Now you Dead Sea it...

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Israel would like the salt lake to be declared a wonder of nature. But years of neglect and exploitation mean it is shrinking before our eyes, Donald Macintyre reports from Ein Gedi

Ein Gedi

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Here at the lowest place on earth, in 75 degree sunshine, Olga Alexarkin is sitting on a deckchair in bathing suit and gazing eastwards across the radiantly blue, imponderably deep, Dead Sea towards the Jordanian cliffs 11 miles away.

In a moment she will plunge into the little waves thrown up by the desert breeze, and bob effortlessly on her back supported by the planet's most buoyant water, so saturated with salt that it will sting scratches she never knew she had.

But first, she talks about why she has come here once a month since emigrating to Israel in 1998; for the view, little changed since pre-historic times, for the air, with its abnormally low pollen and high oxygen count; for the unique health giving minerals of the sea itself, and for the steep walks through the acacia trees and herds of agile ibex along the nearby David spring. This is simply, she sighs, "the best place in the world".

The government of Israel is hoping enough people will agree with Mrs Alexarkin to have voted for the Dead Sea to be one of the "New 7 Wonders of Nature" when the results of an international contest run by a website of the same name are announced this morning.

It has spent some £1.5m on a PR campaign; Israeli supermodel Bar Refaeli, pictured yesterday in the mass circulation daily Yedhiot Ahronot caked in therapeutic Dead Sea mud, has tweeted a last minute appeal for votes. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said: "A win will transform the Dead Sea as one of the leading tourism sites in the world, contributing not only to us, but to other countries in the region, promoting regional cooperation."

This reflects, at a new low point in Israeli Arab relations, a rare joint initiative between his own government, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, to get the Dead Sea in the final seven, from a shortlist of 28.

All of which is welcome. But it cannot disguise the fact that the Dead Sea is also on the way to becoming a man-made environmental disaster zone. For decades water has been pillaged for agriculture and domestic use from its main water provider, the River Jordan; and secondly from the Sea itself, for the hugely lucrative extraction of its vital minerals.

Now the Sea is shrinking with alarming rapidity. Its level is falling at a rate of 1.1 metres a year. Drive a few kilometres north of here along Route 90 and you arrive at where members of the British Palestinian Exploration Fund in 1917 painted a red line in the primeval limestone cliffs towering above them.

Today, as you stand on the road, you can see the line about 10 feet above you. Behind you the Dead Sea shore is a kilometre's dry walk thought the reeds and shrubs of Ein Feshska. But then the PEF scholars were in a boat, floating at what was until later in that century, and had been for many millions of years before that, the true edge of the Dead Sea.

Back in 1986, when the local kibbutzniks built this spa, the waters lapped at the building's edge. 25 years later Mrs Alexarkin and her fellow-guests are transported  to the water's edge on a toytown-like road train.  The journey takes five minutes and is 1.5 kilometres long. The lifeguard post is on wheels, to prevent it having  to be rebuilt each time the shore moves a metre or two. "We are spending half a million shekels a year just to chase the sea," explains Nir Wranger, the spa's deputy manager.

Less than a kilometre away, the eerily cratered remains of the kibbutz's once highly profitable beachside campsite testifies to the devastation left by the inexorably receding sea. The terrain is now a moonscape of gaping sink holes and yawning fault lines that will turn into more sink holes.

So unstable is the land here that it is fenced off to visitors. The campsite was closed in 1998 when the ground suddenly opened up under a young woman employee and she fell eight metres into the pit, mercifully sustaining only light injuries.

"It's like there's been an earthquake," says beach manager Simon Shukrun as we gingerly step over the cracks in what's left of the concrete flooring. Far above what is now the shore, Mr Shukrun who came to work in Ein Gedi in 1968 at the age of 21, points to the rusting steel supports of a pier that were once underwater and now jut out of the dry land. "It really saddens me to see where the sea was then and where it is today," he says.

The level of the Dead Sea has fluctuated dramatically before. Indeed geologists now think that "slime pits" in the Vale of Siddim, as the Dead Sea Area was called, mentioned in Genesis 14.10, refer to similar sinkholes. But the decline then in levels was created by huge climactic changes. By contrast more than 1,000 sinkholes round the Dead Sea now, says Friends of the Earth Middle East's Gidon Bromberg are "nature's revenge for a man-made catastrophe. Nature is saying that what you are doing is wrong. I am not going to tolerate it and I am not going to keep quiet about it."

Between 60 and 70 per cent of the problem, says Mr Bromberg, results from the rape of the once mighty River Jordan. And of this half, he says, was caused by Israel's pumping, since the 1950s, of 400-450m cubic metres per year of fresh water from the Sea of Galilee, not least for transmission south through the national pipeline to help realise the old Zionist dream of "making the desert bloom".

Syria comes next, at around 26 per cent, by virtually drying up the Yarmouk, the Jordan's main tributary, with around 70 dams; and Jordan, third at 23 per cent, thanks to the King Abdullah Canal, its own dams, and huge water subsidies for water which mean that "half the farmers in Jordan flood their fields" because there is no incentive to drip-irrigate.

The rest is accounted for by the Dead Sea Works – owned by the Israeli Ofer family – and on the Jordanian side the largely Canadian-owned Arab Potash Company, which extracts potash for fertiliser, bromides for pesticides and magnesium for metal manufacturing.

In Mr Bromberg's words, the now dried up southern basin of the sea is "an industrial quagmire of man-made evaporation ponds under licence of the Jordanian and Israeli governments".

Mr Bromberg points to the paradox that Jordan and Israel "are promoting the Dead Sea as one of the seven wonders and encouraging their people to vote for it; so why allow for its demise, one resulting directly from their own decisions?" He will be glad if the Dead Sea qualifies, but adds: "The governments must not greenwash what has been happening. We have to be honest about it and this needs to be followed by the reversal of these decisions."

In fact, Israeli water policy has undergone change in the last five years, some of it due to the tireless advocacy of Mr Bromberg himself. Israel has reduced the subsidies on water, which had massively incentivised the growth of what he calls "water guzzling" crops like bananas. It now has three desalination plants on the Mediterranean coast with a fourth planned, widening the sources of fresh water; it has stopped pouring of raw sewage into the Jordan, and has even agreed to pump an extra modest 30m cubic metres per year of water into the river.

For Mr Bromberg, this is nowhere near enough. He reckons that raising the flow of the Jordan to around 850m cubic metres a year (still much less than the historic 1.3bn) is needed to stabilise the Dead Sea in around 15 years.

He believes the proposed "Red for Dead" scheme – a $15bn canal or pipeline bringing 2bn cubic metres of sea water up from the Red Sea from Aqaba is not the answer. The different chemical mix could fatally disturb the Dead Sea's composition, creating gypsum, which would turn the water white; catastrophic flooding could result from an earthquake in the seismically prone Arava desert; and extracting that volume of the water from the Red Sea could change its temperature and destroy its famous coral reefs. And while welcoming some desalination, he rejects it as a "panacea", partly because of its high costs and massive use of energy.

Instead he will shortly unveil a wide ranging conservation programme across Israel and Jordan, and in the long-run Syria. It would – among much else – lift the Israeli barriers to imports of crops like bananas; and would restore around 250m cubic metres to the Dead Sea by forcing the mineral companies to develop an alternative new membrane technology that would remove the need to pump water out of it.

Simon Sukrun, who has lived on Israel's Dead Sea shore for more than 40 years, hopes it will win today. But he adds: "I'm voting because it's the last hope. I hope that if it gets in the list it will force a change of government policy and they will stop pumping the water out."

Wonders of nature: Other contenders

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

They may have recently been removed from the UNESCO list of sites in danger, but the remarkable archipelago of volcanic islands 965km off the coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean is still home to more than 40 critically endangered species and some of the rarest flora and fauna in the world.

Uluru, Australia

Otherwise known as Ayers Rock, the 348m-high sandstone formation in central Australia is 9.4km in circumference and is a natural wonder particularly sacred to aboriginals. Uluru faces competition from fellow Australian contender, the Great Barrier Reef.

Mount Vesuvius, Italy

Vesuvius, east of Naples, famously erupted in AD79, smothering the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It is the only volcano in mainland Europe to have erupted within the past 100 years.

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