October 14, 2019

Environmental and Political Issues Complicate ‘Saving the Dead Sea’

Photo courtesy of WGBH

The Dead Sea is dying. Because of drought and rising temperatures caused by global warming, its waters are receding and its shores are pockmarked by more than 6,000 sinkholes. Scientists and engineers have come up with a plan to save it and supply crucial water to the region, but it will require the cooperation of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. And complicated ecological, scientific, financial and geopolitical issues may thwart it from becoming a reality. The PBS “Nova” documentary “Saving the Dead Sea” outlines the problem, the solution and what it will take to implement it.

In the proposed Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Project, a desalination plant will be built in southern Jordan on the shores of the Red Sea, and the leftover brine from the process will be transported to the Dead Sea to raise its level. Scientists estimate that it will require 200 billion gallons of brine annually to stabilize the Dead Sea’s decline. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority will get more drinking water, too, from the Sea of Galilee and the existing Israeli water system. The estimated cost of the project is $10 billion.

First, there are ecological ramifications to consider. The chemistry of the two seas is very different, and mixing the water from them could alter the Dead Sea’s salt content and mineral composition. There is concern about how the desalination plant might affect coral reefs in the Red Sea, and what might happen to Israel’s fresh water aquifer if there’s an earthquake. It’s also an insurance issue. Who would pay for such a disaster?

But first the $10 billion must be raised. “The World Bank is the funding agency for the project and they need to raise the money from United Nations member states. Then the plant and the pipelines need to be built. It will take years,” producer Avner Tavori told the Journal.

Tavori, who grew up in Haifa, recalls driving down to the Dead Sea when it looked very different from today. “The sea reached all the way to the road. Now it’s almost a mile away and the area between is filled with sinkholes,” he said. “There’s no tourism in the northern part anymore. The area looks like a war zone.”

The ecological catastrophe can be blamed in part on human interference. In the 1950s, Israel diverted water from the Sea of Galilee to irrigate the desert and supply cities with drinking water. “Nobody thought about what it would do to the Dead Sea,” Tavori said. “We think we’re doing something good, but it wasn’t the case. It’s a lesson in consequences.”

“If people don’t have water, they fight. They go to war over water. This is a whole Middle East problem and the only way it can be solved is if the people in the region work together.” — Avner Tavori

Today, with the supply from the Galilee and desalinated water from the Mediterranean Sea, “Israel really has enough water,” Tavori said. “Jordan doesn’t and with the increase in Syrian refugees, it’s getting worse and their aquifer is on the verge of collapse. They really want this desalinization plant. The Palestinians don’t have any access to water because Israel controls the road to the Red Sea. They are in it to be the third party — the World Bank requires more than two countries to qualify for the funding. Geopolitically, it’s very complicated.”

Tavori pointed out that access to water was one of the issues in the 1967 Six-Day War. “If people don’t have water, they fight,” he said. “They go to war over water. This is a whole Middle East problem and the only way it can be solved is if the people in the region work together.”

Filmed last spring in Israel and Jordan, “Saving the Dead Sea” includes interviews with geophysicists, chemists and hydrologists from the water ministries of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. All agree that the region’s water problems are severe, but some worry about the risks. 

“We have to address things wisely,” the Palestinian Authority’s former water minister Shaddad Attili said. “We have to address the consequences of climate change. We have to address also the consequences of human intervention.”

Whether the project is implemented, “We will never get the Dead Sea back to what it used to be, but we can do things in the short term to stop the decline,” Tavori said. “There has been talk in Israel about flipping the direction of the water in the [existing] National Water Carrier. Instead of taking water out of the Sea of Galilee, water would go into it and it would become a reservoir. The infrastructure is there.”

As it stands now, “Based on the existing peace agreement, Israel is obligated to give Jordan water from the Sea of Galilee, which it is doing,” Tavori said. “Israel has also pledged to give water to the Palestinians through the existing pipelines. Under the new plan, the amount will be doubled and Israel is updating the infrastructure with bigger pipelines that will connect the Galilee and Jordan. The current pipes are old and have leaks and it’s not enough for what they need, but it’s helpful.”

Based in New York since 1986, Tavori was a journalist who segued into working for the political campaigns of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, and was appointed Rabin’s press secretary for Israel’s mission to the U.N. He got into documentary filmmaking after meeting his wife, Terri Randall, “Saving the Dead Sea’s” writer-producer. 

Tavori hopes that the documentary will create better understanding of the ecological and geopolitical issues involved in saving the Dead Sea. “If water from the Red Sea gets to the Dead Sea and doesn’t destroy it, the level will stabilize over time,” he said. “But with the population of the region going to quadruple in 50 years, who knows? That’s the big question.”

“Saving the Dead Sea” premieres April 24 on PBS’ “Nova.”