Raising the Dead…Sea

Do a quick Google Images search of “Dead Sea.” The results will likely yield plenty of pictures of the sea’s signature blue waters, a few maps, and, of course, snapshots of people just sitting around – sitting around effortlessly on top of the water, that is. This environmental oddity – the lowest and the saltiest body of water on earth – sustains no life, yet it is a source of intrigue, inspiration, and income for people around the world. Many think the sea (with its buoyant, salty splendor) and the surrounding mud have healing powers. Some value it for its religious or historical significance. Others look at the sea as a means to an end; they extract the sea’s mineral-rich sediment and sell its byproducts for fertilizer, pesticides, water treatment chemicals and more.

All the things that make the Dead Sea the stuff of legend, science, and tourism are at risk – from the both current situation and possibly from the proposed solution.

The Dead Sea is dying. It relies on many small tributaries, but its main supplier of water is the Jordan River. Population growth in the region means more and more water is being diverted from its path towards the Dead Sea to other uses such as irrigation and drinking water. Evaporation, which makes the sea special by keeping salinity high, is also putting the Sea at risk, and the hot, arid climate and practices such as mineral extraction only exacerbate the rate of evaporation. Without an ample supply of water from the Jordan, the water level is dropping at an alarming rate (an estimated 1 meter per year).   

As the shoreline recedes, sinkholes and mud are left behind. The scenic beauty of the area is scarred; getting to the water proves more and more difficult; tourism suffers. If this trend continues, the allure of the Dead Sea will be lost for future generations. 

As a solution to this problem, the World Bank, in cooperation with Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, is pursuing a plan to convey water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The potential plan is being marketed as a symbol of peace and cooperation, a potential source for hydropower, and a solution to the Dead Sea’s predicament.

But is it possible to dump water from one sea into another without consequences? Is it really that simple?

Not according to local scientists and geologists. The “Red Dead Conduit,” as it is often called, could have long-term environmental consequences for the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat (where water would be taken from the Red Sea), the Arava Valley and the Dead Sea itself. Another concern has to do with the mixing of waters with two very different salinity levels and mineral compositions. Some wonder if this could even change the appearance of the Sea.

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) published their concerns(pdf) after the World Bank’s recent public hearings on the subject. As of now, the World Bank is conducting studies and assessments of the plan. FoEME stresses that an independent party should carry out an intensive scientific study before any action is taken.

As Al Jazeera reported, the public is concerned as well. Despite the fact that the public was notified only one day before the hearings and that many of the documents were not translated into Arabic and Hebrew, turnout was impressive. Many are questioning the narrow-minded approach of the World Bank project. Why is this the only solution being proposed? Options such as bringing in an adequate amount of water from the Jordan, or reforming the region’s water system are not even on the table yet.

Raising the dead always has been tricky business. 

To read more about the proposed Red Sea Dead Sea “Peace Conduit” and arguments for and against the plan, check out the Global Nature Fund’s Q&A , FoEME’s Research and Analysis (pdf), or the World Bank’s Red Sea Dead Sea Water Conveyance Concept (pdf).

Photo: Oscar Lopez Jimenez via Flickr