Where is the Dead Sea going?

By Grace Ferrara

Floating in the Dead Sea. (PC: Grace Ferrara)

If you’re like me, the words “Dead Sea” might conjure up images of a vast ocean filled with sea monsters and other eerie perils. You might picture heroic Roman warriors venturing across it to find new lands filled with treasures, but failing time and again, their barren skeletons the only things left behind to mark their fate. But the Dead Sea isn’t even a sea at all…it’s actually a really big, salty lake at the end of the Jordan River, wedged between Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. It is a popular tourist spot for visitors to Israel, which was how I came to find myself floating in its briny waters this spring. The Dead Sea is famous for being so saline that humans float with ease. But it’s also the centerpiece of a struggle for water rights in a region where water is scarce and multilateral agreements are even scarcer.

(left) salt slabs on the shore of the Dead Sea (right) the hard, salty bottom of the Dead Sea (PC: Grace Ferrara)

As I began wading into the Sea, soft sand did not rise up between my toes like most beaches I had been to; but instead I was met with hard and sharp ground beneath my feet.  In fact, there wasn’t any sand at all. The entire beach was made up of hard slabs of salt, with a few mud pits dotting the shore. This unexpected terrain exists largely because the water in the Dead Sea evaporates so quickly that salt begins to accumulate and become deposited on the bottom. The result is that the Dead Sea is 5 to 9 times as salty as seawater. The Dead Sea’s salty water and mud is purported to have rejuvenating qualities, the basis for an entire beauty product industry. In fact, Cleopatra is rumored to have used Dead Sea products as part of her beauty regime and even established the world’s first spas on its shore.

Ruins of Masada looking down on the Dead Sea (PC: Grace Ferrara)

King David, Herod the Great, and Sodom and Gomorrah (two cities situated on its banks). The area surrounding the Dead Sea is littered with archaeological sites that date back thousands of years ago, including Masada, an ancient desert fortress with a sordid history that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sadly, the Dead Sea is shrinking at an astounding rate of 3 vertical feet a year, hurting tourism and creating real hazards for people living in and visiting the area: the number of sinkholes developing on the expanding shores of the Dead Sea has increased exponentially as a direct consequence of its retreat. As the surrounding areas became more populated over the last 50+ years, Israel, Syria, and Jordan began diverting water from the Jordan River for agriculture and drinking water. In the 1950s, Israel constructed a dam across the Sea of Galilee (another really big lake), effectively giving them control over the amount of water flowing through the Jordan. The Syrian government then built over 40 dams on one of the Jordan’s tributaries in Syrian territory. Jordan also followed suit and constructed dams on other tributaries, taking some control over the water supplying the Jordan River for themselves. Even more water is diverted from the Dead Sea into evaporation pools from which valuable minerals are extracted for fertilizers.

Aerial photos of the Dead Sea in 1972, 1989, and 2011 (left to right). The evaporation pools on the southern end of the Dead Sea appear to grow over time, and the size of the Sea overall appears to shrink. (PC: NASA)

The politics of water in these three countries and the Palestinian-occupied West Bank are— to state the obvious— incredibly complicated. And the region does not have a strong history of diplomacy. As population levels rise, demand for water will increase accordingly and the problem will only get worse.

However, there may be some hope. Israel has already begun to increase the flow of water into the Jordan and is considering letting even more out of the Sea of Galilee as desalination of water from the Mediterranean gains popularity both for the role it would play in stalling the evaporation of the Dead Sea and its political advantages. Local farmers and entrepreneurs see the retreat of the Dead Sea as a sign of an unhealthy environment that must be remedied, showing local support for its replenishment. Scientists have even argued over whether or not it will disappear altogether based on rates of evaporation and salinity. Still, there are no answers to the question of how to balance the allocation of water rights with environmental concerns surrounding the Dead Sea, and time is running out.