The Dead Sea is shrinking — and at a record rate.
The Hydrological Service of Israel has recorded a staggering 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) drop in water levels over the last 12 months, and it is believed the Dead Sea’s shore has, in total, now retreated as much as a mile.
Not only does this spell hard times for industries like the tourism sector that relies on the draw of the Dead Sea to pull in holidaymakers, but the retreating water also destabilizes the ground, which in turn leads to massive sinkholes. These sinkholes have led to entire villages being abandoned. Moreover, underground freshwater springs, vital to nearby wildlife, are also being claimed by the arid conditions left by the water’s retreat.
The main culprits fingered for this staggering decline is evaporation procedures, agricultural diversion and pumping to extract minerals for fertilizers; specifically the potash industry, which uses the mineral-rich Dead Sea water in the production of fertilizer.
Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the Friends of Earth Middle East, is quoted as saying that as much as half the decline has been caused by companies like Israel Chemicals Ltd.
“This is unacceptable and speaks to the urgency of the need to force industry to change their extraction process,” Bromberg is reported as saying.
However, Dead Sea Works denies an increase in water pumping.
Dead Sea Works, owned by Israel Chemicals, denied any increased pumping, saying it has used 150 million to 170 million cubic meters a year from the sea for two decades.
“The main reason for the declining sea level is the increased usage of the water that used to flow to the Dead Sea in the past, especially from the Jordan River, by all countries in the region,” the company said in an emailed statement.
It’s already paying to use Dead Sea water through royalties that it said have doubled since the beginning of the year, Dead Sea Works said. Israel Chemicals agreed in December that royalty payments on potash production above certain levels would double to 10 percent.
So what else is contributing to the steep decline?
It appears that the wider agricultural industry may have to shoulder a hefty burden of responsibility.
The combined population of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories has more than tripled since the 1970s, and with that they have sourced, dammed and diverted almost all of the water in the Jordan and the springs and tributaries that once fed it. In fact, so much water is extracted around the Sea of Galilee that only a fraction is left free-flowing to trickle down to the Dead Sea.
Of course, the problem is further complicated by the precarious political situation of the region. Managing to sort out this problem would require massive cooperation between the nations. Intermittent though it has been, their efforts have not been entirely fruitless.
Together, officials from across Jordan, Palestine’s territories and Israel, working with the World Bank, have managed to forge on with a plan to bring in water from the Red Sea. That plan is not without its own drawbacks, in particular the environmental impact this would entail, but it is at the moment the most promising tactic they have at their disposal.
In the meantime, however, campaigners and leading experts are recommending that wiser resource management could restore almost a third of the Jordan’s regular flow and in turn save the Dead Sea.
For instance, were Jordan and Israel to reduce agriculture subsidies, they would then reduce their dependence on farming water-hungry export crops, which could lead to a substantial, though not immediate or complete, redress of the problem.
Similarly, reduction in potash, bromides, magnesium and salt extractions, which by its nature requires that water be channeled through a system of broad channels, thereby increasing water waste, would also contribute to a recovery.
Specifically, if companies extracted minerals via use of membranes rather than by evaporation, they could save a substantial amount of water. That would be costly, however, and there seems to be little appetite to burden the industry in this way.
Implemented alone, none of the steps outlined above would fix the overall water problem. However, a massive cooperative effort across Jordan, Israel and Palestine could begin to address the issue. It remains to be seen if such a sustained effort will be possible in the long term, but current steps toward a solution have been encouraging.
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