Dead Sea, Rising and Falling, Poses Engineering Challenge

While a plan is moving ahead to avoid flooding at hotels along its shores, authorities are still faced with challenges in the Dead Sea.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Pipes that pump water cross through evaporation pools, which today make up the southern part of the Dead Sea, July 27, 2015.
Pipes that pump water cross through evaporation pools, which today make up the southern part of the Dead Sea, July 27, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The Dead Sea, one of the world’s natural wonders, has turned into a big engineering headache; it’s probably the only lake in the world where the authorities must deal with rising and falling water levels at the same time.

The rise is taking place in the industrial pool, which was created by pumping water from the Dead Sea for use by area factories. Salt accumulation at the bottom of the pool has raised the water level so high that it threatens to flood adjacent hotels. On the other hand, the level of the rest of the sea has been dropping at a rate of around a meter every year.

Last month, the National Infrastructure Commission approved a plan to dredge the salt from the industrial pool. According to Littal Yadin, who heads the commission team that handled the plan, an urgent solution is needed to prevent the entire area from becoming a tourism wasteland.

The plan was approved after lengthy, complex negotiations with the relevant government agencies and with executives from the Dead Sea Works. Implementing it will involve a number of engineering challenges that are also related to the drop in the water level. This drop has caused the development of dangerous sinkholes and of deep canyons resulting from erosion. The areas from which the sea has retreated have turned into large mud flats.

Under the plan, the salt dredged from the bottom of the industrial pool will be conveyed by barge and conveyor belt to the retreating banks of the sea and reintroduced into the body of water using a method that has yet to be determined. As a result, the water in the pool will be maintained at a level that will keep the hotel area from being inundated.

The plan also addresses the issue of the water that is pumped from the Dead Sea into the industrial pool. Because of the sea’s retreat, the pumping station must be moved. The first location that was picked was too close to sinkholes. Planners next examined the possibility of erecting it on the alluvial fan of the Tze’elim River, a unique natural feature caused by the dumping of sediment eroded by floods in the Tze’elim streambed. Placing the station there, however, would have required building huge earth embankments to both protect it from flooding and allow for the building of a canal to bring the water to the industrial pool. This would have destroyed this unique landscape.

In the end, it was decided to build the station at a more northern location, outside the area of the Tze’elim River’s flow. A canal to deliver the water into the Dead Sea will be built at the western edge of the alluvial fan, which will make building an embankment to hold it unnecessary.

While this complicated and expensive system will prevent the hotels from being flooded, it preserves the process of the sea being drained in order to provide water for industry. (Jordan, on the other side of the sea, also has industrial plants exploiting the minerals in the water.) For years, the water from the Jordan River that used to feed the Dead Sea has been drawn off for various uses before it ever reaches there, and the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal plan, which would bring water from the Gulf of Eilat to replenish the Dead Sea, seems far from ever being implemented.

Yadin, in a report she wrote for the hearing at which the Salt Harvest plan was approved, noted that the accelerated development of sinkholes in the area and the continuing depletion of the sea raise fundamental questions about the relationship between industry, tourism and the environment, and about the legacy we are leaving for future generations.

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