The Dead Sea is dying, but after decades of dropping water levels (over 80 feet in a few decades) plans are being drawn up to save it.
The dying of the Dead Sea is a huge, under-reported, environmental disaster. It was once described by a water minister of Jordan, on the opposite shore, as worse than the better-known catastrophe of the desiccation of Central Asia’s Aral Sea, because it is happening faster and threatens greater danger to the region’s economy and ecosystems, as well as the world’s cultural and religious heritage. Yet this weekend sees the beginning of an attempt to save it.
Certainly the Dead Sea is extraordinary, indeed unique. Glittering turquoise blue, more than 1,300 feet below sea level [now closer to 1,400 feet – LC], amid dramatic golden mountains, it is a place of stark, breathtaking beauty. Some 10 times saltier than the world’s oceans, it is lifeless – apart from its own species of bacteria – but is at the heart of a complex ecosystem of nearly 600 species, many endangered, and some found only there. And around it, of course, Sodom and Gomorrah rose and fell, Moses glimpsed the promised land, Masada was besieged, the Dead Sea Scrolls were hidden, and Jesus was baptised.
We might add the Bible accounts of David spending time there during his flight from King Saul. David could have easily killed Saul in a cave at En-gedi along the western shore. David may have also used Masada as a refuge. (Possibly the “stronghold” in 1 Samuel 22:4-5 and 24:22)
Why has the Dead Sea been shrinking for so long?
The sea is under attack from both ends. To the north, the once mighty Jordan, on which it depends for replenishment, has shrunk to a polluted trickle, carrying only one fiftieth of the water it did 70 years ago: after gushing spectacularly out of the side of Mt Hermon far to the north, the river is almost entirely depleted by domestic and agricultural use. And to the south, big industrial concerns deliberately evaporate the sea’s waters to gain valuable minerals.
The Jordan River has been reduced to what many call “a miserable stream” made up largely of sewage and agricultural runoff. It is no longer enough to replenish the evaporation of the Dead Sea. Restoring flow to the Jordan is a key part of any solution, but no plans have moved forward due to disagreements among the Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians who all border its waters. Finally, interested parties are preparing to move ahead.
This weekend they are launching a $4 million project, financed by the EU, to draw up a plan for the region, and also encourage its differing peoples to co-operate by making it a Unesco Biosphere Reserve.
This decision won’t bring more water to the Jordan, but it may lead to decisions that resolve the problem. You can read this article to learn about these initial plans as inch forward. Perhaps this will turn things around and yield a large, healthy Dead Sea in a couple of decades.
David’s men and Roman soldiers no doubt joined countless others in history who enjoyed a float in the Dead Sea’s waters. Its high salt/mineral content causes one to float on the surface with no effort. A word of caution: you don’t want to get the highly saline water in your eyes or mouth. You will suffer.