The Dying of the Dead Sea

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

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Friends of the Earth is also taking its message to the farmers themselves—encouraging them to plant crops that use less water and spelling out the advantages of renewed tourism in the area. “Israeli agriculture is incredibly mismanaged,” Bromberg says as we pass banana plantations along the Jordan River bank. “The farmers here could be planting olives, flowers and other crops like dates that don’t require fresh water. They could be using treated sewage water and allow fresh water to flow back into the Jordan River.” Friends of the Earth cites a HaifaUniversity study that argues that current uses of the Jordan River make no sense. “The potential tourism-dollar return of a healthy river and a healthy Dead Sea outweighs the little return that agriculture offers,” says Bromberg.

To see the possibilities of tourism for myself, I visit the Gesher kibbutz, which straddles the ancient trade route from the port of Akko and Jerusalem to Damascus and Baghdad. The Romans, Ottomans and British all built bridges over the Jordan at this spot; the spans remained intact until May 1948, when defending guerrillas blew them up partially to prevent 3,000 Iraqi troops from invading the newly declared state of Israel. Last year, the kibbutz put a train car on one of the bridges and restored some buildings in the area, including a 13th-century khan, or guesthouse, and an Ottoman-era customhouse, to lure tourists to the site.

But it remains a hard sell. The border zone, where the kibbutz is located, is one of the tensest places in the world—bristling with watchtowers, machine-gun nests and barbed wire. As we head down to the riverbank, Nirit Bagron, my tour guide from the kibbutz, halts before a military security fence covered with sensors that can detect would-be terrorist infiltrators from Jordan. Bagron, who brings tourists here by special arrangement with the Israeli Defense Forces, is quickly checked by Israeli troops and permitted to pass, as am I. As we approach the river, she points out three observation posts perched atop the rugged hills lining the Jordanian side. “They’re watching us,” she tells me. “We’ve never talked to them, but sometimes, on a very hot day, we see the Jordanian soldiers go down there to fish and even to swim.”

The Jordan River, its mix of untreated sewage and saline runoff flowing below us, courses through a black basalt canyon and under the ancient Roman bridge. Bagron looks down and grimaces. “I wouldn’t dive in there, not even on a hot day,” she tells me. “It’s very bad, bad water.”

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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