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.”