- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 13, 2007


Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians are slowly pushing through the tangle of their disputes and suspicions in a race to save a biblical and ecological treasure: the Dead Sea.

The famously salty sea, which lies at Earth’s lowest point, is shrinking. It has receded by about 3 feet a year for the past 25 years, and Jordan and Israel warn that if the trend continues, it and its unique ecosystem will vanish by 2050, defeated by river diversions, mineral extraction and natural causes such as evaporation.

A project to raise the water level by piping in water from the Red Sea has long been held up by disputes between Israel and its Palestinian and Jordanian neighbors.

“The ball began to roll a few months ago because of the gravity of the situation and the dangers facing the Dead Sea, which is a unique heritage not only to the countries that border it but to the whole world,” said Mohammed Thafer al-Alem, Jordan’s water minister.

The urgency is made clear by a dramatic side effect of the dwindling water: sinkholes.

These yawn open in a flash, leaving pits 100 feet or more deep in the spongelike terrain. At Ghor Haditha, a Jordanian village of 6,000 residents on the Dead Sea’s southern tip, signs warn of the peril, and huge holes dot the vegetable fields.

The sinkholes occur because underground aquifers shrink, and salt left by the receding Dead Sea waters erodes the earth.

The Dead Sea, or Salt Sea, is mentioned in the Old Testament. The sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have stood on its banks, and from nearby Mount Nebo, Moses is said to have first seen the Promised Land.

The placid, sun-baked lake, surrounded by spectacular desert cliffs, has become a tourist attraction for Jordan and Israel because of its curative waters and black mud. Five-star hotels are sprouting on its shores, creating pollution problems that pose another threat.

The Dead Sea is nearly 1,400 feet below sea level. It is 42 miles long, up to 11 miles wide and more than 1,000 feet deep. With salinity of about 30 percent — more than eight times that of the world’s oceans — it is considered the planet’s saltiest body of water. It is bounded by Jordan in the east and Israel and the West Bank to the west.

The Jordan River, which flows into the Dead Sea, is part of a river network whose overuse and diversions by Jordan, Israel and Syria compound the shrinkage.

After Jordan and Israel signed a peace agreement in 1994, they began considering ideas to save the Dead Sea. One plan — to draw water from the Mediterranean, about 50 miles to the west — was shelved as too costly, so “Med-Dead” shifted to “Red-Dead” — an underground pipeline bringing water from the Red Sea, 125 miles south.

The subsequent collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the violence that followed put the brakes on the project.

The sides agreed in late 2005 to begin a feasibility study for the pipeline, but Israel balked at it after the landslide January 2006 election victory of the militant Hamas group and its eventual takeover of the Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With renewed Jordanian prodding to resume the project, a compromise was reached to include Palestinian moderates on a committee overseeing the project. A feasibility study began this year, with 60 percent of its $15.5 million cost provided by the United States and other Western donors. The pipeline itself will cost $1 billion and take two years to complete if funding can be found.

There are also plans for a $1.5 billion plant to desalinate Red Sea water for use by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians.

“The Red-Dead project is very significant to Israel because the surrounding area is water-poor, and in 10 or 15 years, there will be no water there,” except whatever is piped in for drinking, said Israeli Foreign Ministry official Jacob Keidar, referring to groundwater wells in the nearby Jordan Valley. He spoke in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

Mr. al-Alem, the Jordanian water minister, said the shrinkage is “more catastrophic” than that of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

Once the world’s fourth largest inland sea, the Aral, situated between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, has lost three quarters of its surface area in less than half a century because of Soviet-era river diversions to promote farming.

“The Dead Sea is a worse disaster than the Aral because it’s shrinking quicker and the catastrophe it poses is greater to the surrounding ecosystem, the economy from its minerals and its site as a world cultural and religious heritage,” Mr. al-Alem said.

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