Is the Dead Sea Dying?

Sometimes you need a new vantage point to understand an older picture. Two months ago a small camera-equipped, motorized glider took off close to a signpost that said “steps down to the Dead Sea 1984.” The location was the Einot Tzukim (Ein Feshkha) nature reserve in the northern Dead Sea area. Near the sign were some stone steps on which people had descended to the water’s edge 32 years ago. Behind them was an abandoned shower.

As the glider took off, it showed the mountains of the Judean Desert, silent witnesses to the grim drama taking place nearby. When the glider turned eastward, the scene of the disaster came into view: the Dead Sea shoreline, to which bathers had descended on those stone steps, was barely visible. Now the shoreline merged with the Moab Mountains visible on the horizon and with the cloudy skies, two kilometers away from the steps that were built in the mid-1980s.

Five hundred meters from the shore stands the last remnant of the failed attempt to chase after the receding shoreline, a wooden gangplank that was used to reach the water at the end of the 1990s. From there to the waterline lies a salty desert, riven by deep fissures containing freshwater creeks flowing from the Ein Feshkha springs. The glider descended into one of these canyons and flew along it. The canyons are another lesser-known feature, like the sinkholes discussed below, that are associated with the Dead Sea’s falling water level. It’s not only people that chase the receding water; it’s the creeks as well. Every year the creeks carve deeper into the salty soil, creating new canyons, some of them dozens of meters deep. The creeks flow at their bottom. It’s tempting to view these impressive canyons as a wondrous primeval landscape but in fact, this is new terrain, formed in front of our eyes over the last 20 years, in a place that until recently was part of a sea. As in other places along the Dead Sea shoreline, even those who decry the disaster have to admit that it leaves behind visually stunning natural attractions that make for beautiful photos.

As we proceed southward with the glider, we encounter the area’s really critical problem – the sinkholes. After taking off from a small parking lot next to the highway, the glider comes across this stupendous geological phenomenon slightly south of the abandoned Mineral Beach. As the view opens up, dozens of holes can be seen. The large ones have merged, leading to the collapse of an entire area. Some of the holes have filled up with green-gray water. A broken-down lifeguard tower lies on the former beach next to the water’s edge. Behind it are rows upon rows of crumbling sunshades. A bit further south are some dead date palms, with their tops cropped off, which used to belong to Kibbutz Ein Gedi before they were abandoned because of the sinkholes. On the other side of the road is an overnight parking lot that was the first location to be closed when the sinkholes appeared, 18 years ago.

The place now looks like a set for a war movie, full of old props: large craters, shattered buildings that collapsed into the sinkholes, dead trees, pipes and cables hanging in midair. Nearby is a gas station that was closed in 2014 and a bit to the north is the large bridge spanning the Arugot Stream. It was built at great expense using advanced technology in an attempt to contend with the sinkholes, but only six years passed before it, too, was closed.

The glider thoroughly documents everything that was closed and abandoned in 2014 due to the sinkholes: beaches, the bridge, the gas station and the parking lot. It’s possible that 2014 will be remembered as a turning point in the story of the drying up of the Dead Sea. In that year the sinkholes stopped being just a headache for engineers and planners and became a national problem. This article, however, will deal not with the way things look now but the way they’ll look in 20 years. Will the shoreline be visible from the points the glider took off from this time? Will people be able to use the road to reach those points? What will happen to nearby communities? To hotels in the area? To local industry? Will it be possible to walk down to the shoreline at all?

It’s relatively easy to guess what won’t happen. Unless something totally unexpected occurs in the next 20 years, the water level of the Dead Sea will continue to drop, falling an estimated 25 meters below its current level by 2036. Even if a plan to channel water in from the Red Sea is implemented, it’s hard to envisage how this will change things over the next two decades. Under present circumstances, sinkholes will continue to open at an even more rapid pace. These will irreversibly change the landscape along the Dead Sea’s western coast; indeed, it is almost certain that 20 years from now, there will be no access to the natural shoreline. Anyone wishing to swim in the Dead Sea will have to do so in the southern basin, as is the case today, in industrial ponds close to local hotels or in artificial lagoons. The place looks like a set full of old props for a war movie: large craters, shattered buildings and cables hanging in midair.

The declining water level that creates the sinkholes is causing another geological phenomenon – the deepening of the area’s stream beds – which is less talked about but no less critical. As sea levels drop and the shoreline recedes, the streams’ drainage area lengthens. This intensifies the force of the water flowing down from the hills to the sea, deepening and widening the stream beds with each successive flood. Route 90, which serves as somewhat of a dam between the mountains and the sea, is hit by powerful floods every winter. The bridges spanning these streams cannot withstand the new circumstances. For local residents, this means that every winter will bring more frequent and longer-lasting closures of the road, as they wait for the Israel National Roads Company to complete repairs. Despite these difficulties, this road will almost certainly remain a major route to Eilat or Masada 20 years from now. Maintaining the road will become increasingly expensive, challenging planners with complex engineering problems. Bridges along the highway will turn into large-scale, extremely costly infrastructure projects, and the surrounding wild desert landscape and nature reserves will be irrevocably damaged so that humans will be able to use a strip of asphalt.

Further knotty questions arise regarding the future: What will happen to communities in the area – to Kalya and Mitzpeh Shalem beyond the 1967 border, and Ein Gedi and Neve Zohar within the border? What will happen to tourism? Will the Dead Sea Works continue to extract minerals from the sea?

To answer these questions, we must go back to the beginning. In 1970, three years after the Six-Day War, the government launched a huge infrastructure project – paving a road between Ein Feshkha and Ein Gedi. The new road connected two separate sections of the existing Route 90, making it the country’s eastern “spine” and the longest highway in Israel, running from Metula in the north to the country’s southern tip, Eilat. As it was being paved, engineers expressed concerns that the road bed was too low and the sea might flood it. Just south of Ein Feshkha they rerouted the road so as not to damage a rock used earlier by British researchers to mark sea levels early in the 20th century. It quickly became apparent that rising sea levels were the least of the worries that would afflict this road. The whole story is encapsulated in a large Excel file at the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI), a file which is constantly being updated. Its key data show that in 1976, the Dead Sea lay -398 meters below sea level, whereas in December 2015 it had reached almost -430 meters. And the rate of change is rapidly accelerating – in the first two decades since 1976, the water level dropped by 6 meters each decade, in the third decade it fell by 9 meters and in the last decade it plummeted by 11 meters.

Logically, it would seem that as the sea dries up, the drop in its level should diminish since it becomes saltier with a smaller surface area, providing less opportunity for evaporation. This, however, is not the case. A study conducted recently by the GSI showed that the reason the sea level is dropping faster is the construction of new dams in Jordan and Syria, which is diverting water that would otherwise reach the Dead Sea. Thus, the main cause of falling levels in recent decades is the seizure of water by Israel, Jordan and Syria. A secondary cause is industrial plants in Israel and Jordan pumping out water during the process of extracting potash and other minerals. These factories are responsible for 20 percent of the annual loss of Dead Sea water, although the manufacturers argue that 9 percent is a more realistic figure.

Over the decades, several plans, some of them quite bizarre, have been put forth to rehabilitate the sea. One involves an agreement signed a year ago by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, according to which water produced as a by-product of desalination would be transferred to the Dead Sea via a pipeline starting from Aqaba on the Red Sea and passing through Jordan. This is envisioned as a pilot project for a more extensive sea-to-sea pipeline. Currently, this project appears to be no closer to fruition than it was in Theodor Herzl’s 1902 Zionist work “Old-New Land” (Altneuland), in which he described his dream of building a canal to the Dead Sea.

5,548 and counting

For many years, the dropping sea level was not thought to be a problem. Beach operators got accustomed to it and considered it part of the routine. Lifeguard towers had wheels attached so they could be moved forward every year. New steps were constructed from time to time and access pathways were extended. When the first reports of sinkholes in the Neve Zohar area surfaced in the 1980s, they were regarded as a geological curiosity. By the end of the 1990s, however, the anomaly had turned into a problem. Sinkholes appeared in date groves and in the overnight parking lot near Ein Gedi. In 1998, the regional council’s chief engineer ordered the closure of the parking lot, and two years later, some of the date groves were abandoned. Just like the falling water level, the rate of sinkhole creation is speeding up. In 1996, there were 220 sinkholes; by 2006 this had burgeoned to 1,808; and last year, the number skyrocketed to 5,548. Dr. Gideon Baer, who heads the GSI unit that studies and monitors the Dead Sea, estimates that 500 new sinkholes open up every year, an average of more than one per day. Sinkholes are a known phenomenon around the world, but their appearance at this rate and intensity is unparalleled.

The accepted theoretical explanation for the phenomenon is that a drop in the level of salty water enables the penetration of fresh water into a salt layer that lies between 5 and 60 meters underground. Fresh water’s high capacity for dissolving salt creates large empty cavities underground. These cavities rise to the surface like an air bubble in water, until the uppermost layers close to the ground suddenly collapse, creating a pit. Understanding this process has enabled better preparation for the appearance of sinkholes. After it was understood that sinkholes would appear only in places where there were underground salt layers, the GSI started drilling to map salt layers. These maps currently constitute the basis of all engineering projects in the area.

It’s tempting to view these impressive canyons as wondrous primeval landscape, but in reality this is new terrain.

In recent years, geologists have been focusing on a more thorough investigation of sinkhole formation processes. They’ve noticed, for example, that sinkholes tend to arrange themselves in a straight line, probably a reflection of the underground line along which fresh water emerges. One of the more amazing and worrisome effects is the encounter between sinkholes and flash floods, which leads to the appearance of new sinkholes. In several sites, the following process has been filmed and documented: Flood water moves toward the sea but doesn’t reach it. Instead, it is swallowed by sinkholes lying in its path, several hundred meters before the shoreline. Three hours later water emerges as a new spring near the shore. By this time the water is very salty, meaning that within three hours it has already dissolved large quantities of salt. A week later, dozens of new sinkholes appear close to the original one. “There is a positive feedback mechanism in action – more water leads to more cavities and thus more sinkholes,” explains Baer. “Ultimately the whole area sinks and floodwaters don’t reach the sea and flow into these depressions instead, so that ever larger amounts of water end up in the ground.”

The highlight of this research was the development of a system that can predict where the next sinkhole will appear. It is based on a satellite operated by the Italian space agency, which passes over the Dead Sea every 16 days and produces a radar image of the area. By comparing the sets of images, places where the ground has shifted, even minimally, can be identified ahead of a major collapse. “The ultimate goal is not to have sinkholes opening up that we didn’t know about in advance,” says Baer. A report compiled by the GSI in preparation for the construction of a Red Sea-Dead Sea canal attempted to determine what would occur if water flowed in from the Red Sea. Scientists estimate that if the flow is moderate enough to slow down but not halt the drying up of the Dead Sea, the annual number of new sinkholes could diminish. However, if the flow is significant enough to raise the level of the Dead Sea, the problem is likely to be exacerbated. Since Red Sea water is less salty than that of the Dead Sea, this will increase the dissolution of underground salt and thus speed up the appearance of sinkholes.

The sea level is dropping and sinkholes crop up: sinkholes near the shoreline. Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen The bottom line is that scientists currently know almost everything there is to know about sinkholes. They can pretty well predict where they will appear and at what rate, and they will soon be able to give specific predictions about new sinkholes. The problem is that they have no solutions for contending with the problem.

So what will the Dead Sea shoreline look like in 20 years? Thousands, or even tens of thousands, of new sinkholes will have appeared, while existing ones will get larger. In many places they will link up and lead to widespread collapse. The shoreline will become less and less accessible. In the absence of an innovative, massive infrastructure project, only brave people in top physical condition will be able to reach the natural shoreline.

Anyone looking for a silver lining may find it in plans for a “Sinkhole Park” near Ein Gedi, which will convert the geological disaster into a tourist attraction. The idea’s promoter is geologist Eli Raz, a resident of Ein Gedi whose name is almost synonymous with sinkholes (he once spent 12 hours inside one that opened up beneath his feet, until he was extricated). He’s a great believer in the theory of using the lemons you’re given to make lemonade.

“The sinkholes are puzzling and fascinating, with esthetic and dramatic aspects,” says Raz. “People come from all over the world to see them. I proposed that some of the funds devoted to rehabilitating the sea be used to develop an open geological park.” The proposal calls for constant monitoring to minimize risks, with visitors walking on a wooden pathway that would not collapse in the event of a new sinkhole opening up. “There has to be an option of changing the route if some part of it becomes sensitive,” he says. This will undoubtedly require costly engineering work and a creative safety engineer. “Not everything about sinkholes is gloomy,” he says. “They can serve as a research subject – they teach us things we didn’t know before.”

Dead end road

Three years ago, based on data provided by the Italian satellite, geologists started to suspect that something bad was happening under Route 90 near Kibbutz Ein Gedi. In this area, the highway crosses over the salt layers and passes through a field of active and well-known sinkholes. To avoid danger, it was decided in the 1990s to pave the road over a geotechnical concrete net that could hold the road up in the event of a sinkhole opening up beneath it. Last year an examination was carried out to determine what was going on under the asphalt. A quick peek led to a decision to immediately close the highway. Given the number of sinkholes under the road, its collapse was only a matter of time. For months, traffic was diverted to a temporary bypass road running through kibbutz farmland, close to the nature reserve. Instead of a fast highway, travelers encountered a one-lane road, half paved and suitable only for small cars moving in convoys going in one direction at a time. Vehicles heading in the other direction had to wait their turn, leading to traffic jams involving hundreds of cars, as was the case last Passover. Clearly, a long-term alternative was required.

The list of solutions and their diversity attests to the severity of the problem. These include excavating a 5.5-kilometer tunnel through the cliffs to bypass the field of sinkholes; digging an enormous 80-meter-deep tunnel that would remove all the salt and then constructing a dike on which a new road would be built; erecting a one-kilometer bridge that would float above the sinkholes, and more. The sinkhole road was also studied at the urban studio of the Architecture Department at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. The students proposed solutions such as a floating road over the sea or replacing the road with a cable car. One group called the project “a mapping of uncertainty.”

Route 90 after it was closed last winter due to flooding.Photo: Eliyahu Hershkovitz A significant inflow of water from the Red Sea that would halt the drop in Dead Sea levels would also exacerbate the sinkhole problem.

For now, even without an official announcement, it seems that the state has abandoned any thoughts of a grandiose project and will make do with improving the temporary bypass. This means that the road will be fully paved in both directions for its entire length, but it will not meet the national standards for fast roads (for example, because it has a traffic circle along its route). Residents and travelers in the area can expect long and frequent closures due to flooding. “It appears that temporary will become long-term,” Guy Donenfeld, the Tamar Regional Council’s engineer, says in frustration. “This road has turned us 30 years back. Just this year it was closed four or five times, each time for two or three days. Last year it was closed for two weeks.”

The rapidly changing geology of the Dead Sea poses two challenges for infrastructure planners – the sinkholes and the deepening stream beds. A previous bridge was destroyed in a flood in 2001. A new bridge was constructed with 240 sensors in its foundations to monitor any signs of sinking. Reinforced with iron and extra concrete, Arugot Bridge was opened in 2008. The stream banks under the bridge also were reinforced with concrete to moderate the flow of floodwater. Built at a cost of 53 million shekels ($13.5 million), the bridge held up for only six years. Even before the road adjacent to the bridge was closed because of a sinkhole, the bridge required repairs after its foundations sank. The bridge stands unused today, with an abandoned road crossing it. It will probably continue to sink into the wadi. Other bridges across streams in the Judean Desert are also expected to be affected by the deepening stream beds. Over the next 20 years, more bridges are likely to be under threat of inundation by every flood, making them impassable. Looking ahead, Israel is not expected to relinquish Route 90 even in 2036. However, this will be an expensive and problematic highway that will be closed many days each year for maintenance and reconstruction.

“I don’t see a situation in which the falling sea level will cause us to stop working,” says Noam Goldstein, senior vice president of Dead Sea Works’ Meshivim Division. He believes the region’s future depends entirely on industrial plants there. “The regional council has no reason to exist without these plants. Tourism depends on mining in the area. Even if people complain, they know that the most important thing in the area is industry.” Indeed, Dead Sea Works is investing a lot in the future. Among other things, it installed a new pumping facility at the southern corner of the Dead Sea to cope with a further drop in the water level.

It is located in one of the most active sinkhole areas, in the alluvial fan created by the Tze’elim Stream as it approaches the sea, where the disappearance of floodwaters into a major sinkhole was documented, before dozens of new ones appeared a week later. Engineers dealt with many constraints when building the pumping facility. Thus, four different pipelines for pumping water will be placed at a distance from one another so that if one collapses into a sinkhole, the three remaining ones will continue to function until repairs are completed. The new facility will enable the continued flow of mineral-rich water southward to the evaporation pools and from there to industrial plants. “The new pumping station will be able to function for the next 35 to 40 years,” predicts Goldstein.

Salt pillars in the evaporation pools, with hotels in the backgroundPhoto: Haim Taragan Tamar Regional Council engineer: “If we run away from the sinkholes, we’ll have nowhere to be.” For Dead Sea Works, the critical date is 2030, when the franchise for extracting minerals from the sea held by its parent company, Israel Chemicals Ltd., is due to end. Until then, the company is expected to press strongly to renew its license. If it is successful, changes are anticipated in the way these industries operate in conjunction with other users of the Dead Sea shoreline.

The interaction between industry and tourism becomes more problematic as the situation worsens in the northern half of the sea, which is still natural. According to a policy document prepared by the National Planning Authority, the region’s future lies in the southern half of the Dead Sea, which dried up many years ago. The area is currently a collection of huge evaporation ponds belonging to Dead Sea Works, with the hotels located on the shores of the biggest pond. Thousands of new hotel rooms are planned for the region, based on a plan prepared by renowned architect Moshe Safdie. The plan was commissioned by the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company, which was established in 2008 to contend with problems created by the shrinking sea. The pond in the Dead Sea’s southernmost half suffers from the opposite problem than the pond facing the sea’s northern section. In the south, the water level rises 20 centimeters a year due to the deposit of salt during the evaporation process and the extraction of minerals by various industries. As a result, the highway and the foundations of local hotels face the risk of inundation. After years of discussions and preparations, a new project called Reaping the Salt will be launched next year in an effort to stabilize the water level in the enormous pond. The project, which will cost 3.8 billion shekels (just under $1 billion) by 2030, will involve removing salt from the bottom of the pond and dumping it along the shoreline.

Some tourism operators and regional council members are worried that the project gives the region’s industries too much leeway since there are no specified locations for dumping salt or restrictions on the size of salt mounds that will be created alongside the ponds. In theory, a hotel developer could find a small mountain of salt dozens of meters high right outside his hotel windows.

The industrial plants reject this criticism and promise that the salt mounds will barely be noticeable from hotel windows. “Salt reaping is the best of all the bad options. Other solutions would have meant the destruction of the hotels or the construction of a lagoon with an earth mound facing the hotels. You can’t extract 20 million tons of salt without anyone noticing it,” says Goldstein. “We’ve made improvements to the plan. We’ve moved gigantic dikes farther away from the hotels. Ultimately, when you sit in the hotels and look eastward, you’ll see the piles on the Jordanian side and our own. You won’t be able to distinguish between them,” he promises.

It’s likely that by 2036 the level of the Dead Sea will have dropped by 25 meters.

Safdie’s plan for the region, if realized, promises that in the future, our glider will fly over an area that looks like a Caribbean resort. The plan calls for two artificial islands, where there will be hotels, dozens of swimming pools, a promenade, restaurants and leisure areas. “The objective is to compete with Mediterranean markets, as well as with Egypt’s Sharm al-Sheikh and the Turkish coast,” Safdie explains. Like all tourism projects in the Dead Sea’s southern section, the plan is based on a deceptive illusion; while it looks like any other vacation village, it will, in fact, be the only one in the world to be built along an industrial pond rather than a natural beach. “As a citizen and planner, I hope they reach an agreement to save the Dead Sea by building the canal from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. As long as this isn’t happening, the Dead Sea is disappearing right in front of our eyes and nothing can be built along the shoreline. The pools will allow some stability,” says Safdie, “and visitors won’t care if it’s a pond and not the sea.”

The beach is closed

Two years ago, the small kibbutz of Mitzpeh Shalem (which lies beyond the 1967 borders) decided to invest money to improve Mineral Beach, which it had been operating. The beach served as a steady source of income, employing 15 people, mainly kibbutz members. Most importantly, it was a leisure area, critical for those living in such an isolated location. However, less than a year ago, a sinkhole appeared in the beach’s parking lot. The regional council’s engineer issued a temporary closure order but the kibbutz did not give up and efforts were made to reopen it. While the work was going on, a new sinkhole appeared, right on the beach. “We realized then that this was too big for us to deal with,” says Avi Cohen, the former manager of the beach. The beach was closed and will not reopen in the foreseeable future.

Donenfeld, the regional council engineer, feels it’s too early to give up. “I believe we must always find solutions,” he says. “Our space lies between the sea and the cliffs, and we have no choice other than to deal with the problem.” He believes, for example, that a new access road to the sea can be built, based on geotechnical strips similar to those used on Route 90 near Ein Gedi, until it was closed. Although this would require a large investment and expensive continuous maintenance, with the possibility that it, too, would be abandoned sometime in the future, this solution would enable safe driving or walking up to the natural shoreline. “It’s unacceptable to declare that it’s impossible to reach the sea. If we run away from the sinkholes, we won’t have anywhere to be,” says Donenfeld.

Over the last few months, government officials, members of the Knesset’s Interior and Environment Committee and local residents have held talks in an attempt to create a compensation package for the damage caused to local communities. “You can’t imagine the Dead Sea without tourism, without dangling your feet in the water,” says Avi Cohen. “We believe we can emerge from this situation like the phoenix, but we have to be compensated for what’s already happened. We’re not to blame for the beach’s closure – it didn’t happen due to our negligence.”

It seems that, at least for now, the future of these communities will depend on their ability to survive without a beach. “We’ve stopped dealing with the sinkholes and started dealing with the area’s residents,” says Arieh Cohen, the head of the Megilot regional council. “Even if the sea-to-sea canal happens tomorrow, it will take many years to rehabilitate the Dead Sea, assuming that’s even possible. People have to live in the meantime so different ideas are being floated, such as building an alternate spa instead of the beach, maybe in a lagoon.”

Donenfeld says that “during times of peace I believe we can develop a project for rehabilitating the sea as well as providing ample drinking water for countries surrounding the Dead Sea. For that, however, we need a slightly different kind of Middle East.”

Architect Adi Assif, who taught a course on the sinkhole road at the Bezalel academy, says that she finds it difficult when people relate to the Dead Sea as a disaster area. “A disaster area means there’s nothing that can be done”, she explains. “When you refer to a place as a disaster area, you force it to remain so. It’s always possible to look at where else you can take it.”

One person who’s not going anywhere else is Avi Cohen. “We have no alternative because our future is here,” he explains. “We now have to cope with what we’re facing. Things are very unclear at this point.”

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