Middle East


The Death of the Dead Sea

In the last 40 years, the water level of the Dead Sea has fallen more than 20 meters, seriously impacting the economic and social livelihoods of people in the area. (Photo: Tom Spender / IRIN)

As the Dead Sea slowly shrinks towards extinction, fears are growing that the saltiest body of water on earth will not disappear without taking a few lives along with it.

The Dead Sea has fallen more than 20 meters over the past 40 years. Studies by scientists at the University of Jordan have shown that the sea now drops one meter in depth each year. The water level has declined faster than ever since Israel took control of the water resources that feed the Jordan River after occupying the West Bank after the 1967 Arab/Israel war.

"For at least 30 years, Israel diverted most of the Jordan River tributaries and controlled water coming from Tiberias Lake [the Sea of Galilee] in a way that the river level was heavily effected," said Najib Abu Karaki, head of the geology department at the University of Jordan.

Israel, however, has insisted that its dispute with Jordan over the use of the river was settled in peace agreements, which state that Israel will supply water to Jordan. Israel pumps water from the Sea of Galilee through its Movil Artzi water carrier to be used for irrigation of the Negev and other areas in Israel.

Sinkholes appear when influxes of fresh groundwater, triggered by a decrease in the sea level, gradually dissolve surface areas until they collapse. (Photo: Tom Spender / IRIN)

Although the problem of the Dead Sea's decline starts at the northern borders of Jordan, villagers at the southern edge of the Dead Sea are bearing the full brunt of the problem. Farms have been disappearing to sinkholes caused by the shrinking sea. Villagers lost their homes, cattle and their lives.

"It's like living on a landmine," said Jaber Abu Jarrar, 46, a farmer from Ghour Al Haditha village. He lost half his farm to emerging sinkholes.

Areas around the sea are dotted with black holes and snaking crevices.

"Two donkeys of mine and a cow died after they fell in deep holes," said Abu Jarrar, adding that many villagers had perished during the past 10 years due to sinkholes.

Community leaders said residents were no longer able to move about freely at night for fear that sinkholes might swallow them. "You could be driving to visit a friend in a nearby village and the road is fine. Suddenly, on the way back, huge holes appear in the middle of nowhere. It is very scary," said Salem Abu Hatab, 27, a teacher at a government school.

Sinkholes appear when influxes of fresh groundwater, triggered by a decrease in the sea level, gradually dissolve surface areas until they collapse. What villagers call "death traps" have been piercing the surrounding grounds of the Dead Sea for the past 20 years, but the phenomena has increased significantly in the past few years as the sea level has declined. Some of the sinkholes are a few meters wide and up to 20 meters deep.

The Jordanian government has been practicing emergency first aid on areas plagued by sinkholes, said Abu Karaki, who has been involved in some of these projects. "We will always have these sinkholes appear as long as the decline in the sea level continues," he said, adding that the situation is turning into a cat-and-mouse chase.

Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture said they had no choice but to continue with the "cosmetic surgery."

"Sinkholes appear because the sea level is declining, but we cannot do anything to stop this decline, simply because the issue is out of our hands," said a senior official from the Water Ministry who did not wish to be named. "Israel is creating the problems, and we have to cover for them," he said.

"Few things are being done to tackle the problem. We are filling sinkholes with different kinds of material. But whenever you fill a hole it reappears within a year or more," said Abu Karaki, who has been conducting research on sinkholes for years.

Although he is a regular visitor, Abu Karaki admitted that going to the Dead Sea is very risky. "Now we avoid going there frequently -- we want to study them by remote-control techniques," he said.

Sinkholes have also had a serious economic impact on the region. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been lost when construction sites unexpectedly collapse, Abu Karaki said. In one instance, the Jordanian Potash Company, one of the country's largest firms, lost an equivalent of U.S. $130 million when one of its dykes collapsed overnight.

Other incidents included the collapse of the social-security station, homes, restaurants, and rest houses.

Abu Karaki would like to develop an early-warning system to monitor the shores and predict where sinkholes could appear. However, he lacked sufficient funding for his pioneer project, which, he said, could save hundreds of millions of dollars and priceless lives.

"The aim is to focus on the areas where most of the deformation is taking place to better understand the phenomena, to give better information for constructors to ensure sustainability in the area. If we do not take this into account, we might risk having collapses," he said.

The shores of the Dead Sea are currently witnessing a construction boom on its northern and eastern shores, with hotels, large malls, and housing complexes being built with views of the mystical place.

Officials from the Ministry of Environment said regulations have been put in place to guarantee safe construction that is not harmful to the environment.

"You cannot eliminate natural hazards, but you can predict the consequences and minimize them," Abu Karaki said.

Recent figures from the Ministry of Water and Irrigation showed that water inflow levels to the Dead Sea have taken a nosedive to 10 percent of their original level prior to the 1960's. Experts predicted that future inflows would decline further, from 375 million cubic meters to 135 million cubic meters a year.

Jordanian officials have privately blamed Israelis for siphoning off the Jordan River's resources by diverting its tributaries to quench farms in settlements that have mushroomed since Israel occupied the West Bank.

"How Israel uses the water is madness," said Abu Karaki, adding that Israeli cows were able to produce the same amount of milk as those in Europe because they are given four showers a day.

However, Uri Schor, spokesman for the Israeli Water Commissioner, has denied that Israel uses more than its fair share of water from the Jordan River. He said Israel was not violating the agreement between the two countries on the use of water from the Jordan River.

"There have been no complaints from Jordan," he said.

According to Wadi Araba Peace Treaty, signed on Oct. 26, 1994, Jordan is entitled to 3 percent of the total flow of the Jordan River, while Israel retains the right to use 97 percent.

The industrial use of the sea has also been blamed for the shrinking water levels. The Southern basin of the Dead Sea was converted to shallow salting lakes (evaporation ponds) -- a total surface area of approximately 255 square kilometers. Water is pumped from the Northern Dead Sea Basin to the Salting lakes to extract minerals such as potassium, magnesium and many others. The evaporation ponds are responsible for 25 percent to 30 percent of the total evaporation of Dead Sea waters.

There may be a glimmer of hope. Officials and scientists have been upbeat about a proposed project to inject life into the Dead Sea by linking it with a canal to either the Red Sea, in the south, or the Mediterranean sea, in the west. The multi-billion-dollar project, which was proposed when Jordan and Israel signed their peace treaty in 1994, could help Jordan put an end to its chronic water shortage and return the Dead Sea to its normal level.

However, environmentalists are concerned the project could bring other problems to the region.

"The canal could cause a massive disruption of natural landscapes, transport saline seawater over areas containing freshwater aquifers, and disturb the natural qualities of the sea," said Ahmed Abdul Rahman, Dead Red project manager at Friends of the Earth.

The Dead Sea is 75 kilometers long and ranges in width from 6 kilometers to 16 kilometers. It is entirely devoid of plant and animal life, due to an extremely high content of salt and other minerals. The Dead Sea contains 350 grams of salt per kilogram of water, compared with about 40 grams per kilogram in the world's oceans. © IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]