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Troubled Water

Is pumping water into the Dead Sea saving or destroying it?

Daniella Cheslow
July 02, 2009
A sign warning of muddy soil is seen near Ein Gedi on the retreating shores of the Dead Sea on September 10, 2008.(JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images.)
A sign warning of muddy soil is seen near Ein Gedi on the retreating shores of the Dead Sea on September 10, 2008.(JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images.)

Five years ago, Israeli geologist Eli Raz fell into a Dead Sea sinkhole, a crater in the earth caused by topsoil or bedrock erosion. As he waited for a rescue team to arrive—which ultimately took 14 hours—Raz, who lives at Kibbutz Ein Gedi and works for the Dead Sea and Arava Science Center, kept a diary of the ordeal on a roll of toilet paper he had with him. Not surprisingly, his experience inspired him to join the ranks of scientists and politicians actively concerned about a previously unconsidered reality: the Dead Sea is shrinking.

The sinkhole into which Raz fell was one of many that have formed on the east and west shores as a result of shrinkage on the body of water—actually a lake—that borders Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel, according to Israeli Environmental Ministry spokeswoman Galit Cohen. The holes have also disrupted travel on the surrounding highways and doomed a plan to build 5,000 hotel rooms on the Dead Sea shoreline, she said. Among other problems, the receding shoreline has marooned the once-seaside spa at Kibbutz Ein Gedi a mile away from the water. In fact, according to experts, the sea has been shrinking at an alarming rate for some time, dropping a meter a year in volume for the past two decades. But a World Bank project designed to pump water into it from the Red Sea in southern Israel is raising an outcry among local environmental organizations, who say that large river engineering problems are the cause of the Dead Sea’s demise and not the solution.

The lake’s contraction, geologists agree, owes mainly to extensive Israeli and Jordanian dam-and-diversion projects for agriculture and drinking water that have reduced the Jordan River to little more than a trickle. Mineral and potash extraction on the Dead Sea shores in both countries has taken a further toll. A Ministry of the Environment study found that the sea’s surface area went from 1,000 square kilometers (about 386 square miles) in 1950 to 650 square kilometers (about 250 square miles) in 2006. For the past year, the World Bank has worked with the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governments to study a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal as possible remedy for the ailing sea. The plan would pump 200 billion cubic meters (about seven trillion cubic feet) out of the Red Sea on the Eilat and Aqaba shores, to be pumped 112 miles northward to the Dead Sea. Along the way, half the water would be desalinated and shared by the three parties. The remaining brine would go to the Dead Sea. Supporters claim this will solve the region’s water shortage and preserve the unique tourist attraction from ruin.

But others, like Raz, are skeptical. He has written that Israel has neglected to check alternative methods to save the Dead Sea, such as importing water from Turkey or increasing desalinization. In addition, he notes, the World Bank’s environmental impact study will be too short to fully assess damage. “This plan would result in about 84 million tons of dissolved salts entering the Dead Sea annually, about 31.5 times more than the Jordan River supply in the past, with a different chemical composition,” Raz wrote.

Raz’s doubts mirror the concerns of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an environmental organization with offices in Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, and Amman. Spokeswoman Mira Edelstein said that the different water supplies may cause red algae to form on top of the sea, while a chalky plastery substance might form in layers underneath. Further south, the pumping stations in the Red Sea could wipe out coral reefs.

“Israel and Jordan live off of tourism in that area,” said Edelstein. “Are we shooting ourselves in the foot by pumping this water out of the Red Sea?”

Edelstein added that Friends of the Earth is researching the cost of a Northern Option to open the dams holding back the Jordan River. “Our protest is not the Red-Dead Canal specifically, because the feasibility studies are not yet finished,” she said. “But they’re only studying one option to save the Dead Sea…The World Bank has agreed to study the Northern Option, but they aren’t doing it with the same intensity.”

The World Bank said studies are looking at all the options. “We’re spending well in excess of five million dollars studying the environmental effects of the proposed water conveyance program,” said Alex McPhail, lead water and sanitation specialist at the World Bank Group. “We understand that there are lots of environmental and cultural concerns. We don’t have any results yet.”

According to Eran Feitelson, a trans-boundary water expert, Friends of the Earth’s stance leaves out the severity of Jordan’s water problems. Whereas Israel plans to desalinize its way to drinking water supplies, most Jordanians live far away from the country’s only shoreline and seawater desalinization option at the Red Sea. “From a strategic perspective Israel is interested in the stability of Jordan,” he said, pointing to a long history of water cooperation between the two countries.

Friends of the Earth’s opposition is a far cry from Israeli attitudes to water works in the past. When Israel opened up a pipeline in 1955 from the Yarkon River in the center of the country down to the Negev Desert, the public enthusiastically embraced the plan.

“That project definitely had deleterious effects on the Yarkon River,” Feitelson said. “And 30,000 people came to celebrate the opening of the pipe, out of a population of 2 million. It was seen as a great development.”

Since then, the environmental movement has grown and with it, more skeptical stances to giant development projects. One milestone in this development was the 1953 draining of the Huleh Lake in northern Israel, which later proved to be an irreplaceable sanctuary for cross-continental migrating birds. Huleh has since been reflooded.

For now, no digging has commenced on the canal; the World Bank’s feasibility study is expected to be finished in 2011. After a meeting on June 25 between Silvan Shalom and the World Bank President Robert Zoelick, Shalom’s office announced it would begin a pilot program to test the impact on the Dead Sea. But a World Bank statement on the meeting made no reference to the pilot, only alluding to “the possibility of phased implementation.”

Galit Cohen said that the Ministry of the Environment has pushed Israeli water managers to increase water flows in the Jordan River, but that it would be a drop in the ocean compared to what reviving the lake requires.

“Even if Israel let all the water flow down the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, it’s not even one quarter of the amount of water we need for stabilizing the Sea,” Cohen said. She added that Middle Eastern water management is a zero-sum game. “We know that if Israel will let water flow down Jordan River, the Palestinian Authority and the Jordanians will pump it, because they have a very serious drinking water problem. It’s a tragedy.”

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.