The Death of the Dead Sea: Once a Wonder, Today a Sinkhole

Ein Gedi is full of hikers; but around it, an ecological disaster that's been unfolding for decades is reaching a new low.

Emil Salman

Nine years ago on Passover I was sent to prepare an article about the shores of the Dead Sea. Already then the situation was gloomy, the beaches were quickly receding, the sinkholes were multiplying and investments to protect the infrastructure along the lake were increasing. “A hike along the beaches of the Dead Sea may be the most depressing Passover outing possible today in Israel,” I wrote at the time. “But you would still do well to hurry and take the children, because when they grow up it’s not at all certain that they will be able to go down to the Dead Sea and float on the water.”

This sad prophecy has fulfilled itself, for the most part.

Anyone who visited the Dead Sea area during the holiday encountered many difficulties. The two main beaches were closed because of the danger of sinkholes, and many kilometers are enclosed by barbed wire fences to keep out the curious. The beaches that are still open are being increasingly inaccessible due to the receding water line.

For at least 20 years experts, Dead Sea fans and nature lovers have been warning about the encroaching ecological disaster. Last year the prophecies were all coming true, as a series of geological incidents stemming from the decline of the water level are for the first time endangering the future of communities, tourism and infrastructure along the Dead Sea.

All the problems stem from the drying up of the sea, which in turn stems from using the potable water that was supposed to reach it for the water economies of Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan, from drawing water for the Israel Chemicals potash plants and from climate change. The drying of the lake causes the water line to recede, the floods to become stronger, the rivers to run below the highway, and worst of all, the sinkholes.

Last December, a sinkhole led to the closing of the popular Mineral Beach resort in the northern Dead Sea. This closing endangers the livelihood and the very existence of a small kibbutz called Mitzpeh Shalem. Arnon Biran, one of the residents, says: “It’s a tough blow, not only to our economy, but to our morale as well. This beach is like the city square. Personally I’m worried. One day this road will also be closed and then they’ll tell us to evacuate. I came here at the age of 30 in order to start a new community, and when I’m 60 they’ll tell me to go home? Nobody really cares.”

About two months later it was decided to close the part of the highway opposite Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which is prone to sinkholes, to be replaced by a bypass road. This has led to transportation snarls. Thousands of day-trippers were stuck in a kilometers-long traffic jam. For the kibbutz members every trip takes between 10 minutes to an hour and a half longer. Nimrod Hacker, the head of the community, says that people reserve a room in the hotel and are unable to get there, goods are stuck, farmers who go down to the orchards get stuck in traffic jams.

The 1.5- kilometer section of highway between the nature reserve and the kibbutz must be the most expensive section in the history of the country. In the past decade tens of millions of shekels have been invested, most of which went to waste because of the sinkholes. In 2009 a new and very expensive bridge was dedicated above Nahal Arugot. In recent years the bridge had been “attacked” by sinkholes, and it was recently put out of service along with the section of the highway.

Many solutions have been proposed, any one of which would require an investment of hundreds of millions of shekels, and perhaps over a billion ($255 million), for a 1.5 kilometer section.

It’s no longer sinkholes, it’s massive sinking of land along 700 meters. The wild animals and the Nahal David and Nahal Arugot nature reserves are also liable to suffer from the road that will be dangerously close to them.

Another blow for Ein Gedi came when the Tamar Regional Council and Netivei Israel, the transportation infrastructure company, decided to close the last free beach at the Dead Sea, along with the gas station, the kiosk and the new camping area that were inaugurated on Sukkot. The regional council invested 4 million shekels in improving the beach, and a festive opening was planned for Passover. In addition, a large percentage of the kibbutz’s date orchards, as well as camping grounds, were abandoned years ago because of the sinkholes.

Closing the last free beach now presents a major challenge for those who want to bathe in the Dead Sea. The last organized beaches charge dozens of shekels per person, and bathers also have to descend steps and terraces or travel in a special train, whose route lengthens by the year, in order to reach the water. In the hotel area you can still swim in Dead Sea water – not at the beach but in the industrial swimming pool built by the Dead Sea Works.

Despite the difficulties, the Nahal David nature reserve is full of hikers – about as many as last year on Passover. The abundant rainfall this winter increased the births among the herd of ibexes, and the kids have begun to descend from the desert heights and to meet the hikers.

“I don’t want you to feel sorry for me,” says Hacker from Ein Gedi, “but the pessimistic scenario is that the story of the Dead Sea will be over. Up until two months ago everyone who drove to Eilat passed here, some stopped and some didn’t, but they all knew what Ein Gedi is. What will happen five years from now, will people know what Ein Gedi is? I don’t know.”

“The problem is that it’s a developing event, you don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” adds Biran of Mitzpeh Shalem. “You don’t know how nature is liable to react.”