Dead Sea ‘dying’

EIN GEDI, Israel — The Dead Sea is dying, with the world’s saltiest water body threatened by a lack of freshwater and an increasingly tense political situation, environmentalists have warned.

The bare, sun-baked landscape around the Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth which is bordered by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank — has since biblical times been fed by the Jordan River’s freshwater. But that has been systematically diverted for agricultural and hydroelectric projects, while an evaporation basin for farming world-famous Dead Sea minerals has lowered the water level by one metre a year for the past two decades.

Now, warns Gideon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Israel, the whole area is headed for ecological disaster unless serious measures are taken. “The ecological situation is catastrophic,” Bromberg told AFP. “In 50 years, the Dead Sea has lost a third of its surface area and its water level is continuing to drop rapidly.”

“For the time being nothing concrete has been undertaken,” he said, adding that the Dead Sea has lost 98 per cent of the freshwater it previously had from the Jordan River which today has become “a drain.”

The consequences are particularly serious on the western Israeli and West Bank shores, he said.

Every year new cracks appear in the seabed, draining more waters away. Lucrative thermal spas such as those at Ein Gedi in Israel have seen the salty waters retreat two kilometres.

“We have discovered 1,650 holes and crevasses, some of them dozens of metres deep,” Eli Raz, a geologist specialising in the Dead Sea, told AFP.

The holes are mainly caused by rainwater coming down from surrounding mountains and dissolving salt crystals that had previously plugged access to underground caverns.

Raz said the holes are mainly in inaccessible areas and are not yet threatening infrastructure such as buildings or the roads that bring thousands of tourists to the Dead Sea every year, as they have done for millennia, to enjoy the sparse beauty of the surroundings and the health benefits of the water.

The mineral-rich water combined with the higher atmospheric pressure of the world’s lowest land depression and lack of hay fever causing pollens in the air have excellent benefits.

Last July, the World Bank approved a feasibility study for a plan to build a 200-kilometre canal to bring water from the Red Sea to the south.

The two-year study by Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians is to cost $15.5 million and will be financed by foreign donors.

If the feasibility study give the go-ahead, the project will take around five years to complete. Its second phase involves building power generation and water desalination plants to supply electricity and freshwater to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Experts say the Dead Sea needs some two billion cubic metres of water annually from the Red Sea because 66 billion cubic metres have evaporated through industrial use.

But since the victory of Islamist militant movement Hamas in January’s Palestinian elections, Israel has cut virtually all contacts with the Palestinian Authority, further complicating the delicate situation.

Moreover, some ecologists are concerned that the canal project will cause more damage than good, upsetting the Dead Sea’s delicate equilibrium by bringing saltwater in to replace the depleted supply of freshwater.

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