Dead Sea ‘dying’

Environmentalists say that the Dead Sea is in danger of drying up and that its surrounding nature reserves are threatened by development.

Friends of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a Jordan-based NGO says that water levels in the world’s saltiest large water body, the Dead Sea, situated between Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan, are dropping by 80cm to one metre every year due to human intervention and that 1/3 of the sea’s surface area has already been lost. In addition, the group says, water inflow levels have been reduced to 10% of the original volume, with annual surface inflows in the future predicted to decrease from 375 million cubic meters (mcm) to 135 mcm per year. The shoreline of the sea, the lowest point on Earth is also expected to drop further – from 411 metres below sea level to 430 metres below by 2020.

The fall in the level of the sea has also lowered water tables in surrounding areas causing a drying up of micro-eco-systems and leading to land-subsidence, the NGO says. The biggest single cause of the recession of the Dead Sea is a loss of water from its main tributaries: the Jordan River and several wadis. Construction of dams, storage reservoirs, and pipelines for the desalinisation and treatment of water, much used for highly subsidised and inefficient agriculture has greatly reduced water inflows to the Dead Sea, the NGO says.

In addition to the degradation of the sea, surrounding areas, many of which are nature reserves and wetlands, and are haven for ibex, leopards, hyrax and migrating birds, are being threatened by plans for expanding heavy industry, tourism initiatives, and “unnecessary transportation infrastructure”. FOEME says that human development has already damaged the food supply and mating and migration patterns of many plant and animal species, and that the only living beings known to survive in the Dead Sea – micro-organisms with an extremely high salt-tolerance – are already no longer found, as evaporation has caused salinity rates to exceed the organisms’ threshold.

FOEME is concerned that the development plans of the Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians threaten the area still further and “demonstrate not only woefully insufficient consideration of even basic ecological principles, but also a lack of basic coordination between sectors and between the three relevant governmental authorities”. One of the principal factors threatening the sea, the group says, are proposals to increase the number of hotel rooms from the existing 4,000 to more than 55,000, with additional related construction of shopping and restaurant facilities. Untreated sewage into the Dead Sea from these areas is projected to increase from 15 million mcm to as much as 35-50 mcm.

In addition, the mineral extraction activities of the Dead Sea Works and the Arab Potash Company operating at the southern end of the Dead Sea have been major players in affecting the environmental stability of the region. Industrial solar evaporation ponds are responsible for 25-30% of the total evaporation of Dead Sea waters and the surrounding landscape has been affected by land excavation and the disposal of unwanted minerals, FOEME says. The group also asserts that industry has negative affects on air quality in the region by emitting dust and combustion gases, while the burning of heavy fuel oil in power and steam generators emits further pollutants and the Dead Sea Works is one of the world’s leading producers of ozone-depleting methyl-bromide.

Planned new highways, apparently still on the cards in the wake of renewed Israeli-Palestinian hostilities, also threaten the area, FOEME says. Major highways linking Damascus and Beirut with the Red Sea and with Cairo are still on the agenda and there are also plans for a new road cutting through the heart of the Judean Desert, which the NGO says is meant merely to be a recognisable ‘border’ between the West Bank and Israel.

According to FOEME, the most important step in preventing the loss of the Sea and surrounding landscapes is for all parties involved, including local residents, visitors, businesses, and governments at the national and local levels, to correctly plan development together and to recognise the seriousness of the issues facing the region. The group suggests that the following be implemented:

  • to limit tourism development to the Dead Sea’s northern and southern stretches, leaving the ecologically sensitive middle corridors on both the eastern and western shores preserved, while eco-sensitive tourism could be developed;
  • to establish the entire Dead Sea Basin as a UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, whereby governments take on the obligation of developing a plan for the sustainable development of the region, and in return can be eligible for technical and financial assistance from UNESCO for preservation efforts;
  • to develop a joint management plan for the region, which would take into consideration both carrying capacities and rational target development rates; and
  • to ensure that water currently reaching naturally-important areas continues to do so.

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