By Laila Ismail
Located between Jordan, Palestine, and Israel, the tiffany blue water of the Dead Sea glimmers beneath the beaming sun, illuminating the white salt formations rising along the shore. The shimmering salt overtakes the beaches and reaches the smooth brown rocks surrounding them. Red and sunburned bodies pepper the beach, littered with cabanas, tents, showers, and other evidence of human invasion. The air is thick and salty and stings the throats and eyes of anyone close enough to the water’s edge.
The Dead Sea is the saltiest and most mineral-rich body of water in the world, and the only life it supports are microorganisms that reside at the top of the sea’s freshwater plumes. Though it is technically considered a lake, the Dead Sea is at least six times saltier than most bodies of water on Earth. Precisely because of its striking geological features and unusual composition, the area bustles with activity every day. More than 800,000 people visit the region each year. As my Palestinian father grew up in Jordan, his school would frequent the Dead Sea on field trips to learn about its history and to enjoy its famous buoyancy. Many tourists seek rejuvenation from conditions such as dry skin and eczema, while others may visit to snap a few photographs of themselves floating effortlessly atop the Dead Sea, reading a newspaper.
Despite the “deadness” of the sea itself, it is part of an ecosystem that supports a wide range of life. The freshwater springs and aquifers that surround the sea are home to countless indigenous plants, fish, and mammals. Twice a year, more than 300 species of birds call the Dead Sea home during their migration from Africa to Europe and back. The surrounding areas are cultivated with subtropical vegetation such as bananas, dates, and grapes.
But all of this is threatened as the waters of the sea and the region are drying up. Dead Sea water levels have been dropping since 1960. Currently, the waters recede about a meter per year, with about a third of its surface area evaporating into the air. The recession is evident in aerial photos of the lake, which demonstrate how significant the water loss is and will continue to be. Resorts that were once positioned next to the lake’s shores are now kilometers away and must use tractors and shuttles to transport guests to the water’s edge. The ramifications of a shrinking Dead Sea are enormous.
Shrinking & Sinkholes
In November 2018, adjacent to the Dead Sea, the ground shook and swallowed several cars on Israel’s Route 90 without warning. No one was severely injured, but there was costly damage. As the saline waters continue to recede from the shore, so do the freshwater aquifers that surround the lake; as these aquifers drain their water, piles of salt remain. During the winter floods, freshwater trickles down from the mountains into the thick underground buildups of salt. The freshwater dissolves the salt, leaving the chamber empty and fragile. As a result, major sinkholes have formed in the area along the Dead Sea, threatening anyone who dares to tread across its surface.
Prior to sinkholes forming around the Dead Sea, little was known about their formation. As a result of this unique opportunity, geologists such as Gidon Baer and Ittai Gavierieli have been able to study changes in the water and monitor exactly how sinkholes are formed. Scientists use time-lapse cameras above-ground to detect where the water goes in and comes out. By studying the Dead Sea sinkholes, they have realized that they are not isolated cases but part of larger and interconnected underground drainage systems called karsts. These karsts carry water between each sinkhole. With current technology, scientists can now predict when a sinkhole will form and can implement safety measures. However, to theoretically stop sinkholes in the region, 1 billion cubic meters of water would need to be added to the Dead Sea every year. Consequently, there is no feasible way to completely stop them from forming.
Mineral Beach, a tourist resort in the northern Dead Sea, was closed in 2015 because of these sinkholes. The management of Mineral Beach could not ensure the safety of guests following a sinkhole that swallowed many parts of the resort. Many other populated areas such as highways, bridges, roads, and beaches have similarly been shut down.
Causes of the Crisis
Many factors contribute to the disappearance of the Dead Sea. Firstly, areas surrounding the Dead Sea are already in or approaching a water crisis. And the situation is poised to worsen dramatically. Jordan’s yearly decrease in rainfall could reach 30 percent by the year 2100 due to climate change. The Jordan River, the main source of water for the Dead Sea, currently supports a lush region of farmlands and vegetation. At first glance, the river is abundant and can support its surrounding ecosystems. However, the area must be irrigated to sustain life in the arid climate and requires millions of cubic meters of water from the Sea of Galilee. In the 1950s, Israel diverted the Jordan River into the National Water Carrier project. This project simultaneously brought water to major cities, while also helping to legitimize Israel as a nation after its occupation of Palestine. Notably, Palestinians lack access to this water and depend on expensive rations of water supplied by the government. Other countries such as Syria and Jordan take water from the area under peace treaties with Israel. Additionally, these countries have a history of overuse and faulty water infrastructure, which has increased since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the temperature continues to increase in the region, water use is also expected to follow the same trend. The Max Planck Institute for Chemistry projects an average temperature exceeding 116 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and almost 90 degrees at night. As a result of the diverted water for human uses, the Jordan River’s flow weakens, unable to fulfill its contribution to the Dead Sea.
The second factor in the disappearance of the Dead Sea is the extractive industries it supports. It is rich with minerals such as potash, magnesium, salt, and bromine, which companies such as Dead Sea Works exploit. In the southern shallow basin of the sea, water from the sea is pumped into shallow evaporation ponds. The basin’s harsh sun quickly evaporates the water, leaving only valuable minerals. The minerals are used for medicine, fertilizer, chemical feedstock, and even as a substitute for food salt. With these methods, the company can produce 3.3 million tons of potash from one source. The company’s Dead Sea units have assets worth $6 billion, according to an independent study by Silver Coast Research. The Israeli Water Authority has continually worked with Dead Sea Works, despite concerns of over-extraction and overuse by the company. In 2021, the Water Authority granted the company an annual license that allowed it to extract more water than the previous year. Dead Sea Works extracts two-thirds of the water for demineralization and claims that its methods only account for 9 percent of the sea’s water loss. However, environmental groups estimate that the loss is closer to 30 percent. Dead Sea Works claims to also return half of the water it pumps after use; this figure is also highly contested by environmental groups.
During an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, environmental activist Gidon Bromberg said that irrigation “is one of the main reasons that the Dead Sea is dying.” According to environmentalists and government officials, Israel, Jordan, and Syria have put in place a water policy that encourages “unrestricted agricultural use.” Israel’s farmers receive large government water subsidies, using half of the country’s freshwater supply. Similarly, “Jordan uses about 71 billion gallons of water a year from the Yarmouk River and channels it into the King Abdullah Canal” for irrigation. As a result, there is almost a complete depletion of lower Jordan’s water supply.
In looking at water consumption as a cause of the Jordan River and Dead Sea’s recession, it is also important to note the inequities in that consumption, which are tied to the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine. In June 1967, the Israeli military gained complete power over all water resources and infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. As a result, about 180 rural Palestinian communities lack access to running water in Israel. On average, Palestinians in the region consume an average of 73 liters of water a day, while an average Israeli citizen consumes about 300 liters of water a day. Furthermore, Palestinians are unable to drill new wells or deepen existing ones and install water pumps, which puts Palestinian lives in the hands of a government that has repeatedly stolen their resources and infringed on their human rights. Palestinians also lack access to the Jordan River and freshwater springs, so as the Dead Sea loses essential water flows that maintain its water level, Palestinians lose access to water needed to survive.
Thinking about Solutions
Salem Abdel Rahman, a Jordanian activist from Ecopeace Middle East, explains the need to save the Dead Sea: “We are not talking about saving the Dead Sea because it’s nice or not nice. We think that the Dead Sea is a symptom of sickness in the management of water resources. The saving of the Dead Sea will be a good indication that we moved away from sickness to a healthy environment.” Backed by the World Bank, Jordanian and Israeli leaders proposed the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Project (RSDSC) in 2006. The project planned to maintain the historic landscape of the Dead Sea by bringing water from the Red Sea in a 110-mile-long pipeline. In addition, desalinated water from the Red Sea would be supplied to cities in Israel and Jordan for drinking water. There have been multiple studies done on the feasibility and effectiveness of the project. In an article published by Palestine Academy Press, the potential positive outcomes of the project were discussed, such as water being transferred to the Dead Sea, economic revival, and the increased use of hydroelectricity. However, the negative potential of the project also raised many concerns. Issues with the RSDSC Project include damage to groundwater and Red Sea coral reefs, mixing of Dead Sea and Red Sea waters, and threats to archaeological sites. Environmentalists from Friends of the Earth Middle East have also claimed that the project was a stopgap solution and would not address the reasons for the disappearance of the Dead Sea in the first place. The project stalled for more than 10 years as the sea continued to shrink. In 2021, the Jordanian government canceled the project since there was “no real Israeli desire” for the plan to come to fruition. The project was also halted by growing political tensions between Jordan and Israel.
Other alternatives for the future of the Dead Sea have been proposed by locals and scientists in the region. A popular option is a plan of inaction that would simply allow the lake to retreat. Supporters of this scenario explain that the Dead Sea is not expected to fully dry out, but will reach an equilibrium and cease to shrink. Gavrieli supports the no-action plan and wants to see the receding shoreline turned into “sinkhole parks” where people can see the new sinkholes and learn about their formations. Other plans deal with the sustainable use of the Jordan River. The Jordan River can be used sustainably by finding alternatives for drinking water such as desalination and wastewater treatment. Further, the initiative involves the use of low water-consuming crops and encourages realistic water prices.
When asked about the future of the Dead Sea, hydrogeologist Carmit Ish-Shalom stated: “If our children say they want to save it, they can’t even do it because it’s too late. Everything that’s happening here, it’s because of us.” Despite the state of the Dead Sea, there has been little intervention to preserve its future. Similarly, Palestinian communities within Israel are forced to leave their home country as water becomes scarcer and more restricted. As the Jordan River’s powerful flows weaken to a trickle due to overuse, water that is used for drinking is still diverted away from the Palestinian communities. The two futures intertwine, and one issue cannot be solved without the other. If the Dead Sea is to be saved, the Israeli government must first pass laws and repair infrastructure to use the Jordan River more sustainably and distribute it to Palestinian communities equitably. Further, the exploitation of the Dead Sea’s minerals must end, as it is a large source of water loss. These measures can slow the shrinking of the Dead Sea while governments and scientists figure out a way to restore it. In political terms, the restoration of water access across the region is critical to Palestinian communities’ survival, and in their larger fight for human rights, reparations, and statehood.
About the Author …
Laila Ismail is a junior double-majoring in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability and Geography & GIS. She also has a minor in Natural Resource Conservation. She is passionate about water conservation as well as social justice. After graduation, she hopes to pursue a career in water conservation projects.
This article was written for ESE/ENGL 360, a Certificate in Environmental Writing course.