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Last Rites for Shrivelling Dead Sea
Published on Sunday, April 23, 2006 by the Observer/UK
Last Rites for Shrivelling Dead Sea
Plea to Israeli PM as lake shrinks by a meter a year
by Conal Urquhart in Ein Gedi

Green campaigners are demanding that the new Israeli government take urgent action to save the Dead Sea, which is shrinking by more than a meter a year.

Palestinians enjoy floating in the Dead Sea near Ein Fashkha on the West Bank. Environmentalists are warning that the whole area around the world's saltiest water body is headed for ecological disaster unless serious measures are taken. The Dead Sea is dying with its waters being systematically diverted for agricultural and hydroelectric projects. (AFP Photo)
The surface of the salt lake has been reduced by a third - 25 meters below its historical level - and the receding waters have created thousands of sinkholes that have swallowed buildings, orchards and even people.

Israel has won international renown for 'making the desert bloom', but it is this success which has ruined the Dead Sea by depriving it of water. In recent decades, Jordan, which also borders the sea, has sought to emulate Israel, further reducing the flow of water to the sea.

The Dead Sea is the lowest, and saltiest, body of water in the world at 400 meters below sea level. It is supplied by the River Jordan, which links it to the freshwater Sea of Galilee. In the Fifties, Israel began to divert all the water from the Galilee to cultivate the desert. In the Seventies, Jordan and Syria also dammed tributaries of the Jordan to reduce the flow into the Dead Sea to a trickle of highly polluted effluent.

Gidon Bromberg, the Tel Aviv-based director of the Friends of the Earth Middle East, which also has offices in Amman and Bethlehem, said the only way to save the Dead Sea was to stop a proportion of water going to agriculture and allow 650 million cubic meters to flow down the Jordan.

Jordan and Israel heavily subsidise the price of water to farmers. In Israel agriculture uses a third of its water to produce 2 per cent of GDP. Jordan uses 75 per cent of its water to produce 6 per cent of its GDP. Israel has by far the largest supplies of water in the region: 340 cubic meters per person per year. Jordan has 140, and the Palestinian Authority only 70. By comparison the UK has 1,500 cubic meters per person.

Bromberg said Israel was misusing its water to grow produce unsuited to the environment. 'We have to ask, "Why are we growing bananas, a tropical plant, in the desert?" The economic returns do not make sense,' he said.

One solution is to provide more fresh water and refill the Dead Sea. This plan, being examined by the World Bank, envisages the construction of a 165km system of pipes and canal linking the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. The water would be pumped high into the Moab mountains in Jordan where it would be desalinated for the use of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The remaining water would then cascade down to the Dead Sea, providing hydro-electricity and salty water to replenish the Dead Sea.

Copyright © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006


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