Broome / DPA
The Dead Sea shimmers blue-green under a mild winter sun, waves rippling gently to the beach as a tourist couple enters the water.
The high salt content – at 34 percent almost 10 times the level in the world’s seas – means that a human floats on the water like a cork with no danger of going under.
A US tourist is rubbing Dead Sea mud on her husband. The therapy is said to alleviate skin disorders and allergies, as well as arthritic pain in the knees.
This is a unique and strange place, situated at the lowest point on the earth’s land surface, some 420 metres below sea level.
Visitors feel themselves transported back to biblical times against the backdrop of a spectacular landscape with its mountains the warm colour of sandstone.
“I’ve never been to a salt beach before,” says Vince Russo, a tourist from the US state of Michigan, visiting Israel with his girlfriend. “It’s beautiful.” This idyll is now under threat. The lake, situated between Jordan in the east and Israel and the Palestinian territories in the west, is drying out.
“The water level is declining by more than a metre a year,” says Gundi Schachal, a German environmentalist who has lived on the Ein Gedi kibbutz near the edge of the lake for years.
One reason for this is that fresh water from the main tributary, the Jordan River, which flows in from the north, is being drained by surrounding countries almost entirely before it reaches the lake.
And at the southern end the companies Dead Sea Works on the Israeli side and Arab Potash Company on the Jordanian are exacerbating the decline by using solar evaporation to extract valuable minerals.
Once visitors to the Ein Gedi Spa could walk straight into the water, but these days a tractor hauls them the 2 kilometres to the beach. Schachal, who is 54, visited the kibbutz for the first time in 1979. “At the time the water reached almost up
to the main road,” she says with
The earth along the road to the lake is porous, and the surface breaks easily underfoot. Some 5,000 sinkholes have opened up over recent decades, with 300 being added every year, posing a serious hazard to the unwary.
Four people have been injured when the surface gave way beneath them, Schachal reveals as she shows visitors a deserted campsite on the beach.
“Please don’t walk around on your own. It’s really dangerous,” she says as she leads the way through this forbidden zone. Some of the massive concrete slabs have given way where the earth subsided beneath them.
Camping is banned along the banks, with signs warning of the sinkholes posted in English, Arabic and Hebrew.
The beach is now accessible by only a few routes, and the number of tourists is in steep decline, from 183,500 in 2010 to 143,500 in 2015.
The holes, which can be up to 25 metres deep and 40 metres wide, are like huge moon craters, some of them filled with water. They occur when fresh water washes out the subterranean salts, creating hollows under the surface.
The Dead Sea’s retreat is also affecting the local wildlife, which includes ibex, hares, hyraxes, jackals and foxes, as well as hundreds of bird species.
The nature reserves in the area are a major resting point for migratory birds, around half a million of which pass through twice a year, according to Schachal.
Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority agreed with the World Bank in 2013 on the construction of the Red Sea – Dead Sea Water Conveyance, also called the Peace Conduit.
The long-planned project aims to provide fresh water for the Jordanian port of Aqaba through a desalinization plant and to lead the residual brine to the Dead Sea 180 kilometres to the north, generating hydroelectricity along the way.
The first phase of the pipeline’s construction is set to begin later this year.
Environmentalists are sceptical. “The chemistry of the Red Sea waters is completely different to that of the Dead Sea,” Schachal says.
There are fears that the mixing will produce gypsum in large quantities and import algae from the Red Sea that could disrupt the Dead Sea’s ecological balance.
Schachal’s preference is for the Jordan to be allowed to flow again by pumping less water out for irrigation and human use. But German geology professor Stephan Kempe sees the international project as the lesser of two evils. “Of course it would be better to revive the Jordan, but that’s not realistic.”
The Jordan’s waters are used by Israel, Syria and Jordan, as well as the Palestinians, and even if it were to flow at the full rate, it would merely stabilize the Dead Sea at
current levels, Kempe says.