The Dying of the Dead Sea

The ancient salt sea is the site of a looming environmental catastrophe

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Gidon bromberg is nervous. On a sweltering August afternoon, the Israeli environmental activist leads me along the shore of the Dead Sea, watching every step we take. Towering sandstone mesas loom above our heads; the saline lake extends like a shimmering sheet of turquoise toward the hazy mountains of Jordan. The temperature is pushing 110 degrees, the sun beats down on my neck, and my feet crunch pieces of petrified driftwood and calcium deposits—wrinkled white sheets that bear a disturbing resemblance to human rib cages. Bromberg stops abruptly beside a gaping crater, more than 60 feet deep, and a sign that reads DANGER: OPEN PITS. “Better not walk any farther,” he warns. “The ground could swallow us whole.”

Up and down the Dead Sea, on the Jordanian and Israeli coasts, the shoreline is pockmarked by these sinkholes—testifying to an environmental catastrophe. The Dead Sea is shrinking, and as it recedes, the fresh water aquifers along the perimeter of the lake are receding along with it. As this fresh water diffuses into salt deposits beneath the surface of the shoreline, the water slowly dissolves the deposits until the earth above collapses without warning. More than 1,000 sinkholes have appeared in the past 15 years. In that time, sinkholes have swallowed a portion of road, date-palm fields and several buildings on the sea’s northwest coast. Environmental experts believe that hotels along the shore are also in danger. “The good news is that if you get swallowed by a sinkhole, they name it after you,” Bromberg deadpans.

As we trudge back along the shore, Bromberg points out the Ein Gedi Spa, built along the waterline about 20 years ago. Today the resort sits marooned on a spit of wasteland almost a mile from the water; a trolley carries guests to and from the beach along a track that must be extended every year. Driving a few miles south, past the ancient Jewish fortress of Masada, we come upon Ein Bokek, a garish strip of high-rise hotels that calls to mind Atlantic City, New Jersey. Few tourists arriving at Ein Bokek are aware of the resort’s not so little secret: the shallow water in front of the hotels isn’t the Dead Sea, which dried up here in the 1980s. It is a reservoir maintained by Dead Sea Works, an Israeli company that pumps water from the northern to the southern part of the lake, where it is evaporated to extract minerals such as potash and bromide—a process hastening the sea’s demise. “It’s all artificial,” says Bromberg. “But you’re not going to hear that from the hotel management.”

Bromberg was born and raised in Israel, graduated from AmericanUniversity’s law school in Washington, D.C., and returned to Israel 17 years ago. Now he directs Friends of the Earth Middle East, the most active of several environmental groups working to galvanize concern for the dying sea. With a staff of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, and with offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem and Amman, Friends of the Earth has become a model of regional cooperation at a time when most such ventures have all but disappeared.

During the past several years, Friends of the Earth has sponsored exhibitions of Dead Sea photographs and conducted tours for journalists and government officials. The organization has lobbied Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority to nominate the Dead Sea as a United Nations World Heritage site—a designation that would mandate creation of an environmental protection plan and restrict development. The Friends have also pressured the region’s governments to reform what they call “shortsighted” water policies that they say have been sucking dry the Dead Sea—and the rivers and streams that feed it—for decades.

The work has been difficult—and at times dangerous. During the most recent wave of Palestinian uprisings, beginning five years ago, simply bringing together staffers from Jordan, the Palestinian territories and Israel turned into a logistical nightmare. Islamic militants have opposed such joint ventures, accusing Arab staffers of acting as “collaborators” with Israel. Four years ago, during an intense period of Israeli-Palestinian violence, gunmen fired on Friends of the Earth’s Munqeth Mehyar as he drove away from his Jordanian office in downtown Amman. (He escaped without injury.) “We thought about closing the Amman office after that incident, but the staffers here said no way,” Mehyar said. “They believed that would be giving in to terror.” Instead, Mehyar and his colleagues received protection from Jordanian police and intelligence. The assailants were eventually captured.

Created by the same shift of tectonic plates that formed the Syrian-African Rift Valley several million years ago, the Dead Sea owes its precarious state to both human and geological factors. Originally part of an ancient, much larger lake that extended to the Sea of Galilee, its outlet to the sea evaporated some 18,000 years ago, leaving a salty residue in a desert basin at the lowest point on earth—1,300 feet below sea level. Since then, this body of water, known as the Dead Sea since Greco-Roman times, has maintained its equilibrium through a fragile natural cycle: it gets fresh water from rivers and streams from the mountains that surround it and loses it by evaporation. The evaporation process, combined with its rich salt deposits, account for its extraordinary—up to 33 percent—salinity (compared with the up to 27 percent salinity of Utah’s Great Salt Lake). Until the 1950s, the flow of fresh water equaled the rate of evaporation, and Dead Sea water levels held steady. Then in the 1960s, Israel built an enormous pumping station on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, diverting water from the upper Jordan, the Dead Sea’s prime source, into a pipeline system that supplies water throughout the country. To make matters worse, in the 1970s Jordan and Syria began diverting the Yarmouk, the lower Jordan River’s main tributary.

Since then, the Dead Sea has declined dramatically. It needs an infusion of 160 billion gallons of water annually to maintain its current size; it gets barely 10 percent of that. Some 50 miles long in 1950, the sea is about 30 miles long today. Water levels are falling at an average rate of three feet per year. According to a recent Israeli government study, the rate of evaporation will slow and the Dead Sea will reach equilibrium again in a few decades—but not before losing another third of its present volume.

Such a scenario represents an immeasurable loss. Tourists have flocked here for generations to float in the brine, soak in mineral and mud baths and take in the dramatic panorama of Israel’s JudeanDesert and Jordan’s MoabMountains. Sufferers from chronic skin diseases, such as psoriasis and eczema, routinely make pilgrimages, attracted by the bone-dry climate, oxygen-rich atmosphere and—some claim—the sea’s miraculous healing properties.

A refuge over the millennia for messiahs, martyrs and zealots, the Dead Sea region abounds with sites sacred to Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Some Muslims believe that Moses, whom they regard as a prophet, lies buried in a hilltop mosque just off the main road from Jerusalem. Jesus Christ was said to have been baptized in the Jordan River after traveling down to the Dead Sea from Galilee. At the fortress of Masada, nearly 1,000 Israelites committed suicide en masse in A.D. 73 rather than surrender to the Romans. Fifth-century ascetics from Asia Minor retreated to the region’s cliffside caves and built monasteries such as Mar Saba, the oldest continuously inhabited one in the world. In 1947, Bedouin shepherds, searching for a stray goat in the Judean Desert, entered a cave at Qumran near the north shore of the lake and discovered clay jars containing 2,000-year-old scripture written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic—the Dead Sea scrolls.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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