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Differences Stall Dead Sea Rescue
Can an agreed solution be reached before it is late?
Yehonathan Tommer (tommery06)     Print Article 
Published 2006-05-03 13:39 (KST)   
The biblical Dead Sea shared by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians is drying up at an astounding rate. For decades, environmentalists have been urging a comprehensive rehabilitation program. But the rim governments, motivated by competing domestic economic interests, have implemented piecemeal measures.

Sink holes at Dead Sea coastline
©2006 foeme.org
Now, the governments have agreed to a multibillion-dollar regional rescue program to repair its receding shoreline and stave off a nearing ecological catastrophe. But environmentalists are questioning the credibility of a World Bank-sponsored feasibility study to realize a century-old vision of building a hydro-electric canal to duct sea water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and supply cheap energy to residents of the region.

The sources for the Dead Sea's demise are twofold, explains Dov Litvinoff, chairman of the Tamar local government authority, which exercises jurisdiction over the central and southern parts of the arid Arava desert steppe bordering the Dead Sea. Only 700 million of the original 1,700 million cubic meters of fresh water flow to the Dead Sea today. This is because the headwaters of the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers flowing into the Sea of Galilee fresh water lake in Israel were diverted more than 40 years ago for agricultural irrigation and fisheries.

Jordan river waters to the Dead Sea have been essentially dammed since the late 1950s behind sluices at the lake's southern spillway.

Also, excessive pumping and construction of dams and water catchment reservoirs for domestic consumption and farm irrigation along the African Rift have siphoned fresh spring waters that otherwise cascade down steep sandstone rock escarpments to the Dead Sea basin, 411 meters below sea level.

This has meant that, with low humidity and summer temperatures soaring to as high 45 degrees celsius, the Dead Sea has fallen 25 meters over the years, shedding one-third of its total surface area.

The evaporation rate in the northern sector is now two meters per annum. The disastrous ecological and geological consequences of dying microsystems are producing land subsidence on the Israeli shoreline, and to a lesser extent on the Jordanian side, says Litvinoff.

In the north, the sea is evaporating at the rate of two meters each year. Shorelines on the Israeli side have sharply receded, as much as two kilometers, decimating recreational beaches. More than 1,000 sinkholes, some 20 meters deep, have caved open under the coastal road and along now-deserted beaches. These craters have emerged in year-round dry riverbeds after winter floods have savagely ripped into the brittle salt layer sediments.

Dead Sea Works
©2006 foeme.org
At its southern tongue, the Dead Sea has entirely disappeared, replaced by a series of huge, industrial salt evaporation pools, mined by the multimillion-dollar Israeli Dead Sea Works and its Jordanian equivalent for commercial potash and other lucrative mineral extracts.

Here the evaporation rate is milder. But residue cooking salt deposits, pressing down on the subterranean water table, are raising the surface water 20 centimeters a year. These are threatening to flood the luxurious beach front hotels and menacing Israel's international tourist attraction and therapeutic medical spa center at Ein Bokek.

"The hotels are absolutely in no danger of collapse and visitors have no reason to fear for their safety," reassures Litvinoff, responding to a series of articles published in April in the Israeli Hebrew daily Haaretz. "An offshore, underground metal wall embankment has been constructed in the sea's floor bed along the entire hotel beachfront, and 70 pumping stations maintain a constant water level by siphoning rising surface water and recycling it to the sea."

Tourism Ministry spokesperson Limor Banai confirmed that these measures are "good for ten years." Should the need arise, she said, "several options are on hand to repair a deteriorating situation." These include the construction of a vast lagoon and clearing the seabed of mounting residual salt deposits.

A delegation of Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian local government officials from key towns round the Dead Sea and Lower Jordan River in the African Rift area will visit the United States this week as guests of EcoPeace Friends of the Earth for the Middle East which staffs permanent offices in all three countries. The delegation will meet with American Congressmen and environmentalists in Washington, and the United Nations in New York to "campaign for international awareness and support for an overall, integrated geographic solution to restore the Lower Jordan River flow and rehabilitation of the Dead Sea area," said Gidon Bromberg, director of the Tel Aviv office of Eco Peace.

Last February the environmental organization Global Nature Fund declared the Dead Sea its threatened lake of the year.

receding Dead Sea beaches
©2006 foeme.org
Israel's former Prime Minister and Minister for Galilee and Negev Development Shimon Peres, Jordanian monarch King Abdullah, the Palestinian Authority, as well as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, back a two-year feasibility study by the World Bank to construct a proposed 180-kilometer, Dead Sea-Red Sea canal to mix the scarce Jordan River headwaters in the Dead Sea with ducted sea water from the Gulf of Aqaba. The project would cost an estimated US$5 billion and would supply hydroelectric energy to all residents of the Dead Sea region.

But the $15 million feasibility study has been stalled since May 2005 for lack of pledged funding and has generated serious reservations inside Israel and from other countries, including the present U.S. administration, Germany, Japan, and Australia.

Environmentalists point to the possible negative effects for the region's microsystem. "A meeting of the sweeter Red sea waters could cover the Dead Sea with a thin layer of white plaster. Coupled with high temperatures, the mixed waters could produce an abnormal level of humidity making habitation for humans and wildlife totally unbearable," says Litvinoff. "It makes greater environmental and cheaper economic sense to restore the Jordan River flow to the Dead Sea." And in the two years taken to complete the feasibility study, he adds, at least three desalination plants could be built and made operational to compensate Israeli farmers for the 600 million cubic meters of water returned to the Dead Sea.

Meanwhile, no early local or internationally agreed operational solution is in sight.

©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Yehonathan Tommer

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