The Dead Sea is the lowest point on the planet and one of the most unique environments in the world. It lies on the borders of Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. Known for its high-density waters and mineral rich soils, the Dead Sea is visited by an ample number of tourists all year round. Its soils contain minerals such as potassium, magnesium, calcium, and salt. These minerals are used in cosmetics, chemical products such as industrial salts and are even used in table salts for home use.
Sadly this once mineral rich sea has shrunk to the size of a small and pitiful pond. Water levels have been dropping at a rate of 1 meter a year. Currently it lies 1,300 feet below sea level and if the rate of decline continues it will reach 1,800 feet below sea level before the end of the century. This sharp decline is due to the over-exploitation of its minerals, the use of its water for desalination, and the large increase in agriculture in both Jordan and Israel.
Many environmental casualties have been associated with the rapid retreat in the shoreline of the Dead Sea. An example is the emergence of sinkholes. Many residential areas and roads around the Dead Sea have been destroyed because of sinkholes. Sinkholes are natural depressions in the Earth’s surface caused by the chemical dissolution of nutrients in the soil. These sinkholes endanger the lives of locals and tourists alike.
In an attempt to save the Dead Sea the governments of Jordan and Israel plan to implement a project called the “Red to Dead water conveyance plan”. This would require the building of a pipeline that connects both the Red and the Dead Sea and pumping around two hundrer million cubic meters (mcm) of water per year into the latter. That is the equivalent of water produced by 60 desalination plants in a day. However, many scientists are skeptical of this project due to the many problems that would arise. Such problems include:
1. The different densities and minerals in the waters would cause algal blooms that would be detrimental to the environment while also causing the water to turn red/green.
2. Large water withdrawal from the Red Sea would have a detrimental effect on the Coral reefs, sea level, and nutrient levels.
3. The pipeline carrying the water from the Red to the Dead Sea might leak salt water into groundwater reserves along its route; increasing the salinity in both the groundwater and the surrounding soil.
Therefore it seems that this project would do little to help rectify the problem and might even add to it.
An alternative way to save the Dead Sea would be to rehabilitate the Jordan River. As it stands today, only 50 mcm of water from the Jordan River reaches the Dead Sea as opposed to 1.3 billion cubic meters in 1950. The Jordan River is a shadow of what it once was. The river acts as the main water source for Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. As a result, 90% of the fresh water that replenishes it is diverted to agriculture. Another problem facing it is pollution from agricultural run-offs and wastewater run-offs. About 50% of the agricultural run-offs from the surrounding areas are dumped into the river. This has caused its water levels to drop dramatically.
Unfortunately, with so few sources of water, it will be impossible to ask governments to stop relying so heavily on the Jordan River. Alternatively, they could improve their water management practices. To do so, governments can:
1. Improve irrigation systems and abandon the traditional systems that waste more than 25% of the water that is used. (For more information, click here)
2. Renovate pipe systems in cities to reduce the number of leaks from the pipelines and to supply clean drinking tap water for the public.
3. Plant local plants, which do not require much water and refrain from planting water intensive plants (e.g. Rice).
4. Harvest rainwater by manufacturing storage Pillars or tanks.
These methods, including others, would reduce the amount of water used and therefore the amount withdrawn from the river.
The Dead Sea has a geological importance in the region, and has many important aspects that make it significant. It is the saltiest and most mineral rich water body in the world. It also has a biological importance for it’s home to many unique biological bacteria that are not present anywhere else on Earth. Regenerating the Jordan River, less water desalination, and improving water management practices will help regenerate the Dead Sea and help maintain this unique and important environment.
References: State of the Planet 1, State of the Planet 2, The Ecologist, Dead Sea Geo.