Is the Dead Sea dying? Water loss continues at record rate

 

Jerusalem

The Dead Sea is shrinking at a record rate, prompting calls for Israel and Jordan to stop fertilizer makers from siphoning so much of the water whose restorative powers have attracted visitors since biblical times.

The salty inland lake bordering the nations dropped a record 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) over the last 12 months because of industry use and evaporation, the Hydrological Service of Israel said. That's the steepest Dead Sea decline since data-keeping started in the 1950s. Half the drop was caused by Israel Chemicals Ltd. and Jordan's Arab Potash Co., said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the Friends of Earth Middle East.

"This is unacceptable and speaks to the urgency of the need to force industry to change their extraction process," Bromberg said in an interview from Tel Aviv.

The makers of potash, a raw material for fertilizer, are competing for water with a centuries-old tourism industry on the Dead Sea, Israel's most crowded leisure destination last year with 857,000 visitors. That's more packed than Tel Aviv and Eilat's beach resorts, the Tourism Ministry said.

It isn't only pumping causing the degradation of the Dead Sea, a biblical refuge for King David. Agriculture diverts water for crops from the Jordan River that feeds into the Dead Sea, adding to a decline that's created potentially life-threatening sinkholes by the shore.

On the north shore of the Dead Sea, 75 kilometers (47 miles) long 50 years ago and 55 kilometers now according to the environmental group, spas offer the medicinal benefits of mud baths and mineral springs. Those wanting to bob in waters about 10 times as salty as the ocean must either ride in a cart for several minutes or take a hike that's a little longer.

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.

"Charging the Dead Sea Works per water usage by cubic meter will not affect the pumping volume since the amount of pumping is a function of the evaporation ponds' surface area and changing climate conditions alone," it said.

"We're keen on doing all possible to preserve the Dead Sea, which is shrinking annually," Issa Shboul, spokesperson of Jordan's Ministry of Environment, said by phone.

"We regularly request the potash companies and other companies that benefit from the Dead Sea water for their business to adopt the latest technological advances to reduce the negative impact on the Dead Sea level," Shboul said.

Jordan and Israel should reinvigorate a joint committee that hasn't met for more than a decade to work on developing extraction techniques that use less water, Bromberg said.

Israel's Environment Ministry said it's working on a proposal with the government that examines the use of all resources, including phosphates and mineral water.

Israel allocated 850 million shekels ($223 million) this year to rehabilitate and develop the Dead Sea's tourism potential. Spencer Tunick's group photo in 2011 of naked people at a beach raised awareness of sinkholes and shrinking shores of the lowest place on Earth at 414 meters below sea level.

About one-third of the Dead Sea's surface area has disappeared and sinkholes are increasingly common as the waters shrink amid drought, agricultural diversion, largely from the Jordan River, and pumping to extract minerals for fertilizers.

Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli policymakers, under the auspices of the World Bank, have been examining various plans to halt the Dead Sea's decline. These include two tunnels and a pipeline that may cost as much as $10 billion. These would transfer water about 110 miles from the Red Sea and brine from desalination plants to keep Dead Sea levels stable.

Preliminary reports from the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Study Program have shown that mixing sea water, desalination brine or both with Dead Sea water entails risks, especially when amounts exceed 300 million cubic meters a year.

The Dead Sea has a current annual deficit of 700 million cubic meters, Bromberg said. The risks include gypsum and other microorganism growth caused by mixing different types of water.

Major parts of the study are expected to be completed and posted online by the end of the month, according to an official with knowledge of the report. These include drafts of final reports on alternatives, feasibility and environmental assessments.

More can be done to stop the deterioration to an area home to rare wildlife including leopards, ibex and the griffon vulture, Bromberg said.

"We are calling on Jordan and Israel to introduce legislation that would require Dead Sea waters to have a price, with pumping rates and licensed, monitored meters," he said. "All other sources of water are extracted under license."

The beach photographed by Tunick meanwhile has changed beyond recognition in a year with salt-encrusted rocks more common now as Dead Sea waters recede, environmentalists say.

— with assistance from Randall Hackley in London and Mohammad Tayseer in Amman, Jordan.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss