Qasr el Yahud, Israel — It’s a typical day here on the banks of the Jordan River. Under a late October desert sun, pilgrims from around the world descend from their tour buses.
An American church group pauses to pray where the Bible says Jesus Christ was baptized. A German choir group breaks into a hymn. Russian women donning white robes submerge themselves in the river’s still, brown waters. A French woman fills two plastic bottles with the supposed holy water to pour over the heads of babies in baptismal ceremonies back home.
What many of these religious tourists don’t know is that this water, at one of Christianity’s holiest sites, is contaminated by sewage. Government officials are well aware of the problem, yet the only warning is a small sign near the parking lot that states, among other things, that this water isn’t potable.
“It just shows how economic interests trump public health,” says Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, an Israeli-Jordanian-Palestinian environmental peace-building organization.
Fortunately for the group of German tourists, their guide knew better. “She warned us,” says 67-year-old Irene Beige, watching as other tourists wade in. EcoPeace offers training to tour guides on the ecological hazards lurking here and elsewhere in the region. After all, the Jordan River isn’t the only biblical-site-turned-environmental-disaster.
According to Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry, the Dead Sea—the lowest place on Earth—is receding at a rate of four feet per year. Its 30-mile length is only half of what it was a century ago. Similarly, the Sea of Galilee—where biblical legend has it Jesus walked on water—could use a modern miracle. It is Israel’s largest lake, and has long served as the country’s main source of freshwater. But today barely any water is released; its salinity is the highest it has been in 50 years and rising.
Girls enjoy a water slide in Jericho, surrounded by desert.
“There isn’t an Israeli that doesn’t see this as a massive tragic loss,” Bromberg says.
These bodies of water are not only biblical sites, sacred to billions of people around the world. They are also crucial to the survival of the people who live here. These lakes and rivers formed the cradle of civilization since long before even Cleopatra bathed in the Dead Sea for its reputed health benefits. Many worry what could happen to this already volatile part of the world if its water sources continue to shrink. (Read more about these issues in National Geographic magazine.)
Who’s to blame?
“It’s not just an economic problem or an ecological problem. It’s a geopolitical problem,” says Galit Cohen, a senior director with Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry.
Israel shares these interconnected bodies of water with three less-than-friendly neighbors: Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Reversing the damage done will require the cooperation of nations who have failed to work together for the past century. In fact, water shortages in Syria were one factor behind that country’s civil war.
While government officials blame climate change and 15 years of record-breaking drought, environmentalists and scientists say the damage is mostly human-caused, largely from government negligence. “This isn’t global climate change,” Bromberg says, referring to the Dead Sea. “This is government-licensed exploitation of our most valuable resource.”
In October, Israel’s state comptroller published a report slamming the government for mismanaging the nation’s water supply. The resulting water shortfalls cited by the report cost the country’s economy an estimated $300 million. The report blasted the Water Authority for allowing the Sea of Galilee to drop below the authority’s own red line, and for increasing water quotas to farmers without ensuring the country had sufficient reserves.
“The Water Authority is charged with the responsibility for the country's most important natural resource but has for years managed the water in a way that is not suitable for the scale of responsibility that it entails,” the report states.
The Water Authority responded by raising Israelis’ water bills.
The drinking water situation is similarly fraught. Until recently, the Sea of Galilee was the main source of freshwater in Israel. The lake’s water level is now at a two-decade low, to the point where today, it wouldn’t be hard to walk on water there. This year, in fact, a new island emerged.
To respond to the shrinking water supply, five desalination plants have been built along the Mediterranean coast that use reverse osmosis to make seawater potable. According to Israel’s Union for Environmental Defense, 70 percent of Israel’s drinking water now comes from desalination plants.
This supposed solution brings its own health risks, though. Researchers recently found that drinking desalinated water could lead to increased risk of heart disease, perhaps due to a lack of essential minerals. Still, Israel’s Water Authority plans to double the number of plants by 2030.
According to research published in September in the journal Science of the Total Environment, agricultural overuse is the primary cause of the Sea of Galilee’s depletion. “On the one hand, Israel has done miracles in terms of irrigation, water distribution, and making the desert bloom,” says Jonathan Laronne, a geomorphologist at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University and co-author of the paper. “Yet it has failed to take responsibility for preserving water.” The farming industry’s political power is a driving force behind Israeli water policy, he says. “The decisions made regarding water use are only rational on the basis of an agriculturally driven agenda.”
Jordan and Syria also divert water from the Upper Jordan River, reducing flow to the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Michael Wine, a Fulbright postdoctoral fellow at Ben-Gurion University who co-authored the report, says there’s a reason why government officials blame climate change and drought. “It’s very convenient, because the water managers are not in control of climate.”
Where the water goes
Sitting on the northern shore of the Dead Sea, the Lido Hotel was a tourist hotspot in the 1960s and 70s, where visitors sipped wine and ate lunch as waves rolled up beside them. But over time, the water crept further away. Lido was ultimately forced to close its doors in the 1980s. Today it is an abandoned, crumbling cement facade. The Dead Sea is nearly a mile away and 130 feet lower than it was in Lido’s heyday.
According to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, the Dead Sea is the country’s third most popular attraction, visited by 1.7 million tourists in 2017. But thousands of sinkholes have already swallowed up infrastructure around the lake, and if current trends continue, Cohen says, the Dead Sea will become inaccessible. “It’s already a problem, and it will become much worse,” she says.
Yet rather than investing in saving the lake itself, the government has instead funded construction of new hotels. In 2008, it created the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company to protect hotels and infrastructure in the area.
According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Dead Sea will continue to shrink a meter a year until it reaches just two-thirds its current size. The ministry says 80 percent of this depletion is due to diversion of its main water source: the Jordan River. Some 95 percent of this diverted water serves domestic and agricultural uses by Jordan, Syria, and Israel.
Yet Bromberg and other environmentalists insist that 40 percent of the Dead Sea’s depletion can be traced to the region’s mining industry, which pumps out the water to extract minerals from it. These include potash, which is used as an agricultural fertilizer; magnesium, exported as metal for uses such as the auto industry; and bromide, which is often used in pesticides.
Two private companies mine the Dead Sea for its valuable minerals: The Arab Potash Company operates on the Jordanian side of the southern Dead Sea, and Dead Sea Works operates on the Israeli side. The companies pump water from the deep northern end of the lake to the shallow southern end, where they use evaporation pools to isolate the minerals.
That extraction, according to government figures, causes a net loss of more than 84 billion gallons of water a year. That’s comparable to 40 percent of all domestic water use in the country in 2016.
Plans to replenish
So how will the growing need for water be met in an increasingly dry future? For the past 15 years, Israel and Jordan have been in talks over a plan to pump water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The so-called Red-Dead project has already been negotiated, but when it will be implemented is a mystery. “It’s the million-dollar question,” Cohen says.
Jordan was on the verge of publishing a request for proposals to complete the project earlier this year,“but then the American embassy thing happened and Jordan stopped talking to us,” she says, referring to President Trump’s decision to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognize the city as Israel’s capital, a move that was met with anger throughout the Arab world.
Despite questions over how the plan would be financed and whether it would cause more environmental harm, both governments are still banking on the Red-Dead plan. “This is the only chance for bringing water to the Dead Sea,” Cohen says. “I don’t see any alternative.”
Bromberg says the Red-Dead plan is dead on arrival, and instead envisions a scenario in which Israel and Jordan limit the amount of water used for mineral extraction. If, for example, the governments were to charge companies a fee for every gallon of water they pumped out of the Dead Sea, there would be an additional income stream with which the government could fund other water projects.
Residents in Israel are charged for domestic water use, but the mining industry’s government contracts don’t require them to pay for or replenish the water they go through. In an emailed statement, the Environmental Protection Ministry insisted that Dead Sea Works is doing its part by paying royalties and taxes.
“It’s as if they represent the industry rather than the environment,” Bromberg says. “If they’re pumping this water for profit, they should pay for it, just like we do as citizens. This would give them an incentive to invest in technology that saves water. At this point they have no incentive, because they’re not paying for the water.”
Scientists such as Laronne and Wine take it one step further in their pursuit of solutions, saying Israel should also limit farmers’ water use, to allow water to flow from the Jordan River through the Sea of Galilee all the way to the Dead Sea, as nature intended. But this is a sensitive subject. Israel is unique in that its food supply is produced almost entirely within its borders. After all, the country was founded by farmers motivated to turn a desert wasteland into a lush land to support its people. Self-sufficiency is at the core of their identity. As a result, agriculture is almost untouchable in Israeli politics.
The solution the scientists suggest is strategic water allocation to farmers. In dry years, when farmers don't have enough water to grow, say, avocados, the government could tell them to hold off on watering the crop, compensate the farmers for their predicted lost income, and then import avocados instead. In the long-term, researchers say this plan would be less expensive than providing farmers unlimited access to water and then having to pay to find more water elsewhere, as Israel is doing now.
Despite the disagreements, some positive steps have been taken in all three bodies of water. With Dead Sea Works’ contract set to expire in 2030, the government has started discussing a new deal that would require the industry to pay for the water it uses and change the term “exploit” in its contract to “sustainably develop.” The construction of sewage plants in Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories have reduced waste flowing into the Jordan River. And the Water Authority recently released a plan to pump desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee to bring the water level back up.
“The challenges are enormous,” Bromberg says. “While the rest of the world has to deal with climate change, we also have the conflict and the lack of trust that comes with it.”
Yet, he says, ensuring water security in the region could prove a unifying cause for Syria, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians, all of whom rely on these bodies of water. “This could encourage cooperation, because there’s a common self interest,” Bromberg says. “We’re all in the same boat, and either we sink together or we swim together.”