The Dying of the Dead Sea

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

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And despite its name, the Dead Sea helps support one of the world’s most complex and vibrant ecosystems. Fed by fresh water springs and aquifers, a half-dozen oases along the shore harbor scores of indigenous species of plants, fish and mammals, including ibex and leopards. About 500 million birds representing at least 300 species, including storks, pelicans, lesser spotted eagles, lesser kestrels and honey buzzards, take refuge here during a biannual great migration from Africa to Europe and back again. Ein Feshka, a lush expanse of tamarisk, papyrus, oleander and pools of crystal water, was used by the late king Hussein of Jordan as a private playground in the 1950s and early ’60s. But as the Dead Sea recedes, the springs that feed the oases are moving along with it; many experts believe that Ein Feshka and other oases could wither away within five years.

In april 1848, when Palestine was a desolate outpost of the Ottoman Empire, American adventurer Lt. William Francis Lynch embarked on a U.S. Navy expedition to chart the course of the Jordan River to the Dead Sea. Lynch and his party of scientists and topographers set off in three vessels from the Sea of Galilee and quickly found themselves swept up in a frothing torrent. The river was hundreds of feet wide in some places, interrupted by “frequent and most fearful rapids,” Lynch wrote. “Placing our sole trust in Providence [we] plunged with headlong velocity down appalling descents.” They reached the Dead Sea after seven grueling days, losing one boat, which had been battered to pieces on the rocks.

The story of the Jordan River’s decline begins at the very place where Lynch launched his boats in what is no longer a roaring torrent but a pond of sluggish green water. In 1953, Israel constructed a dam, the Degania Gate, a few hundred feet south of this spot, to collect water from the Sea of Galilee for the National Water Carrier project. The dam reduced the Jordan’s flow to a trickle.

About five miles south of the dam, Bromberg and I enter the Degania kibbutz, one of Israel’s oldest kibbutzim, or agricultural cooperatives, founded in 1909. We bounce along a rutted dirt track through corn, tomato and avocado fields, following two giant metal pipes that siphon off some of the Jordan’s water for an extensive irrigation system. Dozens of other collective farms in the area also dip into the river. After a few minutes we arrive at a small earthen dam, where the Jordan comes to a pitiful end. On one side lies a stagnant pool covered by algae. Arusted rowboat is submerged beneath the surface. On the other side of the dam, liquid gushes from two pipes and flows down the riverbed. One flow consists of raw sewage from kibbutzim in the area. The other is saline water from springs flowing into the Sea of Galilee mixed with partially treated sewage from Tiberias, captured and removed to decrease the lake’s salinity. The Jordan’s once annual flow of 343 billion gallons of fresh water has now been replaced by 40 billion gallons or so of mostly sewage and saline water. Irrigation “is one of the main reasons that the Dead Sea is dying,” Bromberg tells me.

Another reason, according to environmentalists and various government officials, is a water policy on the part of Israel, Jordan and Syria that encourages unrestricted agricultural use. From the first years of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, for example, when collective farming transformed much of it into fertile vineyards and vegetable fields, both Labor and Likud governments have bestowed generous water subsidies on the nation’s farmers. The results have been disastrous: today, agriculture accounts for just 3 percent of Israel’s gross national product and uses up to half of its fresh water. Recently, Uri Sagie, chairman of Israel’s national water company, told a conference of Israeli farmers that a growing and irreversible gap between production and consumption looms. “The water sources are being depleted without the deficit being restored,” he warned. Jordan lavishes similar water subsidies on its farmers with similar consequences: the kingdom takes about 71 billion gallons of water a year from the Yarmouk River and channels it into the King Abdullah Canal, constructed by USAID in the 1970s to provide irrigation for the JordanValley; Syria takes out another 55 billion gallons. The result is near-total depletion of the lower Jordan’s main source of water.

Several days later on another outing with Bromberg,we are hiking through the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, on a ridge 600 feet above the Dead Sea. Astream of fresh water, originating in an underground spring deep in the JudeanDesert, rushes through a steep canyon dense with tamarisk, pine, birch and oleander. We ascend to the top of the canyon, where a cascade tumbles down sandstone cliffs into a cool, clear pool.

Yet not a single drop of that spring water—some 114 million gallons a year—reaches the Dead Sea. Just outside the nature reserve, the Ein Gedi kibbutz takes it, bottling some for a popular brand of mineral water and using the rest to irrigate the kibbutz grounds and botanical gardens, a sea of green amid the desert’s desolation. To Bromberg and other environmentalists, kibbutz policy is rank hypocrisy. “The people of the Ein Gedi kibbutz are the first to complain about sinkholes along the shore,” Bromberg says. “But they don’t blame themselves for contributing to the problem.”

Ein Gedi’s residents deny any responsibility for the Dead Sea’s plight—and lash out both at green groups such as Friends of the Earth and at the Israeli Knesset (Parliament), which recently sought to crack down on the kibbutz’s water usage. “It’s garbage what they’re saying. If you take all water from Ein Gedi’s spring, it’s a small drop in the Dead Sea,” Merav Ayalon, Ein Gedi’s spokesperson, told me. “The problem isn’t us. It’s the Israeli government.” Ayalon blames the Water Commission and the Agriculture Ministry for a shortsighted policy that, she says, has wrecked the local economy. “Our date palms are dying because of the sinkholes,” she says. “Our farmers can’t work [in some groves] because it’s gotten too dangerous. People have come close to being killed. We almost had to close the kibbutz, and the government does nothing. It has no policy to save the Dead Sea.”

So what is the answer? Environmental activists say that one solution is to eliminate the water subsidies altogether. “Unless water is priced at its real costs,” says Ra’ed Daoud, managing director of ECO Consult, a water-use consulting firm, “there’s no way you’re going to reduce agriculture.” But because the region’s agricultural lobby is strong and the environmental movement weak, says Daoud, there has been insufficient leverage for change. Israel’s water commissioner, Shimon Tal, recently spoke publicly about the need to reduce some subsidies, but he admitted that it would be a long and difficult battle. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who grows vegetables on his farm in the NegevDesert, likes the subsidies. “We desperately need to change the situation, but the agriculture lobby won’t even talk about it,” says Tamar Keinan, a former Israeli Water Commission official turned project manager for Friends of the Earth.

Another approach is to encourage alternate water sources. Friends of the Earth Middle East is part of a coalition of 21 environmental groups that has developed proposals to conserve household water use (about 133 billion gallons a year, as much as that used in agriculture) and to regulate the amount that can be taken out of Israel’s springs. In addition, the Israeli government is promoting the building of wastewater treatment plants and desalination facilities; the first large one on the Mediterranean was completed this past August. Over the next five years, the government says, these facilities will provide as much as 106 billion gallons of fresh water annually for agricultural and domestic consumption.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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