The future of the Dead Sea is in doubt. In the 1950s, the lake’s surface area was about a thousand square kilometres; today, it’s less than seven hundred and still falling. The water level has already dropped by a startling 30m, and is continuing to fall by a metre a year. The problem is that greater and greater inroads have been made into the lake’s freshwater sources: today, far more water evaporates from the lake than flows into it. There are several dams across the River Jordan (as well as across its tributary, the Yarmouk), and – as part of its national water-conservation programme – Jordan has dammed all the major rivers in its territory that formerly flowed directly into the Dead Sea, including the Zarqa Ma’in, the Mujib and the Hasa. In addition, both Israel and Jordan have developed major mineral and potash industries at the southern end of the lake which depend on large-scale evaporation for production.
Since the 1970s, Lynch’s Strait, a channel of water that formerly connected the northern and southern parts of the lake, has dried out, turning the Lisan peninsula into a landbridge. Dangerous sinkholes are opening up in the soft ground on both shores. If things continue as they are, some estimates say the Dead Sea will dry up completely in fifty years.
In 2002, the Israeli and Jordanian governments called for concerted action to save the Dead Sea. They launched a plan – with the Palestinian Authority – to build the so-called Red-Dead Canal, to bring seawater 250km from the Red Sea at Aqaba to replenish the Dead Sea. The 400m drop in altitude would mean that large quantities of hydroelectric power could be generated, and there would also be shared desalination plants creating up to 850 million cubic metres a year of potable water by reverse osmosis, thus substantially easing the region’s critical shortage of water. The brine residue left after desalination would then be pumped into the Dead Sea to restore its natural water level. At the time of writing results of a World Bank feasibility study on the canal project had not yet been made public.
However, not everyone is happy. Friends of the Earth Middle East (w foeme.org), a coalition of Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmental groups, has voiced several concerns – not least that it would take ten years to implement the Red-Dead plan whereas the Dead Sea needs immediate action. In addition, as it currently stands, the Red-Dead scheme allows the unplanned exploitation of the Dead Sea’s resources to continue, with no bar on the numbers of hotels being built, and no imperative for sustainable development. There have, as yet, also been no detailed environmental studies on how the addition of huge quantities of seawater might affect the Dead Sea’s delicate ecological balance – or on the possible impact of a pipeline breach in the open desert. Time will tell whether the Red-Dead Canal is the answer.