It has been hard to find reasons for optimism about the Dead Sea in recent years. Its water level has continued to fall at a rate of over a meter per year, while thousands of sinkholes are appearing in the dried-out areas around its shores – systematically destroying the tourism and transportation infrastructure in the region.
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Until recently, plans to artificially stream water into the Dead Sea looked like a distant dream. But all those involved in trying to save the sea are convinced such a project is feasible, although they admit concerns about possible environmental dangers.
Next week, a special issue on the matter will be published by the Israeli journal Ecology & Environment. The journal will provide an up-to-date and extensive picture of the reality at one of the world’s most important natural wonders.
Its publication comes just a short while after the Prime Minister’s Office announced its intention to coordinate the interministerial handling of the Dead Sea's various problems – most importantly, the effect of sinkholes on the region.
Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi visited Jordan earlier this month, ahead of officially seeking bids to implement the first stage of a major project to pipe water to the Dead Sea via the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance (also known as the Two Seas Canal), in order to stop declining water levels.
The first stage is described as a pilot in preparation for planning and building a canal to carry much larger quantities of water to the Dead Sea from the south.
The drop in the waterline has been caused mostly by the use and diversion of water from the Jordan River (predominantly at its southern section). It is also caused partly by the pumping of water into the industrial evaporation ponds that now occupy what was once the southern part of the Dead Sea. Various minerals and chemicals are produced from these ponds for agricultural and industrial use.
The plan is for a desalination plant to be built in the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba; the salty wastewater, along with normal water from the Red Sea, will then be channeled to the Dead Sea via the new waterway.
At first, about 250 million cubic meters of water a year will be sent to the Dead Sea, which would reduce the annual drop in the water level by about 20 percent. The plan is to then increase this amount to 400 million cubic meters a year within a decade. However, any further increases would be contingent on environmental studies of the ecological effect, says Israel's Environmental Protection Ministry.
The desalination plant would also supply freshwater to Jordan and southern Israeli communities in the Arava Desert. In return, Israel would increase the amount of water it supplies to Jordan from Lake Kinneret.
In another development that is potentially good news for the Dead Sea, the bidding process for the operation of a barge to harvest salt from the bottom of a large industrial evaporation pond (Pond 5, which is about half the size of Lake Kinneret) is scheduled to be completed within a few months.
The evaporation pond is used by the potash-mining Dead Sea Works (a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals), and the Dead Sea's resort is located on the shores of this pond. Dead Sea water is evaporated in the pond, and the more concentrated water remaining is then pumped into other smaller ponds before minerals are eventually harvested.
The accumulation of salt on the bottom of this pond raises the water level, which is threatening to flood the hotels on its shoreline – another problem caused as a side effect of man’s exploitation of the sea.
As a result, it has been decided to begin the systematic harvesting of the salt. This was approved as part of a special master plan for the region.
“We estimate that the barge will begin operations to collect the salt within 18 months,” said Noam Goldstein, the senior vice president at Dead Sea Works who is responsible for the project.
At first, the salt will be piled up in the deepest part of the evaporation pond and on the dirt embankments on its eastern side. At a later stage, it will be returned to the northern part of the Dead Sea, from where the water was originally pumped - though no detailed plan for how this will be implemented exists as of yet.
Galit Cohen, a deputy director general for planning in the Environmental Protection Ministry, wrote in the special issue that the general trend of deterioration at the Dead Sea area is far from being halted. However, she said she saw the steps to stop the drop in the water level and the salt harvesting as the first positive signs of change.