But over the past 50 years, increasing numbers of people and industries have been drawn to the Dead Sea’s environs. Even more of a problem, the combined population of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories has nearly quadrupled from some 5.3 million to more than 20 million. These countries—plus Syria and Lebanon—have tapped the Jordan River and its tributaries, and the Dead Sea has paid the price. A few generations ago, more than 343 billion gallons of fresh water rushed from the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) through the Jordan into the Dead Sea; today, fewer than 26.4 billion gallons trickle in.
Israel’s largest water project, the National Water Carrier, diverts water from the Kinneret that would have fed the Dead Sea to supply the center and the southwest of the country. Jordan, through its King Abdullah Canal, reroutes more than 90 percent of its share of the Jordan River to farmland, taps and bathrooms. Then there’s Syria, which siphons off water from the Jordan’s northern tributary, the Yarmuk River. At the same time, the Israel Chemicals Company and the Jordanian Arab Potash Company located on the southern rim of the Dead Sea pump out giant amounts of water to fill the evaporation pools needed to extract minerals, primarily potash and magnesium. This alone, experts say, is responsible for about 30 to 40 percent of the decrease in water levels.
As a result, the Dead Sea is shrinking by more than three feet a year and receding from the shore at an even higher rate. “Human intervention has just about killed the Dead Sea,” says Alon Tal, professor in the Department of Desert Ecology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, author of Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel and an expert on the Israeli environment and ecology. “It will take extraordinary human measures—careful, wise intervention and positive regional cooperation—to save it.”
Tal has seen this scenario before in Israel. He is reminded of the Hula Valley where early pioneers forced “nature to bow to their demands” and drained the valley’s swamps to make room for farms, upsetting nature’s balance and creating unforeseen problems. More recently, “We took the waters that fed the Dead Sea to make the desert bloom and created Hebrew agriculture,” he says. “But we killed the Dead Sea in the process.”
Unlike the Hula Valley, the Dead Sea is not completely under Israeli jurisdiction, and the cause of its ills cannot be blamed on one nation alone. In a region known for its political tensions, possible remedies are entangled with international complexities. So as experts, politicians and diplomats argue over its fate, little is being done to keep the Dead Sea alive. And doing nothing, warns Tal, is the worst alternative of all.
Carefully, gingerly, Raz guides me through an abandoned campground and spa area only a few yards from Highway 90, the main north-south road on the Israeli side of the Dead Sea. “Kibbutz Ein Gedi invested millions of shekels here,” he says. “But eight years ago, one of the women working here was sucked into a sinkhole. She wasn’t hurt, but we couldn’t take a chance. We abandoned the site immediately; we couldn’t even take out the equipment—the insurance companies wouldn’t let us.”
There are more than a dozen dangerously gaping sinkholes in this area alone. The beach cabanas have tipped over and collapsed. Once-lush greenery planted by kibbutz members has dried up; only a few intrepid Sodom Apple trees, with their delicate geometrically patterned flowers and strange, puffy and poisonous fruits, hang on.
Signs in Hebrew, English and Arabic warn to stay away and beware of sinkholes. Raz chuckles cynically. “How can you be careful? No one knows where the next one will open up.” He points to one. “That’s new,” he says miserably. “This one wasn’t here a week ago… It’s only a matter of time until we have to leave this entire area.”
Although no one has yet died in a sinkhole in Israel, there have been several serious injuries, and sinkholes are a direct threat to tourism, the main livelihood of the kibbutz and the entire Dead Sea region. Currently, tens of thousands of tourists visit every year, splashing in nearby freshwater pools, floating in the salty sea and slathering themselves with mineral-rich mud. Tourism makes up about 40 percent of the income of the half-dozen flourishing Jewish communities along the northern edge of the Dead Sea, most of them set up after Israel conquered this part of the West Bank in the Six Day War. Jordan is also investing heavily in tourism in the region, and the Palestinians have plans to develop hotels and health spas in their future state.
Sinkholes are also threatening agriculture—mostly date farming—in the region, another major source of revenue for kibbutzim, such as Ein Gedi. Raz points to a date orchard on the other side of Highway 90, also abandoned because of sinkholes. The trees still stand tall, but, without water, the sun has burned them black. “It’s sad to see an abandoned orchard,” says Raz.
The sea’s receding waters have caused other problems. Unsightly mudflats now line the shore where water once lapped. Matthew Sperber, general manager of Kibbutz Almog, located on the shore’s edge, points to the kibbutz’s lucrative beach resort. Only five years ago, the kibbutz built carefully landscaped steps that led to the water’s edge. But now the steps lead only to a dock to nowhere, hanging about three yards above and more than 13 yards from the shoreline. “We’re trying to chase the water,” Sperber says. “Eventually, we’ll lose the race.”