The Dead Sea is slowly dying. For tens of thousands of years, it was fed by rain and the Jordan River, which runs south from the inland Sea of Galilee to the inland salt lake. But in the 1960s, Israel began to massively divert water from the Jordan, chiefly to the Negev, to “make the desert bloom” as the nation’s founders had envisioned. The Kingdom of Jordan did its share of damage by damming the Yarmouk, a river passing through its territory that fed the Jordan.
The result is that the Jordan River, little more than a stream to begin with, has all but dried up. Rainfall in the desert is pitiful by definition, so with barely any incoming water to replenish the loss from evaporation, the Dead Sea started to shrink — and fast. Experts estimate that the water level has been dropping by 1 to 1.2 meters (3.3 to 3.9 feet) each year.
The Dead Sea is actually a hypersaline inland lake with no outlets, which explains its hypersalinity — nearly 10 times that of the oceans. Water and sediment enter the lake with rain, rivers and flooding. But only water leaves, by evaporation. As the water level in the Dead Sea declines, groundwater takes its place in the soil around the lake. That subterranean process has been causing havoc on the surface in the form of massive sinkholes.
Also, as the waterline receded, the hypersaline lake effectively split into two parts with a land bridge between them. The northern Dead Sea is the natural shrunken remainder of the lake.
The southern part of the Dead Sea would have dried out by now if left to nature. It is effectively artificial, controlled by a mineral mining company that has been siphoning water from the northern lake to the southern one since the ’50s. It evaporates the water and harvests the salts, including potash for agriculture. The southern section of the Dead Sea today consists entirely of artificial brine pools. (Bizarre as it may seem, the local resort’s hotels are by the brine pools, not the natural lake. Ironically, the hotels keep getting flooded by saltwater pumped from the northern section because the mining company neglects to properly dredge the salt pools because it’s expensive.)
The sinkholes developing around the Dead Sea are no mere inconvenience. At first there were just a few, but now hundreds develop each year. Roads and bridges along the sea have collapsed. The collapsing highway by the Dead Sea, part of Route 90 from the northernmost point in Israel to Eilat, has been rerouted. The whole area looks less like an exotic desert resort and more like a moonscape.
Meanwhile, Jordan has been short of water for its people for decades. Now hosting a massive influx of Syrians fleeing the devastating civil war, the thirst is even worse. Its desperate need has led to an intriguing proposal, a wrinkle on an idea going back over a century: To build a massive desalination plant in Aqaba that would pump in water from the Red Sea and output potable water for the people. The waste from the desalination plant, super-concentrated brine, would be transported via pipeline to the Dead Sea — which would, while about it, spare the Red Sea ecology in the vicinity of the putative desalination plant from the effects of its hypersaline brine output.
Thus, say the proponents, Jordan would have more water (and a hydroelectricity plant while about it), and the Dead Sea would be saved.
But would it be? Is it even possible to save the Dead Sea? And here’s an unpopular question: Should it be?
A new documentary by PBS, produced by the co-author of this article, Avner Tavori, and scheduled to air in the United States on April 24, took an unsentimental look at the land-bound lake and reached some startling conclusions.
Israel began to divert water from Lake Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee) and the Jordan River in the ’60s because it was the only way to provide the water needed for its fast-growing population — and water flowing into the Dead Sea was considered “wasteful.” Providing potable water was given a higher priority than the fate of the inland sea, not that the nation’s leaders necessarily realized at the time that their actions could spell its demise.
The source of the Jordan River is the Golan Heights. Before intervention, about 1.2 billion cubic meters of water a year flowed down the Jordan into the Dead Sea.
Even if theoretically an agreement could be reached to remove the dams and completely stop exploiting the waters of the Jordan and Yarmouk, it is questionable whether enough water could reach the Dead Sea even to stabilize it. In any case, there is no practical likelihood that exploitation of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers could be halted, even if a massive desalination plant is built in Aqaba.
Why Jordan couldn’t desalinate
There is an underlying story that some see as much more consequential than the fate of the dying Dead Sea. It is the steadily worsening scarcity of drinking water in the Middle East.
The Middle East is mostly desert. Water has been a source for conflict for millennia and the situation is only expected to worsen as climate change accelerates desertification in North Africa and the Levant. This process has already begun, while population growth helps deplete natural aquifers. Among the causes of the Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbors was conflict over water sources in the Golan. And some believe the civil war in Syria was triggered less by the despotic regime and more by thirst-driven despair and migration to the cities, which just caused more unrest.
Starting in the 2000s, Israel began to develop a massive desalination industry, which makes seawater potable. With plants along the Mediterranean coast, Israel is no longer dependent on water from rain and Lake Kinneret.
Jordan could not follow suit. Rainfall has been scarce there as well, but it doesn’t have a long coastline on which it can build a series of desalination plants. Meanwhile, its population has been exploding not only through natural proliferation but due to the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from war-torn Syria. Flocking to Jordan, they have brought the water demand to breaking point, literally.
There are areas in Jordan near the Syrian border where water is available only once a week. In the capital of Amman, water tanks on rooftops, replenished by rain, help alleviate the frequent interruption in the water supply but cannot always be relied upon.
Jordan is behind the project to build a huge desalination plant at its only coastal outlet, Aqaba, on the Red Sea. It would transport the hypersaline brine produced in the desalination process, mixed with some seawater (for chiefly technical reasons — including that brine alone would be too heavy for a pipeline), northward to replenish the dying Dead Sea.
The World Bank liked the idea and put up money for a feasibility study. Prominent Israeli scientists were consulted and in 2011 it published a 348-page report. Despite some serious qualms, the World Bank study group recommended implementing “The Red Sea Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project,” later nicknamed “Red/Dead.”
A lake as a luxury
This doesn’t mean the doubts don’t still abound. First, no amount of water we could humanly transport from the Red Sea will be enough to raise the Dead Sea level to what it once was. In the best-case scenario it will slow down its decline, some scientists say.
But chiefly, scientists who worked on the study caution that small-scale tests in the lab do not necessarily apply when a project on this magnitude is brought to scale. Mixing ocean water with Dead Sea water — let alone on a scale never seen before — might have irreversible unintended consequences that cannot be fully foreseen through lab work.
Economists ask whether it is worth spending billions of dollars on this project, and environmentalists fret that it may cause irreparable damage to the Dead Sea ecosystem — and also note that some ecological damage is likely that cannot, at this stage, be foreseen.
There is also the risk of major earthquake — which is a when, not an if. The Gulf of Eilat (aka Gulf of Aqaba), the Dead Sea and Lake Kinneret all sit along the Dead Sea Rift, a gigantic crack in the earth that produces violent temblors every few centuries. (And one is very overdue, geologists warn.)
Farmers in the region, including in Israel’s Arava Valley, worry that a quake could cause a break in the pipeline, spilling hypersaline water into the soil and ruining the fertile land they depend on. It could even poison the groundwater.
Despite the unknowns and fears, in 2013 Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed a tripartite agreement to implement the project. Israel has an eye to saving Dead Sea tourism and mineral mining in the southern part of the sea, and the Palestinians would get better allocations of water from Israel. The World Bank vowed to help raise the $10 billion it estimates the project will cost.
However, the project has stalled since then, mainly because the parties are still hashing out details — such as obtaining insurance for foreseeable catastrophes such as the pipeline breaking. But assuming the technicalities can be ironed out, the project is likely to proceed. Jordan for one acutely needs it.
Could the Red/Dead project save the Dead Sea? Most likely not. But it will add desperately needed water to a thirsty region.
Though its water level is falling by over a meter a year, the Dead Sea is not “doomed.” Scientists do not believe it will disappear entirely, but that it will stabilize at a much smaller size.
Many argue that saving lives supersedes saving a body of brine, however picturesque. Some even see the multilateral project as an opportunity for a new reality in which desalinated water from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, plus water from Lake Kinneret, is shared by Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan, helping bring peace and stability to a volatile Middle East.
And the Dead Sea that we love? This might just be too little too late, and a lesson in neglect and abuse of a natural wonder.
The PBS/NOVA documentary “Saving the Dead Sea” airs in the United States on all PBS stations on April 24. Avner Tavori is a journalist and producer of the documentary.