The Dead Sea attracts over one million tourists a year, but it is rapidly shrinking.
"That was my house," says Chocron, a lifeguard, pointing to a pile of broken wood. Chocron is deeply tanned and has a three-day growth on his face. He is 59, but looks younger. He now lives in a bungalow on the edge of the destroyed campsite.
The ground could open up again at any time, pulling him or his house into the depths. "I know that it's dangerous," he says with a hoarse laugh. "But I still like this place. It's my home."
The former campsite is now mostly fenced off. Abandoned campers are surrounded by the knotted remains of trees that died for lack of water. The ground is pockmarked with circular craters several meters deep. A wrecked car lies in one of the holes. What is left of the Dead Sea sparkles, dark blue, far down at the base of the cliff.
Politicians, scientists and environmental activists in Israel have been arguing for years over how to save the ailing lake known for its high salt content. Some believe that the only solution is to build a canal to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.
The water level in the Dead Sea drops by more than a meter (about three feet) each year. It is currently about 420 meters (1,378 feet) below sea level. In 1930, 1.3 billion cubic meters (46.4 billion cubic feet) of water flowed into the world's lowest-lying body of water each year. Today it is less than 400 million. About 1,050 tons of water evaporate each year from the Dead Sea. Only when the water level has dropped by another 100 meters will the surface be small enough so that evaporation and the amount of water coming into the lake are roughly in equilibrium. By then the Dead Sea will be not much more than a sad little puddle.
The sea's water level is already lower than the surrounding ground water level, as the ground water, which has a low salt content, flows downward toward the salt lake. Along the way it dissolves underground salt deposits, causing the layers of rock above to collapse. This makes for a brittle coastline where the feared sinkholes can appear within seconds. It is impossible to predict where this will happen next. More than 1,000 craters have already been counted along the Israeli shore of the Dead Sea.
The plan to put the Dead Sea on a drip has been around for a long time. The construction of a canal into the Red Sea is part of the peace treaty Jordan and Israel signed in the mid-1990s. But unrest in the region has stood in the way of making the plan a reality since then. Now the governments of the neighboring states are revisiting the project. A feasibility study funded by the World Bank is scheduled to begin this December.
The canal would be about 180 kilometers (112 miles) long, extending from the Gulf of Aqaba down to the Dead Sea. It would carry up to 1,900 million cubic meters of water into the salt lake each year. Because the canal would cross a chain of hills, the water would first have to be pumped up to a level of 220 meters. Then it would flow down more than 600 meters and through the Wadi Arabah (or Arabah Valley) before reaching the Dead Sea.
Under the plan, the gradient would be used to generate electricity, much of which would be needed to power the pumping stations. The remainder could be used to run a large seawater desalination plant, which would produce up to 850 million cubic meters of drinking water a year for the Jordanians, Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank.
The project is being touted as a "peace canal" in a region shaken by political unrest. According to current estimates, construction would take about nine years and cost at least $5 billion.
The Canal Could Pose Risks
It is an attractive plan and a bold project, one from which it seems everyone would benefit. Instead of constantly being at each other's throats, Israelis and Arabs would be collaborating. The population would get drinking water, a scarce commodity in this arid desert region. And, of course, the Dead Sea would be saved.
But the reality isn't quite as rosy -- something that became obvious at a public hearing organized by the World Bank in a hotel near Jerusalem. For many in the audience, it is standing room only in the overcrowded conference room. The debate quickly becomes heated, as environmental activists, scientists, representatives from industry and the tourism sector, as well as residents affected by the project loudly voice their concerns. Unfortunately much of the debate is conducted in Hebrew, so that the World Bank representatives who have come here from Washington can only listen patiently without understanding a word.
Israel and Jordon are planning on building a canal to connect the Red Sea and the Dead Sea.
In addition, experiments conducted by a team of scientists from the Geological Survey of Israel have shown that mixing the water from the two seas could lead to algae blooms, the precipitation of gypsum, and the water turning red.
Another fear is that the water from the Red Sea, which is lower in salinity and therefore less dense, would not mix completely with that of the Dead Sea. Over time, this could cause a layering effect that would deprive the Dead Sea of its unique character, leading to a decline in the roughly one million tourists who visit the sea each year to seek treatment for skin ailments or simply for the experience of floating in the lake with a high concentration of salt while reading the newspaper.
Gideon Bromberg, the director of the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, voices perhaps the most obvious criticism at the meeting. "Why isn't anyone talking about alternatives to the canal?" he asks, raising his voice. "Why don't our governments and the World Bank even consider getting to the root of the problem and allowing more water to flow through the Jordan once again?"
Bromberg talks himself into a frenzy. "This is supposed to be peace project. But Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty long ago. It would be a far greater contribution to peace if the problem on the Jordan were solved, not just with Jordan, but also with Syria!"
Dan Zaslavsky, a former Israeli water commissioner, is quick to back Bromberg's arguments. It would cost about $800 million, he says, to build seawater desalination plants on the Mediterranean, with which Israel could replace about 400 million cubic meters of water from the River Jordan each year. Even more water could be saved if industrial evaporation on the Dead Sea were reduced. "The canal," he says, "is the worst of all solutions." The audience hoots and claps. This goes on for four more hours and, by the end of the hearing, the World Bank delegation looks exhausted, while the opponents and proponents of the plan remain as divided as ever.
If there is anyone who should know what he is talking about when it comes to the idea of canal, it is Michael Beyth. He sits in an office jam-packed with books and binders at the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem, a bald, thoughtful man with rimless glasses. He is 67 and has been officially retired for two years, but he has spent 35 years of his career studying the Dead Sea, first as a scientific advisor to industry and then as chief scientist at the Infrastructure Ministry. He gives talks on the canal project, and his most recent article on the issue appeared in a professional journal a few weeks ago.
Beyth folds his hands and is silent for a long time. Finally he murmurs: "If only I knew exactly myself. It's a very big, complicated project." Simply allowing the Dead Sea to continue shrinking, he says, would be irresponsible. "That would lead to environmental problems that we can't even begin to assess today." It is also correct, he adds, that the volume of water flowing in the River Jordan has to increase again. "But that is only possible to a limited extent. Politically speaking, it's a completely unrealistic solution to the problems at the Dead Sea."
Beyth sighs deeply. "I think the canal is the only solution."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan