Could Water from the Red Sea Help Revive the Dead Sea?

As the world’s saltiest sea shrinks and thousands of sinkholes open in the Holy Land, Israel and Jordan consider a controversial water project.

January 23, 2017

A large sinkhole on the Israeli shoreline of the Dead Sea

Ziva & Amir/Flickr

The search-and-rescue unit’s SUV isn’t in its parking spot, so David Greenbaum, the manager of Israel’s Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, picks up the key to the white sedan left in its place.

“I think it should be OK,” Greenbaum says as he clears the passenger seat of papers and small tools. “I hope you have good insurance.”

 “Health or life?”

“I meant health,” he replies, smiling wanly. “But if you have life insurance, that would be good also.”

We are on our way to see some of the sinkholes that have destabilized most of the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, or in Hebrew Yam HaMelach, the “Salt Sea.” At more than 1,300 feet below sea level, this land is the lowest on earth, bordered by Israel to the west and Jordan to the east, with the Palestinian Authority controlling the northern shore.

The holes are a consequence of the Dead Sea’s sinking water level. The retreat of the water (which is almost 10 times saltier than the ocean’s) has allowed fresh groundwater to well up and dissolve the layer of salt within the land’s subsurface. Underground cavities form and eventually trigger collapses. So far, the sinkholes have swallowed mature palm trees, some trailers at a resort, and at least one car. The deepest pit could fit an eight-story building.

Last year, after satellite imagery showed instability under sections of Road 90, which winds along the Dead Sea’s western bank, authorities temporarily closed and rerouted the highway inland. They also permanently shut down all of Israel’s public beaches on the northern basin.

The Dead Sea is shrinking due, in part, to huge water diversions from the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers.

The Dead Sea is technically not a sea but an endorheic, or terminal, lake (a lake that doesn’t flow into a river, sea, or ocean). This kind of lake tends to exist at the edge of deserts, and many besides the Dead Sea are in crisis. Lake Chad in north-central Africa is one-twentieth the size it was 35 years ago, and water diversions have caused the Aral Sea in south-central Asia—once the fourth-largest lake in the world—to all but disappear.

But few places have quite the heritage of the Dead Sea. Along its banks are sites like Masada, which just over two millennia ago served as a summer palace for Judea’s King Herod and later was the final redoubt for Jewish rebels revolting against Roman legions. The Bible names Ein Gedi as the place where the young King David outmaneuvered the homicidally deranged King Saul. Qumran, off the northwestern shore, is where the Essenes, an aesthetic Jewish sect in the time of Jesus, wrote what came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The landscape is filled with Nabataean and Roman ruins as well as ancient trading stations, mosques, palaces, and synagogues. On the southern end sits Sodom, the divinely condemned place where a mountain consisting almost entirely of salt stands. 

Ancient colonnades among the ruins of King Herod’s summer palace

Schlomo Polonsky/123RF

Today’s sinkholes, located almost exclusively on the sea’s Israeli side, first appeared in the early 1980s. Within a decade there were 40 of them, and by the late 1990s about 1,000. According to Eli Raz, a geology consultant who has tracked the problem almost since it began, more than 4,000 sinkholes now pockmark the land.

Greenbaum turns off a freshly tarred two-lane road and into an abandoned wasteland. Our car judders over the crusty surface until we arrived at the edge of a cluster of holes. He cuts the engine and we get out. Rows of palm trees listed in the soil like old people with arthritic spines. These trees had lost their tops because no one was able to enter the area to water them. Despite the danger and the fact that two million tourists a year visit the Dead Sea, the sinkholes have caused just a handful of actual injuries—but enough for Greenbaum’s crew to have created a special contraption to extract people who fall into one. No one has died, at least not yet. The same can’t be said for the land. 

Sign warning of sinkhole danger

Todd Pitock

Greenbaum fears that the general indifference Israelis feel toward this region, which is visited mostly by international tourists and school groups, will allow special interests to advance bad policies in an attempt to fix it. “This area is completely dead,” he says with a sigh. “This was the main beach. My concern is that it will not stop here. We think we know where it will end, but we do not know.”

 “It looks like a natural disaster,” I reply.

The remark elicits a look of dismay. “But it is not a natural disaster,” Greenbaum says. “It is not an earthquake or a flood that did this. It is a human disaster.” 
 

Postcards from the Edge

As the water recedes, sinkholes form on the shore.

Todd Pitock

On my drive up the coast of the sea to meet Greenbaum earlier that day, I had pulled over to a lookout point to see jagged, red-hued mountains plunging toward the shore. At dawn, the sunlight painted the water’s surface a shimmering emerald, but by midday the sun had scorched the sea into a kind of gray abstract. On shore, fields of sinkholes looked like a torrent of mortar bombs had rained down upon the earth. Holes spread out until they linked to one another, forming long, deep canyons whose bottoms were hidden by abysmally dark shadows.

A few miles farther north, about a 30-minute drive from Jerusalem, I stepped around some fencing and skull-and-crossbones keep-out signs to reach Mineral Beach, a shuttered public resort. The asphalt parking lot in front of what had been a cosmetics store had long, wide cracks. Two crates of Maccabee and Goldstar, popular Israeli beers, had been left in the sun, as if whoever had been carrying them didn’t want to be weighed down in the rush to evacuate. The resort’s massage rooms had fallen into a long but relatively shallow hole. They sat half-in, half-out, like torpedoed ships in the process of sinking. While trying to get closer to the edge of a larger pit, I remembered a story the geologist Raz had told me. A sinkhole once opened right beneath his feet, and “I thought it would be my end,” Raz said. It took 14 hours for someone to find him, by which time he’d written a new will and a short memoir on a roll of toilet paper, his own Dead Sea Scroll. The story sent me back to my car.

A week or so later I spent the night at a guesthouse in Neve Zohar, the more modest of two still-operating Dead Sea resort areas, where the sinkhole risk was low. At 3 a.m. I was having trouble sleeping and took a walk to the water’s edge. The air outside was mild and still, and only the buzzing of electrical lines within the village broke the desert’s characteristic deep quiet. A sign with a red slash across a bathing stick figure indicated swimming wasn’t allowed, but a plastic beach chair suggested the rule was commonly ignored. With no one in sight, I stepped into the lake. The water felt warm and oily, almost viscous. I buoyantly lay back as if the surface were a liquid mattress and considered the sequins of stars. Afterward, I stepped gingerly up the crusty beach toward my room, thinking how strange it was to be in a place where you can gently float on water and fall into the land.

The Sinking Sea

Dead Sea map

What is happening to the land is a consequence of what’s happening to the water. The Dead Sea is receding because Israel, Jordan, and Syria divert much of the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers for industry, irrigation, and drinking—water that would otherwise flow into the Dead Sea.

Two companies face each other from opposite sides of the lake’s southern end: Jordan’s Arab Potash and Israel’s Dead Sea Works. They each use a lot of freshwater to extract their main product, potash, which is typically used as a fertilizer. In fact, Dead Sea Works, which became a state-owned enterprise in 1952 and was privatized in the ’90s, is the world’s seventh-largest producer of the stuff. It also makes magnesium chloride, industrial salts, deicers, bath salts, table salt, and raw materials for cosmetics. To extract the chemicals, Dead Sea Works has built canals that carry 350 million cubic meters of freshwater a year from Israel’s Sea of Galilee—a lake through which the Jordan River flows—to massive evaporation ponds. The resort area of Ein Bokek, which is like a touch of Vegas minus the gambling, is actually built on the shores of the evaporation ponds, not the Dead Sea.

Dead Sea Works plant and evaporation ponds on the Israeli coast

Irina Opachevsky/123RF

Between the needs of people and industry, the Dead Sea operates on an 800-million-cubic-meter annual deficit and is receding about three feet a year. Once 50 miles long, it is now about 30. The lake’s surface area has shrunk 30 percent in 20 years, with entire sections drying up completely. The Ein Gedi Spa, built on the water’s edge in the 1980s, now sits a mile from shore. Visitors can access the sea only via a trolley that travels along an asphalt road between swaths of sinkholes and desolation.

“Please don’t write that the Dead Sea is dying,” Ittai Gavrieli tells me in his Jerusalem office. A geologist, Gavrieli works for the Geological Survey of Israel, the government department responsible for monitoring the region. While the situation is deteriorating, the Dead Sea is not going to disappear. Its water table will just keep sinking. “It’ll continue to sink and will probably stabilize another 100 or so meters below its current level,” he says.

The facts of the matter are not in dispute. The question is what to do about it.
 

Red to Dead

In December 2015, Israel and Jordan put out an $800 million tender seeking bids from international companies for the Red Sea–Dead Sea Water Project, a vision for a pipeline to carry water 120 miles between the two bodies of water. While the project gets a lot of attention as an effort to save the Dead Sea, the proposal is primarily a massive water exchange between Israel and Jordan.

Dead Sea

Jordan is in dire need of water right now. In little more than a decade, this already parched desert kingdom has absorbed more than a million Iraqi and Syrian refugees. The Red Sea–Dead Sea plan includes a desalination plant in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba. The plant would have the capacity to take seawater from the Red Sea and produce 65 million to 85 million cubic meters of freshwater a year, of which Jordan would use slightly less than half and sell the rest to Israel. In return, Israel would sell Jordan 50 million cubic meters of freshwater from the Sea of Galilee.

At an international conference hosted in Aqaba in June, the Israeli Ministry of Regional Cooperation presented the project’s timetable to potential investors. The World Bank is on board, and the U.S. government agreed to kick in $100 million of the $400 million needed for the initial phase, which has a proposed finish date of 2019. In the meantime, 94 bids to build the pipeline have come in from countries around the world, including China, South Korea, France, Canada, Israel, Egypt, and Lebanon. The current plan is for a four-pipeline conduit to be laid entirely in Jordanian territory.

On paper, Red–Dead looks as elegant as it is ambitious—a simple solution for a huge environmental crisis that includes jobs, infrastructure, and profits. Everyone wins: A hydroelectric plant would be built, generating energy; desalination plants would pump out drinking water; and the reject brine, the by-product of the desalination process, would replenish the Dead Sea like a hose filling a swimming pool. The Israelis and Jordanians would share responsibility for building, maintaining, and operating the system. Thus, water, a historic cause of anxiety, contention, and even war in the region, becomes a conduit for economic and social cooperation. 

But Red–Dead comes with caveats. Environmentalists, including the authors of a 2013 World Bank study that ultimately backed the plan, warned that seawater or reject brine could have a major impact on the Dead Sea’s geochemistry and biology. Adding Red Sea water to the hypersaline Dead Sea, the report said, might also trigger algae blooms that would turn the Dead’s surface red. Alternatively, the admixture of calcium-rich Dead Sea brine and sulfate-rich Red Sea water could precipitate gypsum and turn the water white.

Dried plates of salt left by the receding water level along the eroded shoreline near Ein Gedi

Olga Solan/Getty

Other researchers fear that the addition of Red Sea water would exacerbate the sinkhole problem. As the more diluted water dissolves stores of salt on the shoreline, they say, it could get absorbed into aquifers and streams, accelerating the collapses. 

“If this Red–Dead nonsense happens, the operation will be successful but the patient will absolutely die,” Raz says. “You cannot preserve the [lake’s] level by using seawater. You will lose the qualities of the Dead Sea.”

Scientists are still in the process of discovering the extent of those special qualities. There aren’t any fish in the Dead Sea, but we’ve just recently begun to understand the nature of the life that is there, which is visible only by microscope. In 2009, a marine biologist from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology discovered new species of green sulfur bacteria, cyanobacteria, and diatoms. Found within sediments nourished by underwater springs, these microorganisms have metabolisms allowing them to adapt to extreme changes in salinity.

Raz is now most worried about the Dead Sea’s ecological changes; the unfortunate fact that Israelis have lost safe access to the shore from the west is a fait accompli. One of those lost access points is Ein Feshkha. Located off the Dead Sea’s northwestern shore, the nature reserve is the world’s lowest in altitude, and its wetlands are the only place on the planet where rare blue and Dead Sea killifish coexist. The landscape’s altered hydrology is putting them at risk as well as causing the springs on the Dead Sea floor to migrate eastward. “The biodiversity is changing,” Raz says. “The ecological chain is very sensitive. If [the springs] disappear, if the vegetation changes, no one knows what the end of that process will be.” 

The extent of the Red–Dead project’s possible consequences, including the permanence of any resulting damage to the sea’s ecosystem, is unknown. And so far, no plan suggests restoration as a possibility. At best, the hope is to slow down the Dead Sea’s rate of water loss. With so much yet to be learned, no one can be completely sure of what will come of our playing God in the Holy Land.

Shrinking Out of Sight


The skyline of Tel Aviv, which sits on Israel’s Mediterranean coast, seems to be rising faster than the Dead Sea is sinking. Glass-paneled high-rises tower over gentrified neighborhoods of stately early- to mid-20th-century Bauhaus buildings. The new national bird, the joke goes, is the crane, an allusion to the construction that fills the open spaces of the soaring cityscape. The scenery reveals the country’s focus and priorities. Whatever is happening at the Dead Sea—good, bad, or neither—doesn’t often register here. 

“The Dead Sea was never seen as an important resource,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, a nonprofit that brings together Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian environmentalists. “It was a nice place to bathe or float, but it was considered wasted water. That’s why they were happy to stop the flow of the Jordan. Why waste water on the Dead Sea?”
 

Two men floating in the evaporation ponds near Ein Bokek, Israel

iStock

Like many against the Red–Dead project, Bromberg believes more feasible, and safer, options exist and dismisses the plan as environmental recklessness fed by greed and vainglory. “If you don’t need to build a conduit and a canal, someone isn’t going to make their money,” he says, arguing that Israel’s advances in desalination and the recycling of treated sewage over the past decade have changed the technology playing field. By now, they should have shifted the conversation regarding where to get water, too. 

Advances in technology have significantly improved the desalination process, making it far cheaper and more energy-efficient than it was as recently as 2009. The fact that 70 percent of Israel’s population resides near the Mediterranean coast also makes pumping water from the Sea of Galilee less attractive. Israel has already considerably cut the amount it takes from the Galilee from 450 million cubic meters to 20 million cubic meters in 2016. Because the Jordan River flows through the Sea of Galilee, cutting more could free up a significant amount of water for rehabilitating the Lower Jordan, which leads to the Dead Sea. To put it all in perspective, even during last year’s drought conditions, Israel had a water surplus. And in this parched region, the government no longer bothers to encourage its citizens to conserve. Water, implausibly, is now almost taken for granted. 

Bromberg says these circumstances should have taken the Red–Dead pipeline off the table. Israel is less dependent on Sea of Galilee water, so it can afford to increase the amount that flows into the Jordan. This would not be enough to restore the Dead Sea, but it would dramatically slow the rate of loss.

A bay with layers of salt deposits visible beneath the water

Mataya/Getty

A report by EcoPeace Middle East, supported by the European Union, argues that by 2050, Israel, Jordan, and Syria could collectively reduce their diversions of Galilee water by 400 million cubic meters. They could meet much of their water needs with treated wastewater instead. Since 2013, the Israel Water Authority has released 9 million cubic meters to the Lower Jordan each year and is committed to upping that to 30 million. There are even unofficial discussions that Israel could double or even triple that figure in coming years.

Industry could free another 350 million cubic meters if it can find other ways of harvesting minerals. As of now, Dead Sea Works has no incentive to find alternative methods because it gets all its water at no cost under the terms of its concession from the Israeli government. But there’s hope, Bromberg says. The concession expires in 2030, and as other companies begin bidding on it, Dead Sea Works might find some motivation to develop better technology.

“One reason the Red–Dead was so attractive is that you bring in some billions of dollars and you have a time frame,” Bromberg says. “You cut the ribbon, you see the water flow . . . politicians like those kinds of things. They get a lot of media.” EcoPeace’s proposal, on the other hand, is less flashy. “It requires cooperation, some water from here, some from there, better practices elsewhere,” continues Bromberg. That’s how you refill the Dead Sea in a more sustainable way. And the undertaking should include the Palestinians. Only then, Bromberg says, will it become a true peace effort. The Palestinians want their fair share of the water, and according to the terms of the Oslo Accords, they’re entitled to it. (The original EcoPeace plan, called the Peace Conduit, did involve the Palestinians, but they were not part of the recent tender process and have been ostensibly sidelined.)

“Why should Israelis worry about plants and animals when they have to think about war?” Greenbaum asked me before we went touring the sinkholes of Ein Gedi.

“Resources are at the heart of conflict,” I replied. “If you think about it, every issue is a matter of peace.”

“No, that is not the problem,” he answered in his affably oppositional way. “Every issue is not a matter of peace. The problem is that here every issue is a matter of war.”

And as the Dead Sea and its ecosystem slip out of public view, they may be among the casualties.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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