Even as it shrinks in size, the Dead Sea, a turquoise blue shimmering salt lake, remains a mystical place. Boat jetties jut out into nothingness, abandoned as the water has retreated further and further; each year the level dropping by a meter. The Dead Sea is dwindling to nothing, deprived of water by humans.
Where there once was water, there is now a crumbling coastline, which is already riddled with deep craters that can open up suddenly. Nonetheless, the lake's withered beauty still attracts many to its shores.
The only question is, for how long?
The Dead Sea is now set to be saved -- but the plans of its self-appointed savior may actually turn out to be more like euthanasia.
Last week, Israeli Energy Minister Silvan Shalom, together with his Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts, agreed to a joint project which, it was solemnly declared, would prevent the Dead Sea from drying out. At the same time, what Shalom described as an "historic agreement" would secure water supplies for the notoriously arid region -- and send a signal of international understanding in the Middle East.
Nothing But a Waste
But numerous environmentalists and the 20 Palestinian NGOs who spoke out in advance against the project argue that the acclaimed agreement is nothing but a waste.
The plan is to build a desalination plant in the Jordanian city of Aqaba on the Red Sea, which will then supply both the neighboring Israeli city of Eilat and southern Jordan with fresh water. The brine that is created in the desalination process will be pumped 180 kilometers through a pipeline to the Dead Sea.
Will this stop the Dead Sea from shrinking?
"Nonsense," says Gidon Bromberg simply. As director of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth Middle East, the Israeli lawyer has been involved with issues surrounding the Dead Sea for more than a decade.
What is taking place, Bromberg says, is not a ground-breaking project to save the lake, but simply a water exchange. Israel and Jordan want to build up their water supplies, and the supposedly economically-friendly rescue action is an excellent way to attract international money to do so.
Catastrophic Ecological Consequences
Bromberg is not the only one who thinks like this, primarily because the 200 million cubic meters of brine set to be pumped into the Dead Sea by 2017 at the earliest only make up about 10 percent of the water needed to halt the lake's retreat.
"The amount of water is not sufficient," says hydrogeologist Christian Siebert from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research in the German city of Halle, who is investigating how the decline of the water level in the Dead Sea is affecting aquifers in the region. "And the environmental consequences are not foreseeable."
What worries Siebert and environmentalists is the question of what will happen when mixing seawater and lake water.
Experiments carried out by Israeli microbiologists on behalf of the Geological Survey of Israel show that the transfusion of water from the Red Sea could have catastrophic ecological consequences for the Dead Sea. They could include: an uncontrolled growth of red or green algae; the proliferation of bacteria; the lake turning a rusty red color; and the formation of white gypsum crystals on the water's surface.
"The lake would be completely cloudy," says hydrogeologist Siebert. It would also be possible that the water from the Red Sea would not mix properly with the water from the Dead Sea because of different densities, but would rather form layers. In the worst case scenario, according to Siebert, microorganisms could establish themselves and convert the gypsum into noxious, putrid, stinking hydrogen sulfide.
The brine produced as the product of desalination is also usually contaminated with chemicals and copper.
Until now, people with skin conditions have been drawn to the Dead Sea because of the healing power of its waters. But who wants to bathe in a foul-smelling lake full of chemical waste?
Siebert and Bromberg agree that anyone wanting to save the Dead Sea must first save the Jordan River. It once supplied the salt lake with its water; now the flow has almost completely dried up. The river, which plays a prominent role in the Bible, is today just a miserable, dirty little trickle.
Water As a Weapon
An incredible 98 percent of the Jordan River's water is diverted by bordering countries, and more than half of that by Israel. Until two years ago, Syria and Jordan shared the rest; the Syrians have now largely been left out in the cold due to the country's civil war . The Palestinians claim about 5 percent.
To restore the river, Israel and Jordan would have to do without one-third of its water. It's a tall order in a region where water is also always a weapon, an instrument of power.
Bromberg, therefore, has a different solution in mind, namely that the chemical companies on the shores of the Dead Sea, and especially the Israeli Dead Sea Works Company and the Jordanian Arab Potash Company, must finally relinquish some of the millions they make selling salts and other minerals.
In order to produce these substances, the firms allow water to evaporate from the salt lake in massive quantities. For this precious water, they pay nothing.