Saving the Dead Sea

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The Dead Sea is one of Israel's greatest national treasures. Famous for its crystal clear splendor, natural healing qualities, and staggering buoyancy, the lowest body of water in the world has always enjoyed a high profile. But, as the Dead Sea continues to recede and sink even lower into the dried and cracked ground around it year after year, many fear it is only a matter of time before it dries up completely.

The Dead Sea's water level has always experienced fluctuations, the sea tends to rise and fall by its own devices. But, over the past few decades, the sea has seemed to forget around the "rising” part of the equation. The trend has only shown a downward trajectory with the Dead Sea losing an entire meter ever year since the late '90s. One look and it's easy to see the impact the lowering water level has had on the nearby surroundings. Cafes and restaurants that only 30 years ago had prime beach front locations now overlook football fields worth of barren sand. Highways once famed for their picturesque view of verdant greenery and crystal clear waters now wind their way through dusty routes that wouldn't be out of place in a Mad Max film.

Worst of all, the draining valley is resulting in colossal sinkholes in the area. These gigantic pits underneath the ground not only mar the once beautiful area with craters, they pose a serious safety risk. Over the past four years, sinkholes have become a legitimate disruption, causing damage to roadways and businesses, closing down everything from beaches to bridges. The kibbutz of Ein Gedi found themselves cut off and completely isolated for two whole days after a sinkhole swallowed the roadway access to the area, hammering home the impact sinkholes can have on local communities. And sadly, even the most optimistic of outlooks expects the situation to get worse instead of better.

What is draining the sea?

The factors contributing to the shrinking sea are multiple and complex. Some are understandable, others more difficult to justify. 

One of the major drains is simply the demands of the population in the area. One of the main sources of water for the Dead Sea is the Jordan river. The mighty river used to pour in and replenish the Dead Sea with over a billion cubic meters of water a year. But since the 1960's, hundreds of millions those cubic meters of water have been diverted, leaving only a paltry fifth of the old flow rate to drip feed back into the famous sea. These billions of gallons are used to supply drinking and farming water for communities all along the Jordan. The water is necessary for people in the area to survive, but as irrigation for farmlands spreads and the population climbs, less and less of it is left for the Dead Sea.

Then there is industry. Several large companies regularly pump water from the Dead Sea, encouraged by the fact they don't have to pay for it. The (controversial) policy is designed to spur economic activity in the area. In the 1970s, the lake was split in two in an effort to manage the competing concerns of tourism and industry. Companies pump from the northern pool while attempting to preserve the southern pool. But of course, all of this water is fed from the same sources and taking from one naturally means there is less for the other. The situation has become so dire that the pumps in the northern area often find themselves sucking air in the summer months. So far, the solutions posed by these companies hasn't been to stop pumping or find another management system, but to move the pumps further in. It is only a matter of time before the southern pool is pumped directly and all pretense of preservation is abandoned.

Aside from these reasons though, there are also the looming overall effects of climate change impacting the region. Even if the Knesset were to pass legislation limiting pumping in the area, that alone would not be enough to save the Dead Sea. So what can be done?

Saving the sea

There are no easy answers when it comes to saving the Dead Sea. Indeed, looking for a magic bullet that will solve the issue is likely a waste of time, instead it will take a number of measures.

Among these are efforts to source alternative water sources other than the Jordan for the millions that live in the area. Every gallon of water effectively recycled or obtained from another source is a gallon that can return to the sea. Thankfully, Israel leads the world in water purification and efficiency technology, and with breakthroughs happening each year, there is some hope the demands on the Jordan can be alleviated, at least by some amount. 

Regulation and the idea of charging companies for the water they consume is a hot button issue in the Knesset. While nobody wants to see the Dead Sea dry up, nobody wants to see such an important economic pillar compromised either. The money generated by these industries is considerable, and if regulation inhibited their ability to operate, the results could be devastating for families depending on income related to those industries.

Of course, this also competes with the needs of the tourism industry. As the sea has dried up, so has tourist interest. Beaches sit abandoned, and hotels and restaurants built on once prime real estate purchased with the intention of decades of operation in mind now struggle to fill their beds and seats. There is a strong argument that the money lost in tourism outweighs that which would be lost if industry was more tightly regulated in the area. 

Most promising however is the ambitious Red Sea–Dead Sea Conveyance. This pipeline project has been planned and discussed for years now and has recently finally moved into the beginning phases of actualization. The pipeline will take water from the Red Sea and other sources and distribute it to Jordan, Israel, and Palestinian territories while also bringing sea water to replenish the Dead Sea. As the project effects multiple states in the area, each with competing interests, progress hasn't always been smooth (with different parties threatening to pull out at different times throughout the process). But, if the neighbors can work out their disagreements, the pipeline will go a long way to salvaging the Dead Sea and restoring it to a more sustainable water level.

But even this ambitious project won't solve the issue on its own. The Dead Sea is one part of a broader system, one connected to the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, and the climate at large. Solving the Dead Sea's shrinking shores will require multiple states working together to take on all of these issues. We can only hope they'll find away before the Dead Sea is nothing but a memory.

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