On reviving the Dead Sea

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The feeling of floating, unaided, in the salty water, floundering about if you try to swim, makes a visit to the Dead Sea unique. But the days are numbered for this fun and bewildering marvel, this landlocked salty ‘sea’.

The Dead Sea is dying. Due to a number of factors, both geological and human, the water level of the Dead Sea has been dropping dramatically over the past decades. Over 50 miles long in 1950, the sea is a mere 30 miles long today — leaving some resorts high and dry and causing havoc to the local ecosystem. The sea is still shrinking, and is getting barely 10 per cent of the water it needs to maintain its current levels.

The Dead Sea has always led a precarious existence. Its outlet to the sea dried up over 18,000 years ago, leaving a salty lake at the lowest point on Earth. It has maintained a fragile equilibrium since Classical times: from the rivers and streams which feed into it the Dead Sea gets fresh water, which in turn evaporates, keeping the water level stable and enabling the sea to maintain extraordinarily high salt levels (around 33% salinity). In the 1960s, the amount of water entering the Dead Sea was dramatically reduced by Israel’s pumping and diversion of tributaries to provide water across the country. In the 1970s, Jordan and Syria also began to divert key water sources, too.

An American adventurer in the 1800s described the sea as hundreds of feet wide in some places, interrupted by “frequent and most fearful rapids.” It is now a murky, dirty snake of water, barely wider than a large stream to a British observer such as myself. The Dead Sea is essential for tourism in both Jordan and Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories. People have travelled here for centuries to experience the weightless feeling of floating, and many others have come seeking treatment for a wide variety of ailments. Hotels are finding themselves ever further from the shoreline — some even create an artificial Dead Sea nearer to their door. The money gained from tourism to the sea could hugely outweigh the money offered by agriculture sustained on the waters of its tributaries, but governments pressured by strong agricultural lobbies are slow to cotton on to this fact.

Now faced with the prospect of the Dead Sea and the tourism it encourages all but drying up in less than 70 years, Israel, Jordan and the Occupied Territories signed a letter asking the World Bank to investigate the feasibility of pumping water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, via a pipeline over 100 miles long. However, a pipeline or canal such as this would have a huge environmental impact, may well not solve the problem of the shrinking water levels and could severely damage the Dead Sea’s fragile ecosystem, which includes unique bacterial and fungal lifeforms.

Contrary to its name, the Dead Sea supports a complex and flourishing ecosystem. Its shoreline oases arehome to scores of plants, fish and mammals, such as the ibex. These could disappear in as little as five years.

There seems little hope in securing a future for the Dead Sea if nothing is done to change local water usage. Tourists should keep in mind that water is not something that can be taken for granted when staying at the hotels lining the shore. While a more lasting solution that ensures that the population have the water that they need and the delicate tourist industry and ecosystems are maintained, governments should perhaps encourage farmers to grow crops that require less water. However, the solution has not yet been found, and the Dead Sea is continuing to die. I would get your visit in quick before you can no longer try reading a newspaper whilst floating in the salty water

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