The Dead Sea has had its ups and downs over the millenia, as we know from a careful study of its geology. In the past, these changes were due to natural processes and occurred relatively slowly. In recent decades, however, humans have contributed—inadvertently—to changing this remarkable body of water in more dramatic, and potentially disastrous, ways.
Over the past 50 years, the surface of the Dead Sea has been dropping at an alarming rate. Four decades ago, it was 1,290 feet below sea level; now it’s more than 1,350 feet below sea level—a drop of sixty feet. Estimates of just how fast the Dead Sea is losing water vary, but according to some environmentalists, its surface has lately been dropping by as much as 3 feet per year. Highways and buildings that once skirted its shore are now sometimes several hundred feet from the water. So, besides being already “dead” biologically—no life, other than microorganisms, can live in its salty water—the Dead Sea also appears to be dying as a geographical feature.
What’s causing the Dead Sea to dry up? Tourism is partly to blame: the communities and resorts on its shores demand fresh water, which Israel and Jordan draw from the Jordan and other rivers that feed into it. Tapped also for irrigation by both countries, this water would otherwise keep the Dead Sea replenished. In addition to less fresh water flowing in, the Dead Sea’s natural evaporation—remember, it has no other outlet than into the air—has been accelerated in recent decades by industrial development.
Much of the Dead Sea’s southern basin has been partitioned into several broad, shallow, solar evaporation ponds. These are used by Israeli and Jordanian mineral companies to extract potash, salt, bromine and magnesium from water brought from the deeper northern portion of the lake. According to EcoPeace, a US-based environmental organization, the evaporation ponds account for between 25 and 30 percent of the Dead Sea’s current evaporation.
Since it is so deep, the Dead Sea isn’t in immediate danger of drying up completely, but the consequences of its loss of water are already being felt. For one thing, several already-threatened bird and mammal species are losing a vital habitat due to the receding shoreline. And in recent years, sinkholes similar to those that swallowed the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah have started to appear in large numbers around the Sea’s southern shores—presenting a potential hazard to the tourists who flock to En Gedi and Mitzpe Shalem. These holes result from the falling underground water table, creating subterranean cavities that a passing vehicle—or human—can unwittingly expose.
Can anything be done to reverse the sinking of the Dead Sea? Israel has long wanted to build a canal to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Mediterranean (the “Med-Dead” Canal), but it now looks like the Dead Sea’s savior may turn out to be its ruddy cousin to the south. The Jordanians have proposed a 125-mile-long canal that would bring water from the Gulf of Aqaba on the Red Sea. This proposed “Red-Dead” project would cost around $4 billion and take ten years to complete.
If the project goes forward, the Dead Sea may yet rise once again.