A miracle has been taking place before our eyes. In less than 100 years, the people living around the Dead Sea have managed to dry up a significant portion of that body of water, turning its southern part into an industrial zone. Now they are trying to convince the rest of the world to recognize it as a "Wonder of Nature," without any guarantee or promise that it will be better protected in the future.
The Israeli tourism industry has been feverishly engaged in encouraging the general public to vote for the Dead Sea as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, as part of an international competition organized by a Swiss foundation. The prime minister and his cabinet were also enlisted in the effort, and a few months ago they took part in a festive voting ceremony near the hotels by the sea.
The Dead Sea certainly deserves to be considered one of the wonders of the world. It is an exceptional ecological phenomenon, and its cultural and historical heritage only add to its uniqueness. But Israel and Jordan currently are unworthy candidates to care for it.
The Dead Sea's level has been dropping by more than one meter per year, since its water sources began being diverted for human use. As a consequence, it is gradually retreating, leaving behind desolate areas and sinkholes, which put visitors at risk. Factories on both sides of the border have mining and quarrying operations across extensive swaths of nearby territory. In Israel the factories are seeking to expand and draw more water from the sea in order to exploit the minerals. If that were not enough, there is a plan to expand agriculture in the southern part, which would cause heavy damage to the Sodom salt flats, one of the region's characteristic landscape forms.
The two countries do not currently have a plan to preserve the sea, in balance with human needs. Israel recently prepared a master plan that establishes principles for preserving the region. It is not yet clear, however, to what extent it can reduce the effects of development and construction.
Another aspect related to administration rather than preservation is the fact that in the northern part of the Dead Sea, Israel is an occupying state. Israel entered the Dead Sea in the competition in cooperation with the PA and Jordan. In practice it administers the northern part of the sea, which is on the other side of the Green Line, without the Palestinians, who do not benefit from the sea's resources.
Declaring the region to be a world wonder based only on its glorious past would be meaningless. In order for the Dead Sea to be a wonder in the future as well, these countries and their residents surrounding it have to restrain their appetite for development and stop coveting additional coastal areas for construction of hotels and industrial pools. They have to formulate a long-term policy of sustainable development, which includes limiting the scope of development and taking advantage of any opportunity to rehabilitate the region.
Sustainable development will have to be administered equally, so a future Palestinian state can benefit from access to the Dead Sea's northern coast. Some will say that this is an End of Days vision, but it is the only vision that may be able to change the end of the sea.
Zafrir Rinat reports on the environment for Haaretz.
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