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A Dwindling, Dying Dead Sea: A Call for Restorative Action

In July 2019, seven Columbia University graduate students traveled to Jordan and Israel to conduct fieldwork and explore the complex issues surrounding cooperation on environmental issues and managing shared natural resources. The course is a collaboration between Columbia University and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. This is one in a series of posts about the trip.

By Mehul Dalal

One of the most memorable moments and highlights of traveling to Israel, Jordan, and Palestine is visiting the lowest point on Earth’s continents: the Dead Sea. It is an experience like no other taking a dip in its hypersaline waters that allow one to float effortlessly; even when I tried to sink down, it seemed impossible to do so. The sea and the unique landscapes around it had an unearthly sensation and aura. The turquoise waters and salty white crystalline shores shone under clear skies and a blistering sun, the air a balmy 105-plus degrees Fahrenheit, and a light haze surrounded the sandstone mountains at a distance.

Dead Sea, Jordan. Photo: Mehul Dalal

The locals we met during site visits repeatedly spoke of the Dead Sea’s importance to the region; it provides economic sustenance to the area as a major tourist attraction and is home to a local potash industry. Although it cannot support larger life forms such as fish and amphibians, bacteria thrive in its waters and, despite its name, the sea also supports a vibrant ecosystem. The freshwater springs and aquifers that feed into the Dead Sea harbor endemic species of plants and mammals including ibex and leopards. Hundreds of species of birds, including storks, pelicans, lesser spotted eagles, lesser kestrels, and honey buzzards migrate through the area on their trips between Africa and Europe.

The unfortunate truth about this wonder of the world is that it is dying, shrinking in depth by about one meter per year, and as it recedes, so do its oases, tourism, and industry. The Dead Sea’s situation is erring on environmental catastrophe.

Our class could readily see where waters once stood. The professor of our course pointed out that where we were swimming had receded back from where previous class years had gone into the water. Resorts sit isolated from the water, requiring shuttles to transport guests to and from the beach, a distance that extends as years go by. While driving to the sea, along its banks we saw the thousands of sinkholes the locals had described as swallowing palm fields, roads, and buildings alike; the hotels and resorts along the shore are under threat of earth collapsing without warning. An expert on environmental planning in Israel from the Ministry of Environmental Defense explained that as the sea drops, the groundwater from the adjacent aquifers flows in to replace the retreating seawater. The incoming freshwater comes in contact with the layers of rocky salts, dissolving them and creating underground voids which lead to the ground collapsing and forming sinkholes, which result in irreparable damage to nature, infrastructure, and tourism.

The main factors behind the retreat are man-made, including the diversion of waters from the Jordan River and its tributaries, which feed into the Dead Sea, and mineral extraction industries at the southern portion of the sea. The Israeli Dead Sea Works and Jordanian Arab Potash Company (which we took a tour of) have turned the southern part of the Dead Sea into solar evaporation ponds to capture water and extract potash and other minerals for fertilizers.

Wet salt harvester in Dead Sea evaporation pond, Arab Potash Company. Photo: Anna Shulman

The companies see the product of their operations as supporting the global agricultural industry and helping to feed large and growing populations of the world. They are proud to play a leading role in the world’s food supply. The problem is that around 40 percent of the Dead Sea’s depletion is a result of these companies’ activities.

The other major culprit is the series of historic regional conflicts fought for control over the scarce water resources in the Jordan River Basin. They have led to unhindered and uncoordinated damming and diversion of the sea’s upstream source waters by Israel, Jordan, and Syria. The 1948 Arab-Israeli War led to the 1949 Armistice Agreements, where the issue of water sharing from the Jordan-Yarmouk system turned out to be a major problem between Israel, Syria, and Jordan. Small scale water-related skirmishes followed the 1949 agreements. In 1953, Israel began constructing an intake for its National Water Carrier and Syrian artillery units opened fired on the construction site, but with the support of the UN, Israel resumed the work. In 1955, the Johnston Plan was drafted as a unified plan for water resource development of the Jordan Valley. The plan was approved by technical water committees of all the regional riparian countries; Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Though the Arab League rejected the plan, both Israel and Jordan abided by their water allocations under the plan and two major successful projects were completed: Israel’s National Water Carrier and Jordan’s King Abdulla Canal. Still, the Arab states were not prepared to coexist with a plan that seemed likely to lead to Israel’s economic growth and in 1964 the Arab League convened and decided to deprive Israel of 35 percent of the National Water Carrier’s capacity by diverting the headwaters of the Jordan River to the Yarmouk. A major escalation took place in 1964 regarding the diversion project. In 1965, there were border clashes, shootings and artillery firing over control of the water resources. They were considered factors that led to the Six-Day War in 1967.

Trickling river, Jordan River Basin. Photo: Mehul Dalal

With these major human interventions to the natural flow of freshwater from rivers and streams, plus loss by evaporation, the region is facing a scenario that may have immeasurable consequences. It will require multilateral political will, changes in industry best practices, and coordinated environmental restoration efforts (in a region that is notorious for its lack of cooperation) to restore the flows of the Jordan River and its tributaries. Some of the initiatives being proposed thus far have been between Israel, Jordan, and Palestine using a series of canals, pumping stations, wastewater treatment, and desalination plants.

One such project is the Red Sea-Dead Sea Canal; in a complex series of water swaps, freshwater from a desalination plant at the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba will be sold to Israel’s southern Arava region, while Jordan will buy water from the Sea of Galilee and the Palestinian Authority will purchase water from an Israeli desalination plant from Mekorot for use in the West Bank. A hydroelectric plant would be built, generating energy; desalination plants would pump out drinking water; and the reject brine, the by-product of the desalination process, would replenish the Dead Sea like a hose filling a swimming pool. The Israelis and Jordanians would share responsibility for building, maintaining, and operating the system. Thus, water, a historic cause of anxiety, contention, and even war in the region, could become a conduit for economic and social cooperation. The Red-Dead Sea Water Conveyance project aims to solve multiple problems with a single engineering solution, although it would have to be in conjunction with restoration of the natural flows of rivers and streams of the region. The project could help relieve a water shortage in Jordan, allow Palestinians to buy desalinated water, bring an in-flow of brine to the Dead Sea to alleviate its evaporation, while a hydroelectric plant will provide power to both countries. Its success could be a symbol of peaceful cooperation in the region.

By meeting local freshwater demands of the region through sharing of desalinated water, recycling of wastewater, and simultaneously restoring flows of the Jordan River and its tributaries, there may yet be hope to save the dwindling Jordan River and Dead Sea, but it will require urgent attention and cooperative multilateral action.

Mehul Dalal is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Sustainability Management at Columbia University. Mehul participated in the ‘Regional Environmental Sustainability in the Middle East’ course in Jordan and Israel in July 2019. The course is a collaborative effort of Columbia’s Earth Institute and School of Professional Studies, and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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Steven Sipes
Steven Sipes
4 years ago

The project would also pull water out of the rising oceans. And with more water in that part of the world for agriculture it would cool the temperature in the region. With this in mind there maybe funding from organizations on helping fight climate change. LETS GET IT DONE BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE!

Ed Bruder
Ed Bruder
Reply to  Steven Sipes
4 years ago

Terraforming on earth has gotta be cheaper than Mars.

Riley Wysong
Riley Wysong
6 months ago

I Agree