The Dead Sea, the salty lake located at the lowest point
on Earth, is gradually shrinking under the heat of the
Middle Eastern sun. For those who live on its shores it’s
a slow-motion crisis – but finding extra water to sustain
the sea will be a huge challenge.
If there’s one thing everyone knows about the Dead Sea it is
that you can’t sink in it.
It is eight or nine times saltier than the oceans of the world –
so dense and mineral rich that it doesn’t even feel like
normal water, more like olive oil mixed with sand.
For decades no holiday in the Holy Land or Jordan has been
complete without a photograph of the bather sitting bolt
upright on the surface, usually reading a newspaper to
emphasise the extraordinary properties of the water.
But the Dead Sea is also a unique ecosystem and a sensitive
barometer of the state of the environment in a part of the
world where an arid climate and the need to irrigate farms
combine to create a permanent shortage of water.
You may have read that the Dead Sea is dying. You can see
why the idea appeals to headline writers but it isn’t quite
As the level drops, the density and saltiness are rising and
will eventually reach a point where the rate of evaporation
will reach a kind of equilibrium. So it might get a lot smaller,
but it won’t disappear entirely.
It is however shrinking at an alarming rate – the surface level
is dropping more than a metre (3ft) a year.
When you consider that the surface of the Dead Sea is the
lowest point on the planet – currently 420m (1,380ft) below
sea level – that means that the planet’s lowest point is being
recalibrated on an annual basis.
It is deep enough that journeying along the road that winds
down to the shore causes your ears to pop as they do on an
aircraft coming in to land.
The landscapes of the Dead Sea have an extraordinary,
almost lunar quality to them – imagine the Grand Canyon
with Lake Como nestling in its depths. And the people of the
ancient world understood that there was something unique
in the place, even if they couldn’t be quite sure what it was.
The story goes that Cleopatra used products from the area
as part of her beauty regime, which as everyone knows also
allegedly included asses’ milk and almond extract – although
in truth tales like that are ten-a-penny around the Middle
And it’s possible that King Herod, who had a winter palace
nearby, came here for his health too – although his
tarnished historical reputation does tend to devalue his
worth as a celebrity endorser in the classical world.
What is certain is that when the Romans occupied the
Middle East they exerted rigid military control over the
roads around the Dead Sea because it was such a fertile
source of salt – a commodity so valuable then that it was
used as a form of currency.
And the health benefits appear to be real enough. The
intense barometric pressure so far below sea level may
produce atmospheric conditions beneficial for asthmatics – I
am a sufferer and I noticed a degree of difference.
And people with the painful skin disease psoriasis also seem
to find relief in the combination of mineral-rich water,
soothing mud and intense sunlight. In some countries,
health agencies and charities pay for people with the
condition to come on therapeutic trips.
So even though the Dead Sea is shrinking and changing, it
still has an economic value. Tourists can choose to visit
resorts in either Jordan or Israel and both countries also
export cosmetic products manufactured in the area.
Part of the shoreline is in the Palestinian West Bank under
Israeli occupation so it’s possible that in future Palestinians
too will reap the economic benefits of the sea’s unique
But there’s no doubt that the decline in the water level has
During the World War One, British engineers scratched
initials on a rock to mark the level of the water. A century
on, those scratch-marks are high on a bone-dry rock.
To reach the current water level you must climb down the
rocks, cross a busy main road, make your way through a
thicket of marshy plants and trek across a yawning mud flat.
It’s about 2km (1.25 miles) in all.
A few kilometres along the coastline, in the tourist resort of
Ein Gedi, the retreating of the water has created a huge
When the main building, with its restaurant, shower block
and souvenir shop, was built towards the end of the 1980s,
the waves lapped up against the walls.
Now the resort has had to buy a special train in which
tourists are towed down to the water’s edge by a tractor
(another 2km journey).
For Nir Vanger, who runs the business side of Ein Gedi’s
tourist operations, it’s an unnerving rate of change.
“The sea was right here when I was 18 years old, so it’s not
like we’re talking about 500 or a 1000 years ago,” he says.
“The Dead Sea was here and now it’s 2km away, and with the
tractor and the gasoline and the staff it costs us $500,000 a
year to chase the sea.
“I grew up here on the Dead Sea – all my life is here, and
unfortunately in the last few years that’s a bit of a sad life
because you see your home landscape going and
disappearing, and you know that what you leave for your
children and grandchildren won’t be what you grew up with.
“When we built a new house my wife asked me if I wanted a
view of the sea and I said we should build it with a view of
the mountains because they stay where they are and the sea
So it’s not hard to understand the mystique of the Dead Sea,
with its unique chemistry, harsh micro-climate and soaring
camel-coloured mountains – a landscape that would still be
recognisable to Herod and Cleopatra, give or take the odd
multi-storey concrete hotel.
But to a geologist it is simply the terminal lake of the River
Jordan – its end point. The river flows in at one end but the
water doesn’t flow out again at the other – it just sits there
And while it is an exaggeration to say that the Dead Sea is
dying, that would be a reasonable description of the river
that feeds it.
It’s true that in the brief rainy season there are flash floods
that bring water coursing through the wadis, or stony inlets.
But these are parched for most of the year, and the river
itself barely more than a trickle.
There are places in Israel and in the occupied West Bank
where, in the dry season, you can almost step over it.
The Jordan was once one of the great waterways of the
ancient world – Christ was baptised in it – and even in
relatively modern times it was a surging river prone to
flooding in rainy winters.
In 1847, the US government despatched a naval expedition
to explore the Jordan for motives that appear to have been
as much religious as they were scientific or navigational.
The expedition was led by a doughty officer called William F
Lynch, who deserves a footnote in the history of the region if
only because he may have been the first person to calculate
that the Dead Sea lies below sea level.
Lynch’s description of his adventures is entertaining, even if
he has a habit of describing the indigenous peoples of the
region in ways that grate on 21st Century sensibilities.
What’s interesting is his description of the river itself, where
at one point he finds a series of 5m-high waterfalls
separated by rapids – he even fears that he’ll lose one or
more of the expedition’s boats.
“We halted at the ruins of an old bridge now forming
obstructions over which the foaming river rushed like a
mountain torrent,” he writes. “The river was 30 yards wide.”
Eighty years or so later, there was still enough water in the
Jordan to allow a Russian Zionist engineer called Pinchas
Rutenberg to construct a hydro-electric power station in a
remote stretch of the river valley – its abandoned buildings
still stand there in what is now a desiccated landscape.
Things are startling different these days.
The geography of the region hasn’t changed, of course. The
northern section of the Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee
and then the southern section flows south out of the Galilee
and down into the Dead Sea.
But the amounts of water flowing into and out of that system
have changed spectacularly in recent decades – all part of
the complicated politics of water in the Middle East.
Israel has a dam across the southern section of the Sea of
Galilee which gives it control of the amount of water flowing
into the Jordan – it regards the Galilee as a vital strategic
water asset, even though it’s been steadily increasing the
amount of fresh water it creates through desalination plants
in the Mediterranean.
The Israeli government began taking water out of the Jordan
Valley system in the 1950s, the decade before it completed
And this creates problems for farmers in both Jordan and
the Palestinian territory of the West Bank – all of whom need
water to irrigate their farms and feed their people.
But Israel has problems too – although it has enough money
and enough technical resources to ensure its own people
have enough water.
The River Jordan is fed by the River Yarmouk, which flows
through Syria. Over the last 30 years or so, the Syrians have
built more than 40 dams to harness the water in the
Yarmouk – water that once fed the Jordan.
Some Jordanians believe Syria built some of these dams to
punish Israel and Jordan for signing a peace treaty in 1994.
The deal brought Jordan into line with Egypt, which signed a
similar treaty in 1979, but left it badly out of step with other
countries like Syria.
Others are prepared to accept that the Syrians built the
dams because their own people needed water, but either
way the result is the same – less water available for a once-
And of course the Kingdom of Jordan has built dams for its
own purposes too.
More broadly still, the Jordan Valley is not the only place in
the Middle East where the construction of a dam has created
a strategic dispute.
When Turkey built the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates in the
1990s, Iraq and Syria complained that the vast construction
project cut the flow of water to them.
There is one bright spot in this otherwise overwhelmingly
gloomy regional picture.
In recent years, Israel has increased the amount of water
being released in the River Jordan – the effect has only been
to turn a trickle into a slightly bigger trickle, but it’s better
The bottom line is that as populations rise across the Middle
East, the demand for water is rising with it – and in a region
where it’s almost impossible to make broad, multi-lateral
political agreements, it’s difficult to imagine a deal being
struck to manage water more fairly, more wisely and less
There are other factors which affect the level of the Dead
Sea – both Israel and Jordan use huge evaporation basins to
extract valuable phosphates from the water to be exported
as fertiliser – but it’s the striking decline in the River Jordan
which does most to explain why the Dead Sea is in crisis.
On the Jordanian shore of the sea, there is a small
community of families growing tomatoes, bananas and
watermelons in fields kept lush by underground supplies of
fresh water, which sweep down from the surrounding
Among the farmers there is Salim al-Huwemel. Like Nir
Vanger in Ein Gedi, he feels rooted in the land.
“We’ll never leave,” he says as the young men of the village
harvest melons in the cool early evening sunset, “Even if the
Dead Sea were to rise up and sweep us into a sinkhole. We
will always be here.”
Those sinkholes are the common enemy of villages and
business on both the Jordanian and Israeli coastlines.
They form when underground salt deposits left behind by
the sea as it retreats either collapse into huge chasms or
dissolve when fresh water seeps underground and causes
the ground above to give way.
Some of the craters are huge – perhaps 100m across and
50m deep – and in places it looks as though the area is in the
grip of a powerful earthquake happening over the course of
The Jordanian farmers showed me the ruined site of an old
salt factory that collapsed into a hole.
On a section of shore that is within the Palestinian territory
of the West Bank, a resort has been closed because part of it
was swallowed up by another sink hole.
And an Israeli filling station has closed because the road
around it started to crack, split and collapse.
All in all, there are now more than 5,500 such holes around
the shoreline where 40 years ago there were none.
This is somewhere where you feel geology is happening in
real time. Where the sea has retreated, the salt crust
beneath your feet creaks and crumbles deafeningly as
though you’re walking over sheets of cracked glass.
It is an exciting place to be a scientist, says Dr Gidi Baer of
the Geological Survey of Israel. Dr Baer says geologists are
getting better at predicting where sinkholes are going to
open – which is important when you consider that there are
several busy roads running around the coastline. But the
problem’s getting worse.
“The number’s not linear,” he told me. “It’s growing and
accelerating. This year, for example, about 700 sinkholes
formed, but in previous years the number was lower. In the
1990s it was a few dozen, now it’s hundreds.”
Diagnosing what’s wrong with the Dead Sea isn’t difficult – it
has after all been shrinking for at least 100 years, since
those British engineers left their mark in the rock.
Deciding what, if anything, should be done about the water
level is more complex – a huge scientific and political issue.
Geologists make the point that the level of the water in the
past has probably been both higher and lower than it is
The question is what the costs and benefits of any attempt to
“save” the Dead Sea might be – whether that would be to
slow the rate of decline or to do something vastly more
ambitious and start to raise the level again.
“You have to ask, what we are trying to preserve here,” says
Dr Ittai Gavrieli, another scientist from the Geological Survey
“Are we trying to raise the water level? To preserve the
unique chemistry of the Dead Sea? And for what purpose –
for tourism? If we want to restore the flow of the Jordan
river, for example, then Israel would have to desalinate
more water and that would cost money and have an
environmental impact too.”
If the Jordan were ever restored, of course, it would be
impossible to expect that Palestinian and Jordanian farming
communities desperate for water on either bank would
simply sit back and let the water flow by in the interests of
But there is, of course, a case for doing something.
Salem Abdel Rahman, a Jordanian activist for the Ecopeace
Middle East environmental group puts it like this: “We are
not talking about saving the Dead Sea because it’s nice or
not nice. We think that the Dead Sea is a symptom of
sickness in the management of water resources. The saving
of the Dead Sea will be a good indication that we moved
away from sickness to a healthy environment.”
If the waters of the River Jordan are not to be restored, the
likeliest scheme to revitalise the Dead Sea involves
constructing a huge pipeline that would bring water across
the desert from the Red Sea, far to the south.
Similar ideas have been around for long time – British
engineers once contemplated constructing canals to connect
the Mediterranean to the Red Sea via the Dead Sea.
It would have provided an alternative to the Suez Canal
under British control, but proved impracticable because of
the depth at which the Dead Sea lies below sea level.
Even by modern engineering standards, the Red-Dead
project as it’s known would present some formidable
Water would have to be desalinated first at the Red Sea
(salty water would pollute the Dead Sea’s unique chemistry).
It would then have to be pumped up to a great height and
fed into enormous pipes that would channel the water
across the desert to its destination.
The extra fresh water would benefit not just Jordan and
Israel but the Palestinians too, so the World Bank is keen
and the US is likely to provide at least some of the start-up
But the technical, financial and political difficulties are
forbidding and the pipeline is unlikely to be built soon, if
indeed at all.
It’s possible, of course, that the countries of the Middle East
will find that co-operation impossible – multilateral
agreements in this part of the world are rare.
In which case, the Dead Sea will continue to shrink at
something like its current rate for years to come, but it won’t
The science of saltiness and saturation means that the Dead
Sea will eventually reach a point of equilibrium where it will
stop shrinking. In simple terms, the amount of water in the
sea’s briny cocktail and the amount of evaporated moisture
in the air above it would reach a kind of balance.
And the Dead Sea has another trick up its sleeve too – it is
prone to a certain level of evaporation for example but it’s
also hydroscopic, which means it is capable of absorbing
water from the atmosphere around it. It’s almost as though
this endangered natural treasure has a kind of in-built safety
The sun-loungers in Jordan and Israel alike may have to be
pushed quite a bit further across the beach before we get to
this point, but a minimum level will one day be reached.
So this is not in the end a story about how the Dead Sea is
going to die – more an encouraging story about how nature
in a region where man has not always been careful with
natural resources can sometimes find a way to protect itself.