Water shortages in Dead Sea could increase tensions in Middle East

San Francisco

Scientists studying ancient mud samples taken from the bed of the Dead Sea separating Israel and Jordan have warned that the fragile political situation in the Middle East will be made worse by the intense water shortages their study is predicting.

Sediment cores drilled about 900ft down in the centre of the Dead Sea's muddy basin – an environmental record stretching back 200,000 years – have shown that the giant lake has dried out in the past. This suggests that taking freshwater from rivers for irrigating crops could make a regional, prolonged drought almost inevitable.

Researchers said their findings suggest that the entire water cycle in the region is being destabilised by the over-abstraction of water from rivers that drain into the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, and that this could lead to conflict between Israel and its neighbours.

"The Dead Sea is already drying up because humans are using so much water. The evidence it has actually gone away without any human intervention, under conditions that might return soon, is something people should think hard about," said Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York. "As of now, virtually no freshwater is entering the Dead Sea. All the water in the valleys is being used, and that's part of the problem...[global warming] models predict that the water now flowing down the rivers that is being used won't be going down the rivers any more," Dr Goldstein said.

Water is already an intensely political issue in the Middle East but the discovery that the Dead Sea dried out completely during the last interglacial period some 125,000 years ago suggests that the region is more vulnerable to catastrophic drought than many expert had previously believed.

"Now that we have evidence from cores that the lake did actually dry down, all the previous climate models must be reconsidered [because] the lake might actually go dry much sooner... There are political implications of this big drying down because water is what causes wars," Professor Emi Ito of the University of Minnesota said.

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