The Dead Sea Is Dying Fast: Is It Too Late to Save It, or Was It Always a Lost Cause?

Its water level drops a meter every year, but there’s still no plan to stop Israel’s greatest environmental disaster.

Sinkholes next to the Dead Sea.
Gil Cohen-Magen

Back in the 1980s, the road alongside the Israeli side of the Dead Sea turned into a giant parking lot around the fall holidays. The frustrated, baking passengers could only sit tight, smelling the barbecues of thousands of families, Jewish and Arab, picnicking or camping on the rocky beaches and watching televisions connected to their cars’ batteries. That heyday of domestic Dead Sea tourism is long over, perhaps sunk into one of the proliferating sinkholes in the region

It is true that in 2015, the number of nights that foreign and local tourists spent at Dead Sea hotels shot up anew, to 2.1 million, a figure last seen a decade ago. But the overall trend is downward, and it is because the lowest sea in the world is dying.

Development has been hard on Israel’s ecology. The Yarkon River is shrunken, Nahal Kishon is polluted, the kurkar cliffs along the Mediterranean coast are crumbling and the leopards of the Judean Desert are a fond memory. But the drop in the Dead Sea water level is the biggest environmental drama of them all, claims Daniel Kurtzman of the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute, who studies groundwater

In the 1940s, a billion cubic meters of water a year flowed through the Lower Jordan River, south of Lake Kinneret, says Kurtzman. Now the flow rate is one-fifth of that, 200 million cubic meters of water a year, and much of the water isn’t “natural” — it’s wastewater and saline water that has been reintroduced after being used in homes or industry.

The Dead Sea is currently 430 meters below sea level. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the sea level has fallen by 40 meters, in no small part because Israel and Jordan aren’t letting the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers feed enough into the sea — they’re taking the water for irrigation. It is not only the lowest lake, but the lowest place in the world, and it can’t afford to go any lower.

Another cause is Israel’s chemical industry, and more precisely Dead Sea Works. Old-timers remember when the Dead Sea was a single salt lake. In the late 1970s, as a result of the decline in water levels, it was split in two. DSW took over the southern part, transformed the whole thing into evaporation pools. The company siphons water from the northern part, the water level of which is falling by one meter a year.

In fact, the water level in the northern part is so low that occasionally the pumps come up dry. The solution? Move the pumping site, a three-year project that will cost, say figures in DSW who asked not to be identified, hundreds of millions of dollars.

DSW claims it’s preserving the water level in the southern part, which enables tourism. But at the end of the day, industry around the sea in Israel and in Jordan is accelerating the sea’s evaporation. The state could slap caps on pumping by DSW, says water scientist Sarit Caspi-Oron of Adam Teva V’Din (formerly known as the Israel Union for Environmental Defense), but it doesn’t.

The Dead Sea is short as much as 750 million cubic meters of water a year, estimates Nadav Lensky of the Geological Survey of Israel, who monitors the state of the Dead Sea.

The issue at stake isn’t just furry desert animals. It’s economics. A feasibility study done in 2014 for the World Bank on the controversial notion of building a canal to transport water from the Red Sea to the Dead one, found a correlation between dropping Dead Sea water levels and dropping tourism. As the water level sinks, roads and the electricity network are damaged, too, adding additional costs.

Wait for it

Worried about the level of the Dead Sea? Things are only going to get worse. A Geological Survey paper by Lensky and Elad Dante in 2015 found that, assuming no real change in water influx and assuming the mineral works continue to operate as they are, by 2070 the sea will be 45 meters lower than it is now. Its surface will shrink from 605 square kilometers today to 509 square meters, a decrease of 16% compared with the sea surface in 2010.

It isn’t that the Dead Sea is doomed to disappear. If DSW were to stop operations in a few decades — presumably after failing to address the sinking sea level — after 300 years or so the Dead Sea would restabilize at about 515 meters below sea level.

If you think that’s cause for celebration, think about this: Throughout those 300 years, more and more sinkholes will open up and the sea will grow even saltier

The Dead Sea's receding shoreline exposes large swaths of what until a few decades ago was the sea floor.
Moti Milrod

Have lemons, make lemonade; have sinkholes, make park?

The deterioration of the Dead Sea has been observed and known for decades, but people have begun to really see it in the last 20 years or so. Yet there is no orderly government plan to save the sea, or deal with the consequences of its disappearance.

In 2008, National Master Plan 13 was compiled for the development of the sea and its stone beaches, which included scenarios of dropping water levels — but suggested nothing concrete to fight the problems. In any case, the master plan was shelved. In 2012, the cabinet approved a five-year plan for Dead Sea tourism, again ignoring the problem of the vanishing lake.

Absent government action, environmental groups and private companies have gotten involved, each with its own agenda. By and large, three options have been proffered.

One possibility that gained some publicity, mainly thanks to former cabinet minister Silvan Shalom, is to dig a canal from the Red Sea that would (theoretically) transport 65 million cubic meters of water a year. Sound like a lot of water? It isn’t. It’s a tiny fraction of the amount the Dead Sea would need to remain viable.

Option No. 2 is a canal between the Mediterranean and the Dead seas. Pretty much everybody ignores this idea. No. 3 is to somehow boost the inflow from the Dead Sea’s main natural source, the Lower Jordan River.

It bears noting that one serious objection to the canal concept is that it would introduce seawater into the Dead, changing materially the unique geochemical composition of the Dead Sea’s water. The water level might be preserved but the entire ecosystem would change in unpredictable ways.

The government, it seems, has chosen a fourth option — to twiddle its thumbs.

“The Dead Sea has experienced higher levels, and lower ones too, in its history,” says Lensky. “In recent decades its water level has been trending downward, and processes are developing rapidly that are reshaping the landscape.” Those include the massive development of sinkholes.

Geologists at least love studying what’s happening — especially because it’s happening really fast, and Lensky for one declines to label the deterioration of the Dead Sea an “ecological disaster,” though he notes the problem of roads being ruined by sinkholes or moving streambeds. Nor are sinkholes, which can suddenly open up with no notice, good for tourism. The idea touted by some, that the dehydrating area is a tourism magnet, sounds far-fetched. Iran and Kazakhstan both also sport salt seas that are drying up, and they aren’t bursting with incoming tourists clustering to watch a sinkhole form.

To the people of Ein Gedi, who were cut off for two days when the road to the kibbutz collapsed (into sinkholes), that’s like telling the good people of Chernobyl that their salvation lies in curiosity tourism. Also, economically speaking, it’s no model to count on tourists who come exactly once to gape at a unique phenomenon in nature, or to float in the shrinking sea.

Israel Chemicals’ Dead Sea Works plant by night. The lit-up factory appears orange against the blue of the Dead Sea in the background.
Gil Cohen-Magen

MK Dov Khenin (Joint List) has tried to push legislation to help the Dead Sea through three Knessets, to no avail. Everybody knows the sea is unique, but nothing is done, one reason because doing anything will be very difficult. The easiest part will be tackling the industrial use of the water that should reach the sea, Khenin says, because there, at least one knows who to address. Climate change is another matter.

He hasn’t been able to build coalitions in favor of legislation, in part because his colleagues figure the government is “doing something” without necessarily legislating, but it isn’t, Khenin says. Its few plans handle pinpoint problems, no more, such as clearing away a salt pile and meanwhile, “whole areas are turning into disaster zones.”

A legislative proposal that would make the DSW responsible for the sea-level deficit it creates (by building a desalination plant that would take water from the Mediterranean Sea, adding to Israel’s total water balance) went nowhere.

Israel Chemicals, owner of DSW, stated that DSW returns most of the amount of pumped water, other than that lost through evaporation under the burning desert sun. If not for DSW transferring water from the northern part of the sea to the southern part, the southern bit would long have dried up completely, ICL continued: The tourism along the south sea beaches wouldn’t exist and thousands of jobs would have been lost. “Moreover, the Dead Sea industry has huge geoeconomic influence and is key to the existence of settlement in the eastern Negev and the livelihood of thousands of families in the Negev in particular and in Israel in general.”