot on the shores of the Dead Sea has fallen victim to what environmentalists say are the consequences of decades of sucking fresh water away from the lowest point on Earth. The Dead Sea, biblical site of Sodom and Gomorrah and modern source of legendary curative health treatments, is dying. An estimated 90 per cent of its freshwater tributary, the Jordan River, has been diverted for drinking, industry and to irrigate the banana and date plantations and greenhouse operations found along the Jordan Valley. And now the Dead Sea, which has already fallen to 418 metres today from 395 metres below sea level 50 years ago -- is dropping as much as one metre a year, a devastating pace in the environmental world.

The damage is immediately visible even to the untrained eye: At the Ein Gedi nature reserve, a pipe collects the remaining trickle of fresh water coming from a waterfall and drains it away to a mineral-water bottling plant. Across the road at a popular spa, beach facilities have been moved several hundred metres away from the main building as the water recedes; a truck-drawn trolley now brings tourists down to the water every 15 minutes to save them the long, hot walk.

Enormous sinkholes of the type that swallowed the campground are spreading, as salt blocks left behind by the receding water are dissolved by fresh groundwater. Parts of the Israeli highway, which runs the length of the Dead Sea and beyond starting from the top in the West Bank, are now at risk of caving in. On the Jordanian side, sinkholes are reported to have swallowed large chunks of farmland, road, construction projects and even donkeys and cows.

 
"The problem is there's no comprehensive management plan in place. Everyone is just taking as much [water] as they can without enough thought to the consequences," said Mira Edelstein, of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmental organization with members in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories that is lobbying to restore the flow of the Jordan River in an effort to revive the Dead Sea coastline, and wants the Dead Sea declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. "Many historic and cultural and heritage sites are in the Jordan Valley and around the Dead Sea [and] we are going to see their downfall instead of conserving them."

There is a plan to save the Dead Sea, but like everything else in the Mideast, it is a tricky negotiation among three governments, subject to much bureaucracy and long delays. Israeli vice-premier Shimon Peres is championing a "Peace Valley" project that includes a 200-kilometre canal to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to replenish it.

Along the way, the project would include desalination plants to increase the supply of fresh water in this desert region, as well as tourist facilities, a free-trade zone and even a new joint airport at the southern tip where Israel and Jordan meet.

"It's a first, very significant step made by the government of Israel," said Yoram Dori, a spokesman for Mr. Peres. The project, originally promoted by Jordan, now has formal support from authorities in the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanian government as well as Israeli representatives, and Mr. Peres plans to bring his proposal before the Israeli cabinet before the end of the month.

But, 12 years after the Israel-Jordan peace treaty that makes mention of the Dead Sea and Jordan River, and four years after the first serious discussions to build the conduit, the project has gone no farther than clearance for a World Bank study. And environmentalists and much of Israel's scientific community who oppose the plan say they hope it stops there.

They fear that pumping sea water along with the brine from desalination plants into the Dead Sea will leave striations in the water, forever changing its spectacular blue colour and introducing foreign algae and minerals, and leaving salt sediment on the shores since regular sea water has only 40 grams of salt per kilogram of water, compared with 350 grams in the Dead Sea. They also worry that leakage from the 200-kilometre pipeline could contaminate groundwater with salt, and damage the environment around it.

"I cannot think of a worse idea," said Dan Zaslavsky, a former Israeli water commissioner and professor specializing in water and soil engineering at the University of Haifa. He is also chairman of Israel's National Commission for Research and Development. He advocates restoring the flow of the Jordan River by cutting back the water drawn from it, and replacing it with desalinated water from the Mediterranean.

"This is unbelievable. Unbelievable, so idiotic it is. . . . There are several alternatives which are so obviously better."

Cost estimates for the project have ranged up to $4-billion (U.S.) and studies conducted in the 1980s suggested it would take 10 years to build such a conduit.

Still, with the Dead Sea falling faster each year, there is acknowledgment that something must be done, and quickly.

"We don't see any other solution for the problem of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is a problem of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians, and we must deal with it," Mr. Dori said. "We are doing everything needed to advance the implementation of the project."

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