The Dead Sea is dying and it’s a ‘man-made disaster’

EIN GEDI, Israel (JTA)—The beach at the Ein Gedi Spa at the Dead Sea would seem like an ideal place for a little R&R amid the frenzy of modern Israel.

Set in the quiet of the desert, it has stunning views of Jordan’s mountains and its therapeutic waters reputedly do wonders for the complexion.

There’s only one problem at this beach: The sea is gone.

In its place are empty lifeguard towers and abandoned beach umbrellas lodged in the parched earth that make a mockery of the Dead Sea’s quiet retreat.

The sea actually still exists, but it’s smaller, shallower and much more distant than it once was—some 160 feet from the original beach built at Ein Gedi. The Dead Sea is shrinking because nearly every source of water that feeds into this iconic tourist destination has been cut off, diverted or polluted over the last half century.

“This is a completely man-made disaster,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an international environmental group. “There is nothing natural about this.”

A tram now shuttles visitors from the abandoned beach at Ein Gedi to the new beach, which sits at more than 1,300 feet below sea level. Thirty years ago this beach was submerged under water. In 10 years it likely will be dry, too, and the visitors’ ramp again will have to be extended to reach the sea.

By 2025, the sea is expected to be at 1,440 feet below sea level.

The shrinking of the Dead Sea has become an issue of grave concern for environmentalists, industries that produce Dead Sea-related products and Israel’s tourism sector, which worries that the visitors who come here from all over the world will disappear along with the sea.

To environmentalists, the shrinking of the sea is an environmental disaster that left unchecked could devastate the region in the coming decades.

The sea’s retreat already has spawned thousands of dangerous sinkholes. Created by retreating groundwater washing away salt deposits that had supported a surface layer of sand, the sinkholes have decimated beaches, nature reserves and agricultural fields in the area.

Future development along the northern rim of the sea has been suspended indefinitely, and the sinkholes have taken a toll on the area’s roads. Route 90, the Israeli highway that runs north-south along the Dead Sea’s western shore, has had to be rebuilt several times because of sinkholes opening up in its path.

In the meantime, the shifting groundwater has wreaked havoc with the natural oases and springs near the sea. Some natural habitats have been destroyed, and with them the feeding grounds of indigenous wildlife. Ornithologists say the annual migration of birds to this area—the third-largest migration in the world—has begun to taper off.

Perhaps most significantly for the people who live in the region, the economic consequences of the sea’s retreat have been staggering for agriculture and tourism.

“This has cost us more than $25 million since 1995, when the sinkholes started opening up,” Merav Ayalon, a spokeswoman for Kibbutz Ein Gedi, the largest Israeli town at the Dead Sea, said.

The kibbutz has had to close its resort village—though it still operates guest houses—abandon its groves of date palms and forego any expansion plans because it is virtually locked in now by mountains or unsafe, shifting ground.

Farther south, at the cluster of hotels on the Israeli side of the sea, hotels built decades ago along the Dead Sea’s shores have preserved their beaches only thanks to an artificial pool of sea water. The pool, which is connected to the Dead Sea, is maintained by Dead Sea Works, the massive mineral extraction plant whose operations have accelerated the sea’s disappearance through wholesale evaporation of water.

If not for the artificial pool, the hotels would be in the desert, since the southern portion of the Dead Sea no longer exists. Though visitors cannot tell that the hotels’ beaches are artificially maintained, hoteliers say they fear potential tourists are deterred from coming to the region because they think the sea’s retreat has left the hotels high and dry.

“Tourists from abroad don’t know exactly where the sea is located and where the sinkholes are, so they don’t come as much anymore,” said Avi Levy, who used to be the general manager of the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea but now works at the franchise’s hotel in Tel Aviv. “Also, I think, there is antagonism that we are allowing such a valuable site as the Dead Sea to be destroyed.”

Agricultural industries in Israel, Jordan and Syria siphon water from the rivers that used to feed into the Dead Sea, diverting the water flow for agricultural use. This, along with the dumping of sewage by these countries and the Palestinian Authority, has turned the Jordan River, the sea’s main tributary, from the voluminous flow described in the Bible to a muddy, polluted dribble that doesn’t even reach the Dead Sea anymore during the summer months.

In addition, companies like Dead Sea Works are removing water from the sea at a rate of about 150 million cubic meters per year to get at the lucrative minerals beneath the water. The minerals are used to produce chemical products for export such as potash and magnesium chloride.

Potash can be used to make glass, soap and fertilizer, and magnesium chloride can be used in the manufacture of foodstuffs and roadway deicing products.

The work of these companies has turned what once was the southern portion of the sea into a massive industrial site.

At the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, about 1.4 billion cubic meters of water per year flowed into the Dead Sea. That total has shrunk to 100 million cubic meters, much of it polluted. Today the only fresh water the sea gets is from underground springs and rainwater. With inadequate fresh water, the sea has become more salty and oleaginous.

Scientists estimate that the Dead Sea needs at least 650 million cubic meters of water per year in order to stabilize over the next two decades.

Short of a major change in water-use policy, which environmentalists say is imperative, the Dead Sea will continue to shrink at its current rate of 3.2 to 3.5 feet per year until it reaches an equilibrium in 100 to 200 years at some 1,800 feet below sea level, experts say.

There are two main ideas for stabilizing the Dead Sea.

Environmentalists want to restore flow to the sea from the Jordan River. But that would require a sharp reduction in the use of Jordan River water for agricultural and domestic consumption, as well as cooperation between the Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Jordanians. At this point, neither seems likely.

The other idea is to construct a canal to bring salt water to the Dead Sea from the Red Sea, some 125 miles to the south. Championed by Israeli President Shimon Peres and Israeli real estate magnate Isaac Tshuva, among others, this plan envisions the construction of up to 200,000 new hotel rooms and the transformation of the desert along the channel’s route into an Israeli-Jordanian “peace valley.”

Notwithstanding the enormous financial costs of such an enterprise—$3 billion to $5 billion—scientists say bringing salt water to a sea that heretofore has been fed only by fresh water has unknown risks.

“A decision like this cannot be made without checking the ecological impact on the environment,” said Noam Goldstein, project manager at Dead Sea Works, which has made a fortune extracting minerals like potash, table salt and bromide from the Dead Sea. “It’s possible that with a canal the sea will turn brown or red. It’s possible it will stink because of the introduction of new chemical and biological substances into the water.”

The World Bank is conducting a $14 million study into the practicalities of the channel, dubbed the Red-to-Dead Canal.

For the time being, no solution to the problem of the Dead Sea has moved beyond the review stage. Meanwhile, with the Holy Land facing its worst drought in 80 years, the sea continues to disappear.

Good Morning America visited the Dead Sea in 2006


Alex Baum: Wheels of a Dream

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Alex Baum, who will be celebrating his 84th birthday on Dec. 30, fought in the French Resistance, survived two and a half years in the concentration camps, and has since dedicated his life to performing good deeds, most notably in his advocacy of amateur athletics.

Yet, when asked if he is a mensch, he says, “You never know.”

Baum is of French Jewish ancestry, but he speaks with a German accent, befitting one who was born in a small town in Lorraine, which along with the province of Alsace was frequently the subject of territorial disputes between the French and the Germans. Concerning the war, he says without embellishment, “We fought the Germans in any possible way we could.”

Although he was caught by the Nazis, he convinced them that he was a resistance fighter, not a Jew. Due to his Algerian passport (his mother was from the North African country), he was treated as a political prisoner in the camps. The Nazis did not question why he was circumcised, because Algerians, being desert dwellers, practiced circumcision for hygienic reasons.

After surviving the Holocaust, Baum vowed that he would be a good role model, like his grandparents and uncles: “I felt a need to do that.”

He moved to the United States shortly after the war and settled in Chicago, where he played semipro soccer for the Chicago Kickers. A center-forward on the team, he scored his share of goals, but his greatest goal has been developing cycling programs and recreational facilities for inner-city kids in Los Angeles.

When not working as a caterer, his living for 30 years, he has been an adviser to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the previous three Los Angeles mayors, but Baum is not simply a cycling enthusiast and fitness fanatic — he has also shown the vision of an urban planner and the determination of a mensch in implementing the now-ubiquitous bike paths throughout the city of Los Angeles, pioneering the Tour of California bike race and building velodromes in Dominguez Hills and Encino.

Of all his projects, he remains most passionate about the creation of bike paths and facilities along the L.A. River. In the next 10 years, he expects to see a 50-mile path bordering the river from the Valley to Long Beach. Speaking with unmistakable enthusiasm, he envisions the following: “You can stop anywhere through the city, enjoy the Sunday or the weekend without using the car; [you can] even ride at night. We have lights and rest stops, parks and a restaurant.”

Although the complete river restoration has not come to fruition yet, Baum says that, due to all the bike paths in recent years, 2.5 percent of people now go to work by bike, as opposed to 0.5 percent in the past.

Despite constant talk of ethanol and hybrid cars, this goodwill ambassador to the city of Los Angeles, who served on the 1984 Olympic host committee, might have the simplest and greenest solution of all for Los Angeles’ gridlock as well as global warming — riding a bike.

River of Hope

A great blue heron swept across the rushing water and came to a landing in a reed-lined pool. My sonturned to me. "Actually," he said, "this river is kind of nice."

He was talking about the Los Angeles River.

We were riding our bikes along a path that skirted the cursed, maligned and abused waterway from Griffith Park to Glendale. Hundreds of riders accompanied us, all part of the third annual Los Angeles River Ride held May 18. The event is not a race, but a consciousness-raising effort on the part of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition ( and river activists who would like you to know that the Los Angeles River River can be more than this city’s sewer.

They believe the river can be our city’s salvation.

The day was beautiful, smogless and warm. As we rode along what is admittedly the river’s most scenic 15 miles, through the Glendale Narrows to the stunning Los Angeles River Center and back, I could begin to understand that the save-the-riverites were not just a bunch of loons.

The Los Angeles River gathers the waters from an 834-square-mile area — larger than the size of Maui — and delivers them 51 miles later, via a mostly concrete-lined sluice, to San Pedro Bay. Until 1913, its waters served as the only drinking supply for the city — Los Angeles is here because the river was/is here.

Floods of biblical proportions led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to encase the river in tons of concrete in the late 1930s. Since then, it has been the longest running joke in Los Angeles. When I told friends I was taking a ride along the river, they assumed I was leaving town.

But a Friends of the Los Angeles River ( movement has, over the past two decades, sought to reclaim the river, whose banks offer more acreage than Central Park, as a natural and social asset.

As Patt Morrison writes in her poetic and definitive "Rio L.A.: Tales from the Los Angeles River," in "a city suffocated by concrete and throttled by crowding — here was this wasted open space of an entombed river…. The river could not safely be set completely free, but recreation and cement could undoubtedly cohabit."

June 16 — Bloomsday — came and went and got me thinking about what we, as Jewish Angelenos, have to offer in this cause. In the Dublin of James Joyce’s "Ulysses," the soul of the city is bound up in a river — the Liffey — and a Jew, Leopold Bloom. To grossly oversimplify Joyce, a river runs though Dublin as Jewish history courses through Western civilization, shaping it and shaped by it.

The Los Angeles River and the network of arroyos, creeks and washes in Los Angeles’ flood-control system connect the disparate neighborhoods of the city, from the Valley to downtown, from the Westside to the Eastside, from rich to poor. The river is as spread out and bound up in the city as its Jews, and we — and the river — will benefit were it to be a source of connection, leisure and wealth, rather than a running sore.

I’m not going to suggest what should be done with these waterways — there are numerous resources, studies and opinions you can research — other than to say that we, as Jewish Angelenos, have a unique role to play in their stewardship and a unique ability to play that role.

That ability became clear to me earlier this month at the Environmentalist of the Year award ceremony held June 12 by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California (COEJL).

COEJL is a national organization that "instills a commitment to environmental protection rooted in Jewish values." COEJL ( is also rooted in the Jewish talent for leveraging its money and influence to effect change.

Though relatively young, the organization has managed to influence passage of a state toxic air emissions law, institute a "Green Sanctuary" program that helps synagogues convert to sustainable energy sources and, perhaps most importantly, create a larger environmental coalition with Christian and Muslim clergy.

The ceremony honored Los Angeles City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, Assemblywoman Fran Pavley (D-Woodland Hills) and Richard Ziman, chairman and CEO of Arden Realty Inc. The speakers, including City Councilman Eric Garcetti, all offered a vision of a better, cleaner city that encouraged sensible growth, sustainable energy sources, mass transit and — yes — a new and improved Los Angeles River River policy.

Ziman said his leadership of a billion-dollar company that invests heavily and profitably in sustainable energy technology is proof that development and environment can go hand in hand.

It can. But even more than the brown haze that hangs over our basin, the Los Angeles River is a symbol of our neglect for an environment that sustains us. Fortunately, such symbols can easily turn into rallying cries — think Santa Monica Bay. So it is not hard to imagine a river bordered by bicycle paths, home to herons, a meeting place for all, a long breath of fresh air down into the belly of our city.