Dead Sea's Water Level Receding Fast

The Dead Sea is receding by a meter a year, and some fear it might soon disappear. Israeli and Jordanian environmentalists are trying to work together to save a Middle East landmark.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

The Dead Sea is considered one of the world's cultural and ecological treasures. And while it's not technically dead, it is dying, drying up. In the last 50 years, the water level has shrunk by more than a third. That is a concern for Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.

NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Twenty years ago, the Ein Gedi Spa opened, offering tourists massages and mud wraps. Clients used to walk just a few steps from the spa to the Dead Sea, where the water is so salty you can float and read a newspaper at the same time.

Today, the shoreline is almost a mile from the spa and tourists have to take a train to the beach. Kurrah Berger(ph), a spokeswoman for the Dead Sea Regional Council, says the Dead Sea area has several important tourist sites for Christians and Jews, which are now being threatened.

Ms. KURRAH BERGER (Spokeswoman, Dead Sea Regional Council): In the Dead Sea, you can go to Qumran to see there the place where the scrolls were found. And to see the place where, you know, the first time that Israel was divided between Abraham and Lot. And to go to (unintelligible), which was the first place that people were baptized.

GRADSTEIN: Since the 1970s, the water level of the Dead Sea has dropped three feet a year, and that is threatening plant and wildlife reserves along the shore. Environmentalists are especially worried because the Dead Sea is an important resting stop for hundreds of millions of migratory birds that fly between Europe and Africa. The receding waters have also left hundreds of sink holes that threaten to collapse roads and buildings. The Dead Sea is drying up for several reasons.

Most of the water that once flowed into the sea from the Jordan River is being diverted for drinking water and agriculture. And the river has become polluted with sewage. In addition, Israeli and Jordanian companies on both sides of the sea are allowing an estimated 66 billion gallons of sea water to evaporate each year in order to extract potash and other minerals. Uriela Jarona(ph), of the chief engineer for the regional council, says the Dead Sea must be preserved.

Mr. URIELA JARONA (Chief Engineer, Dead Sea Regional Council): The Dead Sea, as a sea, is a very unique. It's in the lowest place on earth. There is no like this late on the planet.

GRADSTEIN: The United Nations is considering declaring the Dead Sea a world heritage site, but environmentalists say if they don't act soon, there won't be much of the Dead Sea left. Recently, officials from Jordan, Israel and the West Bank, met to discuss ways to stem the shrinkage. One idea is what's called the Red Dead Canal, a multi-billion dollar project that would carry water more than a hundred miles from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The World Bank has agreed to fund a feasibility study for the project.

Israeli tour guide Adrian Aaron(ph) from the Israeli Nature Reserves Authority explains one benefit of this solution.

Mr. ADRIAN AARON (Tour Guide, Israeli Nature Reserves Authority): The Red Sea is naturally at sea level. It means that the water would be flowing downhill and the flow could be utilized for a hydroelectric plant. And in some ways that would pay for the construction of the canal.

GRADSTEIN: But some environmentalists worry that pumping the far less salty water into the Dead Sea could release toxic gases and wipe out local plant and wildlife. They favor cleaning up the Jordan River and allowing more water to flow into the river and the Dead Sea from the Sea of Galilee in the north. But Adrian Aaron says it won't be easy.

Mr. AARON: We can try be more efficient with our water usage with Israeli is already fairly efficient with water usage and our population is increasing. So it doesn't look like that's going to make the main different.

GRADSTEIN: Aaron says the Finance Ministry has authorized building new desalinization plants that would allow Israeli to take less of its drinking water from the Sea of Galilee allowing more water to flow into the Dead Sea. But construction of these plants would cost tens of millions of dollars and would take several years. And during that time, the Dead Sea would continue to shrink. Uriela Jarona, the chief engineer for the Regional Council, wants to increase awareness of the Dead Sea problem.

He's organized the Tour of the Dead Sea Bicycle Rally next month for an estimated 300 riders from Israel, Jordan and around the world. Uriela Jarona says he hopes to make the area around the Dead Sea a cycling park that will promote ecotourism and help both Jordan and Israel.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News, The Dead Sea.

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