The Dead Sea, a unique body of water marked by mineral-rich, unusually salty water, nearly 10 times saltier than the world’s oceans – is dying. Its water level is dropping by roughly one metre each year.
The two main reasons for the dropping water level are mineral extraction by Israeli and Jordanian companies in the artificially shallow southern basin, and the fact that 95 percent of the Jordan River, the Dead Sea’s main source of replenishing water – is being diverted. The river used to provide 1,350 million cubic metres of water each year (mcm), but that flow has decreased to just 20 mcm.
Israel, Jordan, and the occupied West Bank all border the Dead Sea, and have taken steps to deal with it. The first concrete plan was signed in 2005, when all three parties signed a letter to the World Bank that allowed the international financial institution to investigate the feasibility of a $10bn project to pump 850 mcm of water from Jordan’s section of the Red Sea to a desalination plant at the southern end of the Dead Sea.
The 2,000 mcm of ultra-saline brine that results from the desalination process would then be pumped into the Dead Sea over the course of 40 years.
A main concern for environmental groups has been the effect that introducing such high volumes of foreign brine water would have on the Dead Sea’s unique ecosystem, which features unique bacterial and fungal life forms.
After years of consultations involving government officials and civil society groups, including EPME, the original project was put on hold. However, the parties continued negotiations, and in February, a final agreement emerged: a $950m “pilot programme” water-sharing arrangement, in which Jordan will construct a desalination plant near Aqaba, on the coast of the Red Sea.
The scheme will produce about 85 mcm of fresh water a year. Up to 50 mcm will be sold to the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat, leaving about 35 mcm for use in Aqaba city. As part of the agreement, Israel will sell another 50 mcm of freshwater to Amman from the Sea of Galilee.
Jordan, as one of the world’s most water-scarce countries, stands to gain from the agreement. But the Palestinian Authority (PA), the governing body of the occupied West Bank, was left out. Israel and Jordan are approaching the new arrangement bilaterally. The PA is awaiting negotiations with Israel on a separate agreement, in which Israel would sell another 20-30 mcm a year to the West Bank.
As for the Dead Sea, it is predicted that it will “never completely dry up”. Surrounding springs will continue to replenish some of the water, but the current water level of 417 metres below sea level could fall to more than 700 metres below sea level in the coming years. The reduced water level could even more seriously endanger biodiversity.
The Dead Sea has declined dramatically. It needs an infusion of 160 billion gallons of water annually to maintain its current size; it gets barely 10 percent of that. Some 50 miles long in 1950, the sea is about 30 miles long today. Water levels are falling at an average rate of three feet per year.