I can feel my ears popping from the plunging altitude as our car hurtles down winding Highway 1 from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Outside in the blazing sun, immense ridges of rock and sandstone line the road. Soon we reach Route 90, which runs parallel to the water. Beware Sinkhole Areas! signs warn. My guide for the trip, Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth Middle East, and I are headed to the world’s lowest place—within minutes we are some 1,300 feet below sea level at the Dead Sea’s northern rim. “This is nature’s revenge,” Bromberg says, pointing to the surrounding cracked terrain, which resembles a desiccated moonscape. It looks like the land is caving in on itself, a result, he tells me, of groundwater that has begun to wash away subterranean salt deposits as the sea level drops at a rate of three feet per year.
The Dead Sea, bordered by Israel to the west and Jordan to the east, has long been believed to hold secrets of healing and beauty. Travelers flock to its placid blue waters; sufferers of skin disorders come for the curing benefits of its rich minerals. In the 1970’s and 80’s, large hotels were built along the Israeli shore, and even grander hotels such as Mövenpick Resort & Spa opened more recently on the Jordanian side. But the tide is literally changing. Over the past 50 years, the water on both coasts has receded more than 60 feet as Israel, Syria, and Jordan began using the Jordan River, which feeds into it, for their own agricultural, drinking, and bathing purposes; what was once described as a raging river in the book of Job now slows to a trickle once it reaches the Dead Sea.
This precipitous decline imperils a unique ecosystem—millions of birds stop here as they migrate between Europe and Africa, and the area is home to hundreds of indigenous plants as well as ibex and leopards. Meanwhile, the receding waterline also threatens the billions of tourist dollars and the luxury hotels that continue to expand on both coasts. Despite the area’s instability, Hilton Worldwide recently announced plans to open a 285-room hotel on the northeastern Jordanian waterfront in 2013.
As a possible solution, the governments of Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority are considering a highly controversial plan to build a multibillion-dollar, 110-mile conduit to transport water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. Some environmentalists fear, however, that the proposed canal could unleash even more calamity to the parched shores, turning the azure-colored sea milky white and releasing noxious odors. No action will be taken until the World Bank completes an extensive study of the project.
Tensions are also rising regarding another proposal by billionaire Israeli real estate mogul Yitzhak Tshuva, best known in the United States for refurbishing New York’s Plaza Hotel, and a host of other investors who want to create a Dubai-like development along the banks of the proposed canal with scores of hotels, parks, lagoons, beaches, and entertainment centers.
Bromberg talks openly about the ecological impact as we continue driving south along the Israeli coast, past Khirbet Qumran, the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947. As we make our way to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, near the sea’s western coast, we see salt crystals that resemble rock candy due to the intense salinity of the water. The kibbutz runs a large spa that was located near the sea’s edge when it first opened in 1982. Twenty-eight years later, the shoreline is nearly a mile away. Now a tram takes guests to and from the spa building to the water.
Farther south, we come to a cluster of beachfront hotels—several of them run by international chains such as Crowne Plaza and Le Méridien—at the resort district of Ein Bokek. While the properties appear to face the Dead Sea, they actually look out onto artificial evaporation ponds filled with water pumped from the sea’s northern end. The basin is six feet deep (the sea, by contrast, descends 300 feet in the middle) so the pond water evaporates far more rapidly. In order to mine the minerals that accumulate at the bottom, the water level needs to be continually replenished, which forces the shoreline closer to the hotels. This, along with the corrosive effects of the salt, undermines the very foundations of the buildings. The problem has become so severe that the Israeli government is considering moving some of the hotels across the road.
Other issues plague the newer hotels on the Jordanian side of the sea. At the Mövenpick Resort & Spa at the northeastern shore, the former public relations manager, Helene Leuenberger, tells me, “The sand is always growing because of the change in water level.” In recent years, a new retention wall was created to prevent the property’s beach from collapsing further into the water. I notice work being carried out at night to avoid disturbing the guests; panels of plastic sheeting screen off the view of a backhoe plying up and down the sand.
At the lavish Kempinski Hotel Ishtar Dead Sea nearby, the guest entrance needed to be relocated just two years after the opening in 2006 as a result of the water’s decline. I find a note in my hotel room, asking me to conserve water since “Jordan has one of the lowest resource available per capita in the world.” The hotels strive to keep such problems in check, but in the meantime the Jordanian government has urged accelerating the canal plan, since it views the project not only as a way to preserve an invaluable natural site, but also as a means to generate hydroelectric power.
As an alternative to the canal, Bromberg and other environmentalists advocate improving management of water resources to increase inflows from the Jordan River. But many experts see this as unrealistic. According to Nadav Lensky, a researcher at the Geological Survey of Israel, it would take more than 200 billion gallons of water a year, or the equivalent of a third of the total amount that Israel uses, to halt the sea’s decline and maintain its current level.
Anyone who has experienced the serene beauty of the Dead Sea understands the urgency driving those eager to halt its demise. I look out across the borders between Israel and its Arab neighbors, hoping that saving this shared natural legacy will be as curative as the fabled powers of the sea itself.
Michael Z. Wise is a T+L contributing editor.