Will the Dead Sea exist in 2050? Action must be taken now, says Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry

Although Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan signed a formal peace agreement in 1994, the two countries don’t agree on many issues – but there is one on which they see eye to eye – the fact that the Dead Sea that lies between them is shrinking. 

Israel agreed to give Jordan 50,000,000 cubic meters of water each year and for Jordan to own 75% of the water from the Yarmuk River, the largest tributary of the Jordan River that run in JordanSyria and Israel. Both signatories said Israel and Jordan could develop other water resources and reservoirs and agreed to help each other survive droughts. Israel also agreed to help Jordan use desalination technology to access additional water. 

But the landlocked salt lake – 10 times saltier than the oceans – has nevertheless receded about 20 meters (66 feet) over the past two decades, and the decline in water levels and the groundwater has created thousands of dangerous sinkholes on both sides of the shrinking body of water.  

Some experts fear that it will disappear by 2050, while others say it will never fully disappear but survive at a fraction of its current size 

There are references to the Dead Sea in the Bible and the Koran, making it important to Jews, Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Dead Sea Scrolls – one of the oldest known manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible –were found in the area, and part of the Jordan River not far north of where the Dead Sea flows is also regarded as the baptism site of Jesus. 

For tens of thousands of years, the Dead Sea was fed by rain and the Jordan River, which runs south from the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to the lake. But in the 1960s, Israel began to massively divert water from the Jordan, chiefly to the Negev, to “make the desert bloom,” and the Kingdom of Jordan and Syria also reduced the flow by building dams on the Yarmouk, a river passing through its territory that fed the Jordan.

Temperatures are rising, causing speedy evaporation. In addition, both countries extract valuable minerals from the lake to collect bromine, potash (used to make fertilizers) and other salts. 

More than four decades ago, the government of Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin suggested building a cancel from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea to introduce water into the salt lake and produce electricity, but while major financial contributions were made by wealthy donors, nothing came of it for various reasons, including the fact that environmental scientists suggested that large-scale mixing of ocean water with Dead Sea water could have irreversible consequences that cannot be predicted in the lab. 

Since the Jordan Rift Valley is at high risk for earthquakes, if there are pipelines with salt water that are broken as a result, this could release it in Israel’s Arava Valley and ruin its fertile soil. 

For tens of thousands of years, the Dead Sea was fed by rain and the Jordan River, which runs south from the inland Sea of Galilee to the inland salt lake. But in the 1960s, Israel began to massively divert water from the Jordan, chiefly to the Negev, to “make the desert bloom” as the nation’s founders had envisioned. The Kingdom of Jordan did its share of damage by damming the Yarmouk, a river passing through its territory that fed the Jordan. Guests at luxury hotels surrounding the lake have to walk farther to reach the edges. 

It has been suggested that the dams on the Yarmuk be removed and Jordan could build a desalination plant to turn salt water at Aqaba (opposite Eilat), but experts believe it would not help much to raise the Dead Sea’s level. 

Starting about two decades ago, Israel began to develop a massive desalination industry along the Mediterranean coast hat turns seawater into drinking water. Thankfully, this has meant that the country is no longer dependent on water from the Kinneret and rainfall.

Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has just announced that it is consulting with the public on a draft policy document for the future of the Dead Sea basin. Its experts have prepared a series of recommendations to the entire government – to take immediate action to stabilize the level of the Dead Sea; reduce the environmental damage caused by the factories; start charging the factories lying at its edge a fee for their share of the lowering of the level; and rehabilitate the Jordan River to the estuary of the Dead Sea. 

The ministry, in collaboration with the Geological Survey, the Dead Sea Drainage Authority and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Studies published a thick report analyzing the condition of the Dead Sea and its surroundings and and drafting ideas to reverse the damage. 

The publication of the document is meant to advance a real and in-depth public discussion. Comments and suggestions for alternatives will be submitted to the minister for a decision on the final recommendations.

Ministry director-general Galit Cohen commented that |the Dead Sea area is a unique region of land, a rare natural resource whose preservation is an important national and international interest. The policy document presents for the first time the implications for the region in ‘business as usual’ status for the next 50 years. This would mean ongoing pumping of water draining into the basin by Israel, Jordan and Syria and continued pumping of Dead Sea brine by Israeli and Jordanian plants. 

Another option is stabilizing the level of the Dead Sea as soon as possible, alongside recommendations for prudent management that balances conservation and development. This would involve an annual flow of about 750 million cubic meters per year from the Mediterranean and other sources. 

.The policy document also includes recommendations on the impact of the mining industry on the Dead Sea – to limit the volume of pumping and charge for the water taken from the northern basin, in a way that would represent the factories’ the direct responsibility for the lowering of the level and using the money to stabilize it. 

 


Israel in the News