World losing Dead Sea

Ultra-salty waters of Dead Sea decay due to mineral extraction and diversion of Jordan River’s waters

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Sinkholes start to appear on the shore of the Dead Sea

The Dead Sea, a unique body of water located more than 420 metres below sea level, is disapperaing.

Its water, marked by mineral-rich, unusually salty water - nearly 10 times saltier than the world's oceans - has been shrinking by more than a metre a year in recent decades.

The demise of the sea, which has already lost about a third of its surface area, stems from damming and unsustainable uses of the region's water basins.

Scientists have warned that a regional effort is urgently needed to restore water levels in the Jordan River, which feeds the Dead Sea.

However, in the conflict-ridden region, establishing international cooperation on preserving waterways seems to be challenging while the proposal to channel water from the Red Sea has been controversial.

An Israeli expert on water management, Professor Eilon Adar says that the main cause of the sea's disapperance is countries extracting water from the surrounding basins.

Eilon put another factor as Israeli and Jordanian industrial works at the Dead Sea, which extract potash by evaporating seawater, saying "The Dead Sea is dying because Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon divert water from the basin."

The shrinking of the Dead Sea not only reflects its own doom but also broader demise of the waterways in the Middle East, including the Jordan River. Stretches of the river in the region, particularly in the south, are all dry.

Gidon Bromberg, director of Eco Peace Middle East (EPME), an organisation that brings together Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian environmentalists to protect their shared environmental heritage also said that "It's unacceptable: The unique ecosystem is in severe danger, threatening biodiversity, and you see dramatic sinkholes opening up along the shore,"  referring to the large, unpredictable cavities that have arisen recently.

Surrounding the Dead Sea, Israel, Jordan, and the occupied West Bank, have taken steps to deal with its depletion. All three parties signed a letter to the World Bank in 2015 that allowed the international financial institution to investigate the feasibility of a $10 0billion project to pump 850 million cubic meter (mcm) of water from Jordan's section of the Red Sea to a desalination plant at the southern end of the Dead Sea.

This would enable the 2,000 mcm of ultra-saline brine that results from the desalination process to be pumped to the Dead Sea over the course of 40 years.

However, this project was not supported because of the unknowable environmental effect of introducing such high volumes of foreign brine water would have on the Dead Sea's unique ecosystem, which features unique bacterial and fungal life forms.

After years of consultations involving government officials and civil society groups, the original project was suspended but the parties continued negotiations, and in February, a final agreement emerged: a $950 million "pilot programme" water-sharing arrangement, in which Jordan will construct a desalination plant near Aqaba, on the coast of the Red Sea.

The scheme will produce about 85 mcm of fresh water a year while 50 mcm will be sold to the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat, leaving about 35 mcm for use in Aqaba city. As part of the agreement, Israel will sell another 50 mcm of freshwater to Amman from the Sea of Galilee.

Jordan, as one of the world's most water-scarce countries, stands to gain from this new agreement between Israel and Jordan. While Israel and Jordan are approaching the new arrangement bilaterally, Palestine Authority was left out.

Accordingly, Clemens Messerschmid, a German hydrogeologist who has been working on water projects in the Gaza Strip and West Bank since 1997, stated in a media outlet that these agreements were nothing more than an attempt by Israel to reinforce the current status quo, in which it controls water extraction from the occupied territories and the Jordan River basin then sells this water back to Palestinians.

"Palestinians, by default, are the real loser of these agreements, whether the 'pilot programmes' or the $10bn World Bank scheme," he added.

As for the Dead Sea, Bromberg predicted that it will "never completely dry up." In the coming years, surrounding springs will continue to replenish some of the water, but the current water level of 417 metres below sea level could fall to more than 700 metres below sea level, threatening the biodiversity even more seriously.

Messerschmid, meanwhile, believes that the confusion over the Dead Sea's water needs pales in comparison to the water needs of the Palestinians. "These are real people, with real concerns regarding access to water; 4.6 million Palestinians have been held hostage to Israel's hydro-apartheid for half a century," he said.

"Their rights should be held above that of the bacteria at the bottom of the Dead Sea."

TRTWorld and agencies