Dead Sea Is Dying

ByABC News via logo
November 21, 2005, 7:42 AM

Nov. 21, 2005 — -- Israel's Dead Sea is, ironically, as old as life itself. Hidden in the world's deepest valley and protected by majestic desert mountains, the Dead Sea is one important feature in a land of mysteries, miracles and biblical legends that we must see before it's too late. In another three decades, the evaporating Dead Sea could possibly become the dry sea.

"The Dead Sea has been central to civilization for 10,000 years," said Bruce Feiler, author of "Where God Was Born." "Jericho, the oldest city on Earth, is here. Abraham, Moses, Jesus …"

It was Moses who in Genesis tells the Bible's story of how this natural wonder was formed in the legend of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"God tells Lot and his family to flee but not look back," Feiler said. "When Lot's wife does look back, she's turned into a pillar of salt."

And the Dead Sea was born.

Today the Dead Sea still mystifies us. Because it is so low -- 1,300 feet below sea level -- it's closest to all the deep Earth's minerals and, most visibly, the Earth's salt, which cakes at its shore like snowdrifts.

"It's 10 times more salty than the Mediterranean and three times more salty the Great Salt Lake in Utah," said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director for Friends of The Earth Middle East, an organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists to protect their shared environmental heritage.

You can't drown in the Dead Sea even if you tried -- it's so heavy with salt, it's difficult to put your foot on the bottom. Tourists flock here just to float and bathe in its rich mineral mud, which is said to have healing properties.

The Dead Sea, however, is facing massive evaporation.

"The Dead Sea is dying," Bromberg said. "The Dead Sea is shrinking. It's falling by a meter in depth every year."

The Dead Sea relies on the fresh water of the Jordan River. And, that once-wide river is now just a contaminated trickle. As the sea's water disappears, it creates large sinkholes that make it dangerous to even approach the sea in certain spots.

"If the Dead Sea goes away, we lose the ability to connect what's really central about Earth and humanity and, ultimately, the divine," Feiler said.

To save the shrinking sea, some have proposed building a canal from the Red Sea to bring some much-needed water. Bromberg said he doesn't think that's a good idea.

"We're highly skeptical because it would be mixing marine water with that unique mineral composition that we find here at the Dead Sea," Bromberg said.

There is also the concern this would change the sea's color to a "reddish-brown," he added.

Bromberg said a better solution would be to "attack the problem," which would mean revitalizing the sea's natural source, the Jordan River.

"A good portion of the water should come back to the Jordan river, which is holy to many people," he said.

The river has lost so much volume because farmers use it for irrigation. Israel's success in growing crops in the desert climate is a great source of pride, but the use of water has become unsustainable, Bromberg said.

"The issue is, how do we strike the right the balance?" Bromberg said.