November 25, 2009

Dead Sea In Danger Of Disappearing

The Middle Eastern political conflict has thwarted any progress in keeping the Dead Sea from being reduced to a mere pond, according to a recent AFP report.

The surface level of the world's lowest and saltiest body of water is dropping by three feet a year and no action is being taken to turn back the decline due to political dissent arising from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Some calculations show that the Dead Sea could dry up by 2050. The shoreline of the important tourist destination, famous for the benefits of its minerals, has receded by more than around a mile in some places.

"It might be confined into a small pond. It is likely to happen and this is extremely serious. Nobody is doing anything now to save it," said water expert Dureid Mahasneh, a former Jordan Valley Authority chief.

"Saving the Dead Sea is a regional issue, and if you take the heritage, environmental and historical importance, or even the geographical importance, it is an international issue."

Stuck between Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, the Dead Sea is quickly disappearing because the water that once flowed into the lake is being diverted and also extracted to service industry and agriculture.

In September, Jordan decided to take on a project, without the help from proposed partners Israel and the Palestinian Authority, of building a two-billion-dollar pipeline from the Red Sea to begin refilling the Dead Sea.

However, Mahasneh said that Jordan is not capable of saving the Dead Sea alone.

It began to dwindle in the 1960s when Israel, Jordan and Syria began to divert water from the Dead Sea's main supplier, the Jordan River.

The three neighboring countries have drained around 95 percent of the river's flow for agricultural and industrial use for decades, and Israel alone diverts more than 60 percent of the river.

The drop in groundwater levels as rain water from surrounding mountains dissolved salt deposits that had previously plugged access to underground caverns is only exacerbating the issue, while industrial operations around the shores of the lake contribute to its problems.

Israel and Jordan have both set up massive evaporation pools to vaporize Dead Sea water for the production of phosphate, while five-star hotels have sprung up along its shores, where tourists swarm to experience the healing powers of the sea mud and minerals.

The lake is now 42 miles long and 11 miles wide. The top of the water was already 1,303 feet under global sea level in the 1960s , but the surface has dropped more to minus 422 1,392 feet from the drying out, according to Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME).

According to Mahasneh, climate change is further compounding the crisis.

"Climate change affected everything," he said. "It's an umbrella for many problems, including short rainfall.

"Nothing is being seriously done to tackle climate change. Sustainable and integrated solutions are needed."

The World Bank has funded a two-year study of the plan to bring a pipeline from the Red Sea to refill the Dead Sea.

Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan agreed on the outline of the plan in 2005, which seeks to channel 70 billion cubic feet of water each year through a 120-mile canal to produce fresh water and generate electricity as well as fill up the Dead Sea.

However, some environmentalists believe that the plan could change the unique chemistry of the Dead Sea by mixing it with the Red Sea water.

"We are dealing with at least two sensitive and different ecosystems: the Dead Sea and the Red Sea. We also need to keep an open mind about other possible alternatives," said Munqeth Mehyar, FoEME chair.

"The Dead-Red project is like a salvage plan, there is no other option. But it won't be an easy task for political and economic reasons," said Mahasneh, who is in favor of the plan.

Jordan's Environment Minister Khaled Irani said, "Let's wait and see the results of the study of the environmental impact."

"We might not go ahead with the project if it is going to create a major mess with the ecosystem, but if we can bring water to the Dead Sea and maintain the same ecological quality of the Dead Sea, why not?"

Friends of the Earth's Mehyar believes saving the Jordan River is vital to the future of the Dead Sea. The waterway is burdened by severe ecological strain from large amounts of raw sewage pouring untreated at several locations into the smaller trickle left after the diversion of most of the Jordan River.

Within the past 50 years, the river's yearly flow has declined from more than 46 billion cubic feet to around 2.5 billion cubic feet, according to FoEME.

"We are working hard to push for rehabilitating the Jordan River by increasing and maintaining its flow in order to save it and save the Dead Sea," Mehyar said.

Water experts said the majority of the springs in the Jordan Valley, which flow directly into the Dead Sea are now dammed.

The desert country of Jordan depends largely on rainfall and needs every bit of water to meet domestic, agricultural and industrial requirements for its population of around six million that is growing by 3.5 percent a year.

Jordan has desert covering 92 percent of its land, making it one of the 10 driest countries in the world. It predicts that it will need 56 billion cubic feet of water a year by 2015.

"We need to make sure that there is always running water flowing into the Dead Sea," Irani said.

With lake's depleted water volumes, large sinkholes along its shores are becoming visible, making serious problems for farmers and businesses.

"A sinkhole destroyed my farm 10 years ago and forced me to move and work for other farmers," said farmer Izzat Khanazreh, who used to grow vegetables in his farm in Ghor Haditha in the southern Jordan Valley, a bare and sun-baked area around the Dead Sea.

"Nobody compensated me for my loss. My land was full of cracks and it was impossible to do anything about it," said Khanazreh.

There are an estimated 100 sinkholes in Ghor Haditha alone, which could open up at any time and consume everything above ground like a severe earthquake.

"These sinkholes are time bombs. They can appear any time and eat everything up," said Fathi Huweimer, a field researcher with FoEME.

"Farmers do not feel secure and are anticipating more trouble. This problem is because of the degradation of the Dead Sea."

A Dead Sea product factory even had to relocate after a large sinkhole appeared beneath it, posing a deadly threat to more than 60 workers, Huweimer said.

Irani said Jordan will draw attention to the issue during next month's Copenhagen climate change summit.

"We will raise those issues in Copenhagen and say that Jordan is heavily affected and urge developed countries to allocate more resources to contribute to saving the Dead Sea," he said.


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