Is the Dead Sea dying?

It sits at the lowest spot on earth, is fed by one of the world’s most significant waterways, and served witness to humanity’s passage out of Africa. And it’s dying.

The Dead Sea, among the most remarkable natural phenomena on the earth’s face, has lost a third of its surface area over 50 years, and continues to shrink three or more feet annually — entirely because of human behavior.

For decades, visitors to Israel have flocked to the sea’s shores, whether to tour the historic sites along its western edge, enjoy its health-giving properties, or simply bob like a cork in its mineral-rich waters.

Most have no idea, though, that each time they visit, the shore has moved. That the Dead Sea’s single source, the Jordan River, has been reduced to little more than a sewage canal, with less than 10 percent of the flow it had 60 years ago — about half of which is raw human waste. And that, furthermore, between the reduced flow and the work of the Israeli and Jordanian mineral industries, the Dead Sea is now actually two distinct bodies of water — the northern basin and southern basin, separated by a land bridge.

“We are watching the sea vanishing,” Kibbutz Ein Gedi member Merav Ayalon told the BBC. “I feel like the sea is a dying man calling out for help.”

Moreover, the past 10 years have seen an alarming new development: sinkholes, spots where the land, once covered by water, collapses in on itself. A decade ago, there were 10; today there more than 1,600, some of which are dozens of yards deep.

The mud flats around what is left of the sea are now pock-marked; Mira Edelstein, resource developer for the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian NGO Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), reports that new holes open and yawn wider from week to week. The first sinkhole ever recorded, on Kibbutz Ein Gedi, opened under a woman as she walked through the kibbutz campgrounds.

Thus, local resorts regularly move their beach chairs in pursuit of the ever-receding shore, even as they block access to areas in which sinkholes have gobbled up their land. The single road leading along the sea to Israel’s south has seen only one sinkhole crack through so far, but many lie just yards from the pavement — and for long stretches, the only thing on the other side is a sheer rock wall.

Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME’s Jordanian director, says that the sinkholes point to an especially banal problem: “We don’t want to keep saying the Dead Sea is an historical site, a religious site…. Let’s talk about its economic value.”

“The lower the level of the sea, the more dramatic the problem of the sinkholes…. Tourists will stop coming if they think they’re going to sink in a hole.”

In purely financial terms, Mehyar says, “it’s a risk that nobody can afford.”

The Dead Sea’s dire situation is the result of a dizzying array of factors: Israel’s over-pumping of the Sea of Galilee; Syria and Jordan’s over-damming of the Yarmouk River, the Jordan’s major tributary; industrial pollution, sewage dumping, and mineral extraction on all sides, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which leaves most of the lower Jordan River Valley a closed military zone.

Rather than address these issues, however, or reconsider water allocation habits (Israeli agriculture gets 30 percent of the country’s fresh water, for instance, but creates less than 3 percent of the gross domestic product; 70 percent of Jordan’s fresh water goes toward agriculture, for some 6 percent of the GDP), the governments of Israel and Jordan, with the backing of the World Bank, are currently considering a drastic solution: a 125-mile conduit from the Red Sea.

Known as the Red-Dead Canal, the idea is to pipe water from the Red Sea to the Dead, producing hydroelectric power, providing water for desalinization, and dumping the salt-heavy remains in the Dead Sea, raising its level. The cost would be astronomical — anywhere from $1.5 billion to $5 billion — and in spite of the fact that environmentalists, scientists and residents of the area have raised crucial questions that remain unanswered, it’s currently the only solution being considered.

For one thing, FoEME’s Edelstein said recently, standing at the Dead Sea and pointing north toward the river, “we already have a canal.”

FoEME is spearheading efforts to convince the World Bank to study reviving the river as an alternative to the conduit, citing concerns for the well-being of the seas on both ends, as well as hidden costs and ecological concerns such as the expense and carbon output involved in transporting desalinated water to Jordan, uphill, in trucks.

“You can’t make a decision that changes the face of the earth,” says FoEME’s Israeli director Gidon Bromberg, “without looking at an alternative.”

Israeli geologist Eli Raz is among the scientists who question the project. In a 2007 report for the Dead Sea Institute, he warned of damage to the “limnology, microbiology and the chemical industry … by mixing the water of the two seas,” and stated that the Sea of Galilee, Jordan River and Dead Sea “should be regarded as one system; stabilizing the Dead Sea level by the recovery of the Jordan River is the closest to the original situation and hence the most proper one.”

In a phone interview, Raz reports that Egypt also opposes the canal’s construction, for fear that water extraction will do lasting damage to the Red Sea, which the country shares with Jordan and Israel; he also references a petition that has been widely circulated among Israelis living in the Arava, the area through which the conduit would pass.

“It’s one of the most dangerous points [on earth] in terms of seismic activity,” he says bluntly, citing decades of geological research. “The residents are completely unwilling to take the chance.”

If the world is interested in saving the Dead Sea, Raz says, “the worst possible option is the one from the Red Sea.”

The River Jordan’s survival is at stake as pollution peril grows

Standing at Israel’s Alumot Dam, a 30-minute walk south from the Sea of Galilee, it’s a typical midwinter day: deep blue sky, birds everywhere and a brisk breeze that carries a nauseating stench. Reduced to a thin stream by this point, the Jordan River stops. A few feet south of the dam, untreated sewage gushes directly into the riverbed.

In 1948, the lower Jordan carried 1.3 billion cubic meters of fresh water. Today, it’s less than 10 percent of that — and it’s hardly fresh. About half of what’s left comes from small tributaries, springs and Syria’s Yarmouk River. The other half is runoff from farms, diverted saline water and raw sewage.

The blame lies on all sides. Israel reroutes 60 percent of the Galilee’s water for its farms and kitchens; Jordan maintains a major canal that diverts from the Yarmouk; upstream, Syria has more than 40 dams. Jordanian septic tanks allow untreated sewage to seep into the water basin, while Israel turns a blind eye to local authorities’ direct dumping of waste.

It’s all aggravated by decades of war. Most of the valley is a closed military zone along both banks, its misery effectively concealed, and in spite of the long-standing Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, both countries find it hard to cooperate while conflict remains between Israel, Syria and the Palestinians.

Such deterioration would be alarming anywhere, but there’s something particularly disturbing in a place that resonates so profoundly in human culture. As Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) exclaimed: “Half of humanity sees this river as holy!”

The Tanakh and Christian scriptures often reference the valley. In Deuteronomy, Moses is shown the Promised Land from the eastern side before he dies and is buried there; the New Testament describes Jesus’ baptism in the river. Both books are also revered by the world’s billion Muslims.

“The Jordan is one of the few wild rivers left in Israel,” commented Los Angeles-based Rabbi Michael Comins, author of “A Wild Faith” (Jewish Lights Publishing, due out in April). “It’s no coincidence that the Torah was given in the wilderness, that the Prophets heard God in the wilderness and that we do, too.”

Yet, if visitors of any stripe were to enter this wild river’s lower reaches, Bromberg said, “[they’d] be likely to come out with a rash.”

FoEME is fighting to reverse the downward spiral. A tri-national nonprofit, with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian directors, FoEME is a rarity: a joint Arab-Israeli body acting to address vital shared concerns.

Both Nader Khateeb and Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME’s Palestinian and Jordanian directors, say they’re mindful of those who oppose cooperation before a resolution is found to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that they’re equally aware that time is short.

“The ecosystem is so small, any action effects the others,” Mehyar said. “You can’t say that you won’t talk to the other side — you’re hurting yourself.”

“Ironically,” said Mira Edelstein, Israeli coordinator of FoEME’s river rehabilitation project, “the cooperation on polluting the Jordan has been fantastic.”

Meandering about 125 miles south along Earth’s lowest point, the lower Jordan represents the meeting point of all three peoples and the ecological intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. Approximately 500,000 birds migrate through the valley annually, and many flora and fauna find their northern and southern limits here. Early humans emerging from Africa moved through the valley, and just outside biblical Jericho, archeologists have found evidence of humanity’s first farms.

In the eyes of FoEME’s activists, the valley’s unique environmental characteristics and central role in history make its survival an issue that reaches beyond the region. “We’re losing it,” Khateeb said. “And it’s not important only for us, it’s very important for the whole world. We want to see it on the world agenda.”

In order to grab international and local attention alike, FoEME has initiated a number of creative projects, but the obstacles these often face demonstrate the expected complications of Middle Eastern life. An ambitious journey down the entire lower river valley was planned for November, for instance, but had to be drastically curtailed when the IDF limited it to the last mile and a half of clean water before Alumot.

Ultimately what FoEME proposes is a limited restoration of the river: controlled access, sustainable management plans, providing farmers with recycled water and returning fresh water to its source. “Nature is a legitimate consumer,” Edelstein said. “It’s not wasting the water to let it run down the river.”

At minimum, Bromberg believes, the Jordan needs at least 300 million cubic meters of clean water. “Without it,” he said, “the river will no longer live.”

Though reclamation can seem prohibitively complex, in California, Inyo County and the city of Los Angeles recently witnessed a successful restoration that highlights the possibilities. Sixty-two dry miles of the Owens River — arguably in worse shape than the Jordan — now flow again after nearly a century of its water being diverted to Los Angeles.

“It’s expensive, and it’s hard,” Edelstein conceded, “but we have to do it, if we want to build a sustainable life here.”

Comins agreed, saying, “When I go to Israel, I don’t want to see a plaque that says ‘The Jordan River once flowed here.’ I want to see it as David and Amos did.”

As with all things in this part of the world, much depends on the grinding of diplomatic wheels. Acknowledging this uncertainty, the leaders of FoEME maintain a certain white-knuckle optimism.

“Conflict actually increases our strength,” Mehyar said, “because we can see the foolishness of it.”

“In our area you cannot give up,” Khateeb said. “Because if you give up, you’re finished.”

Emily L. Hauser is a freelance writer who has been covering the Middle East since the early 1990s.