New Plan for Dead Sea Sinkholes? Turn Them Into Tourist Attractions

Tired of the naysayers, two influential Israeli groups are trying to accentuate the positives at the embattled site

A man peers into a sinkhole in the Dead Sea.
Eyal Toueg

For decades now, the Dead Sea has been regarded as a chronically ill patient, gradually withering from a lack of fluids. With no solution to its illness in sight, many have despaired and consider it a lost cause. But others believe it is time to adopt a new approach and consider how the patient’s condition can at least be stabilized, so that the quality of life for it and those who live with it can improve.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel has issued a new position paper on the future of the region, optimistically titled “Giving Hope to the Dead Sea,” which focuses on ways to improve the situation.

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“We don’t want to describe the problem yet again but to say what can be done,” explained SPNI Deputy Director Nir Papi. “We’re not talking about new plans, but steps that have already been examined and are feasible.”

The paper includes recommendations dealing with the dropping level of the sea and the options for developing tourism in an area that has undergone dramatic changes.

The Dead Sea at Ein Gedi.
Eyal Toueg

The Geological Survey of Israel – the agency that does the scientific monitoring of the Dead Sea – believes there must be an effort to advance solutions that adapt to the new reality.

This is most obvious in the institute’s approach to the sinkholes that have opened, and continue to open, as a result of the shrinking of the sea, and which are causing infrastructure damage and have led to beach closures. Studies and the ongoing monitoring of the sinkholes and their development show there’s nothing that can be done to prevent them.

The institute, therefore, recommends learning to live with them by avoiding heavy construction in areas prone to them.

“Tourism development in the region and making the Dead Sea accessible will have to be based on light construction and access routes protected by elastic sheeting,” said Dr. Rivka Amit, the institute’s director. She even sees a positive side to the sinkholes.

“The institute sees the sinkholes and phenomena being revealed in those areas where the sea has withdrawn as having their own tourism potential,” she said. “Accordingly, we suggest opening safe hiking and guiding routes in the sinkhole areas, which will make this unique natural phenomenon accessible to the public. These paths can be combined with tours along the new beaches of the Dead Sea that reveal a rich variety of crystallization phenomena and salt masses, and tours in the riverbeds that are getting deeper with the dropping sea level, exposing layers thousands of years old that reveal fascinating geological, archaeological, climatic and seismological history.”

Dealing with the dropping sea level is a complex challenge. Due to exploitation of the water sources upstream of the Jordan River and pumping for industrial purposes on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides, the sea level is dropping by more than 1 meter (3.2 feet) annually. The Geological Survey believes that unless something changes, this rate will continue for at least another 100 years before the sea level stabilizes.

To stabilize the sea at its current level would require more than 700 million cubic meters of water a year – more than all the water Israel currently desalinates. Given the water shortage in the region, it isn’t likely that this additional water will come from natural sources.

“The sea will continue to drop, but it is possible to slow the rate at which it drops and in the future perhaps stabilize it,” said Papi. “We aren’t talking about restoring the sea back to its previous state.”

The SPNI supports the Jordanian-Israeli pipeline project that will stream seawater from the Gulf of Eilat (aka Gulf of Aqaba) and saltwater that will be the product of a seawater desalination plant to be built in the Aqaba region. The plan aims to ultimately pipe 325 million cubic meters of water into the Dead Sea every year, which would reduce the annual drop in the sea’s level by some 40 percent. That’s the best that can be done, the Geological Institute said, because streaming more than 400 million cubic meters of water into the sea could adversely affect its characteristics.

“Another necessary step is for the Dead Sea Works to invest in developing technology that would allow less water to be pumped for industrial purposes,” said Papi. “The state also has to invest more in the region, assist the residents there, and make the sea more accessible.”

According to SPNI data, the volume of water pumped by factories in Israel and Jordan has remained steady over the past four years and isn’t expected to change.

The SPNI realizes that as of now there is no alternative technology for producing potash, which is a major product of the Dead Sea Works. Shutting down the plants would reduce the sea’s annual contraction by 25 percent, but it would also dry up the adjacent industrial pools near the hotels and local tourism would be badly affected.

Technological advances that might make the factories along the Dead Sea more efficient could possibly lead to a reduction of up to 150 million cubic meters in the quantity of water they consume – but at this point that estimate is rather wishful thinking. Streaming of water from the south, combined with general water conservation practices and increased desalination that leaves a larger quantity of water in the Jordan River, could in theory stop the sea’s shrinkage altogether. But the overall lack of water in the region (including in Jordan and Syria, in whose territory the Jordan’s tributaries lie), makes it just as likely that the water flowing into the Jordan could drop rather than increase.

Scenarios presented by the SPNI indicate that streaming water from the Gulf of Eilat and trying to stream more freshwater into the Jordan River, along with improvements to infrastructure and accessibility, would turn the region “from a disaster area to one of hope, in which the sinkholes become an opportunity.”

Anyone expecting the Dead Sea to ever be what it was once, however, is going to be disappointed.