SEATTLE, Washington — A scientific phenomenon, religious holy site and crucial source of water in a region with little supply, the Dead Sea is essential to life in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. Tourists have visited for generations seeking the mineral-rich water’s healing capabilities. Others go to experience the surreal experience of reading while floating on the water. Local farmers and agriculture workers use the Jordan River, which feeds into the Dead Sea, for much-needed irrigation. However, regardless of an individual’s reason for using the Dead Sea, one factor remains constant: the Dead Sea’s water level is decreasing at an alarming rate — more than three feet per year.
The Dead Sea’s Lowering Water Level
The Dead Sea had previously maintained its water level for centuries. However, the construction of dams has greatly contributed to the Dead Sea’s demise. They divert water away from the Dead Sea and to surrounding countries’ agriculture industries. Private companies further exploit the dams’ negative effects on the Dead Sea’s water level in order to extract and export minerals as it recedes.
While declining water levels help the mineral industry, they have hurt almost every other business in the area. Hotels and resorts originally built along the Dead Sea 30 years ago are now a mile away from the water. This is driving some businesses bankrupt since they cannot fund the extra costs of transporting guests to the water. Similarly, farmers must buy water to irrigate their crops because most of the annual 300+ billion gallons of freshwater from the Jordan River has been replaced by saline and sewage water. This has led to around 25% of local farms going out of business or being sold, thus reducing agricultural productivity and increasing poverty. Finally, about 6,000 sinkholes have emerged recently, damaging infrastructures such as roads, buildings, and crop fields important to local economies.
The Red Sea-Dead Sea Project
Israel and Jordan as well as the Palestinian Authority recognize the dangers if the Dead Sea’s water level decreases further. Various solutions have been proposed to end the crisis, the most popular being the Red Sea-Dead Sea Project.
Israel, Jordan and Palestine would fund the pipeline in addition to the U.S., World Bank and other countries. It would bring desalinated water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, effectively doing what the freshwater of the Jordan River used to before countries constructed dams. The completion of the pipeline could take upwards of 20 years. Yet, it would prevent thousands of Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis, who are desperate for water in their work and domestic lives, from falling into poverty. The project will likely reduce poverty among these at-risk individuals because the extra freshwater from the Red Sea-Dead Sea project will be distributed to them. Furthermore, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian governments will be able to trade and buy more from each other when needed.
Problems With the Project
Politically, however, the project is much more complex and complications might cripple progress altogether. One source of disagreement has been that Israel will have to provide more funding than Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. However, Israel won’t have the same control over the maintenance and operations of the project following the pipeline’s completion. Therefore, they don’t want to be responsible for more funding than others.
Without a sustainable solution going forward, scientists do state that the Dead Sea will not totally disappear. However, it will continue growing smaller until it reaches an equilibrium between salt density and total water. Some might point to this fact as a reason to not act. However, tourism and agriculture experts have concluded that saving the Dead Sea will provide more money in the long run. It will also keep more people out of poverty than if officials let the Dead Sea’s water level continue to decrease.
Poverty comes in many shapes and sizes. In the case of the Dead Sea, inaction will lead to poverty that manifests itself in abandoned resorts, sinkholes closing off highways and the deterioration of agriculture in Israel, Jordan and Palestine. However, countries can avoid this through short-term sacrifices and cooperation. By working together, we can preserve one of the world’s most important historical sites and natural wonders.
– Alex Berman