As the Dead Sea dries, its collapsing shores force a return to nature
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Part I in a series of three articles

As the Dead Sea dries, its collapsing shores force a return to nature

The rapid appearance of more than 6,000 sinkholes is compelling locals, who rely heavily on tourism, to come up with creative solutions to stay afloat

A salt flat on the shores of the Dead Sea on January 11, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
A salt flat on the shores of the Dead Sea on January 11, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

A red fox climbs out of a gaping hole in the earth, tiptoeing over crumbling sidewalks dotted with old streetlamps that lean at crazy angles. Just two years ago the Ein Gedi beach was filled with children slurping on popsicles and parents lugging coolers down to the water’s edge.

But when massive sinkholes began swallowing the beach, humans beat a hasty retreat and the area became the foxes’ domain.

Sinkholes — sudden, dangerous pits that form when rock beneath the surface is dissolved by groundwater — first began to appear around the Dead Sea in the late 1980s, caused by the rapid decline of that body of water. Today the water level is dropping more than a meter (3 feet) per year.

In 1990 there were a little over 100 sinkholes, according to the Geological Survey of Israel. Since 2005, the situation has been critical, with an explosion in the number and size of the sinkholes.

Today, there are more than 6,000, with new ones showing up daily.

Above: Dead Sea resident Jaky Ben Zaken discusses his work in our 360-degree video. Click and drag on the screen, or move your phone, to look around.

The sinkholes have completely reshaped the landscape around the Dead Sea, forcing residents to reimagine and redesign life around this unique geographic phenomenon. Gone are the public beaches in the northern part of the sea, Mineral Beach and Ein Gedi beach, and the nearly 40 places of employment they provided in the economically depressed area.

Both tourist spots are now ghost towns with hulking concrete structures that have partially or completely collapsed, giving the feel of a post-apocalyptic war zone. Gone is the $60 million bridge over the Arugot Stream, which was supposed to allow traffic to continue on Route 90 even during the winter floods that close highways for at least two weeks of the year. Gone is the high-speed stretch of Route 90 south of the Ein Gedi nature reserve, replaced by a windy bypass that cuts through an area where gazelles nurse their young. Gone is the only gas station for more than 60 kilometers.

In 2015, sinkholes forced the closure of this part of Highway 90, pictured here on January 6, 2016. Now drivers must take a winding bypass which is very close to the Ein Gedi nature reserve. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
In 2015, sinkholes forced the closure of this part of Route 90, pictured here on January 6, 2016. Now drivers must take a winding bypass which is very close to the Ein Gedi nature reserve. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

 

Jordan is also dealing with the sinkhole problem, but on a much smaller scale, said Ariel Meroz, a geologist with the Geological Survey. “There are a lot fewer [there] because the geologic formations are different, so Jordan has about one-tenth the number of sinkholes as Israel,” he said.

The flip side of the destruction is that the sinkholes have also created an impenetrable nature reserve. Ironically, sinkholes will protect the fragile ecology from human development better than any amount of environmental lobbying.

I feel the earth move under my feet

Imagine a bucket with a small hole in it that is under a faucet. The bucket is the Dead Sea, the faucet is the Jordan River. The small hole is the water that evaporates or is sucked up by the Dead Sea Works factories in the southern basin.

As long as the faucet is running at a fairly steady pace, the bucket will stay full even though water continues to leak out the bottom. But since the 1960s, the faucet has effectively been shut off, as Syria, Jordan, and Israel redirect the Jordan’s water, which is desperately needed for agricultural projects and residents. With barely any input, the water level in the bucket continues to drop.

Every year, beach-goers may have noticed that the walk to the water got longer and longer. Communities tried to adapt. At Einot Tzukim, a freshwater oasis north of Mineral Beach, the Nature and Parks Authority kept paving a longer path to the beach, duly moving the showers closer to the water’s edge every few years, in a process repeated at other beaches.

As the distance increased, Ein Gedi used a tractor-trolley to transport guests from the spa to the sea, passing by signs that marked the water’s edge in previous years. They adapted, until one day, the ground opened up under the parking lot. Attempts to fill in the sinkholes failed, and the beach was closed for good in 2015.

A sign at Einot Tzukim, on the shores of the northern Dead Sea, marks the water level in 1990. On January 6, 2016, the water‘s edge was more than a kilometer away. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
A sign at Einot Tzukim, on the shores of the northern Dead Sea, marks the water’s edge in 1990. On January 6, 2016, it was more than a kilometer away. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

 

In the Dead Sea region, sinkholes appear when freshwater dissolves underground layers of salt, causing the ground above it to collapse. This underground freshwater comes from winter rains that fall from Jerusalem to Hebron and, after seeping into the underground Judean Mountain Aquifer, eventually make their way downhill to the Dead Sea.

Although this underground water is not sufficient to halt the rapidly declining water level, it has a big effect on the Dead Sea’s periphery. As the shoreline recedes, fresh water is forced to chase after it, dissolving more salt layers as it goes and creating new sinkholes.

Even if the Israel Water Authority and its Jordanian counterpart threw open the doors to the dams blocking water from the north, which they claim is impossible, 50 years of damage has already been done. Sinkholes and the uncertainty they create will be an inseparable part of the Dead Sea landscape for decades to come.

More precious than gold

Water is one of the world’s most precious resources, and the geopolitical situation of the Middle East complicates the matter even further.

Scientists believe that the Dead Sea will never disappear entirely, but 2050 will be the tipping point when the Dead Sea will be so salty that the salt will block water from evaporating, leaving a small pool of slimy sludge.

Before the countries bordering the river began harnessing the water, 1.3 billion cubic meters per year flowed from the lower Jordan River to the Dead Sea. Today, just 5 percent of that amount reaches the Dead Sea, according to EcoPeace, an environmental group focusing on water solutions between Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan.

If the level of the Dead Sea continues to drop at the current rate, it could shrink to a soupy puddle in a few decades. Scientists believe that the Dead Sea will never disappear entirely, and say 2050 will be the tipping point when it will become so salty that the minerals will block water from evaporating, leaving a small pool of slimy sludge.

In the 1960s, Syria, Jordan, and Israel began diverting water for agriculture and consumption. At some points, 96% of the water from the Jordan River, and the Yarmouk River, the main tributary to the Jordan that runs through Syria and Jordan, went to national water carriers.

Aerial view of sinkholes on the Dead Sea shoreline, September 30, 2010 (photo credit:Yuval Nadel/Flash90)
Aerial view of sinkholes on the Dead Sea shoreline, September 30, 2010 (photo credit:Yuval Nadel/Flash90)

As concern mounted about the disappearing Dead Sea, Israel has grudgingly begun to open the dam at Deganya, at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee. It has allowed a trickle of 9 million cubic meters of water per year since 2013, an amount that is expected to increase to 30 million cubic meters this year.

In order to stay at its current level, the Dead Sea needs about 800 million cubic meters per year. In the best-case scenario, according to EcoPeace, changes in water management policies could free about 400 million cubic meters to return to the river: 200 million from Israel, 100 million from Jordan, and 100 million from Syria.

But even that goal is incredibly unlikely, as each country has its own challenges, explained Mira Edelstein, an EcoPeace researcher specializing in the Dead Sea. Syria is in no position to focus on water issues in the midst of its civil war. In Jordan, the water infrastructure is plagued by aging pipes — at some points as much as 50% of its water is lost through leaks. The country needs a total overhaul of its water pipe network. “It’s a long-term solution, and a lot of money to rework the infrastructure, but it’s even harder to ask God to give you more water,” Edelstein said.

Additionally, Jordan is dealing with a massive influx of at least a million Syrian refugees whose presence is taxing an already water-scarce area.

A sign warning visitors of the danger of sinkholes around the shores of the Dead Sea on January 3, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
A sign warning visitors of the danger of sinkholes around the shores of the Dead Sea on January 3, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The hope lies with Israel, whose desalination technology frees it from its longtime dependence on the Sea of Galilee for agricultural water, but politicians are still dragging their feet.

“We need to get our decision makers to understand that we need to start today, even though we’re only going to feel it in 20 years.”

“We need to get our decision makers to understand that we need to start today, even though we’re only going to feel it in 20 years,” said Edelstein. “That’s not what politicians want to do because they want it to happen in their term. But today, desalination has given so many more options to the water economy. We’re not a water-scarce country any more. Our desalinations aren’t even working to capacity and we have a surplus.”

Most activists and residents focus on restarting the Jordan River flow as the best way to stop the rapid decline of the water level. However, EcoPeace also points a finger at the mineral industry in the southern basin of the Dead Sea. Since 1979, the Dead Sea has been divided into two: In its southern part, the Dead Sea is divided into evaporation pools for industry. The hotels in Ein Boqek are built on the shores of such an evaporation pool. The northern part is still a natural, though shrinking, body of water.

According to Edelstein’s estimates, 70% of the Dead Sea’s dropping water level used to be attributable to lack of water from the Jordan River and 30% to the industry around the southern part. Now, those numbers are closer to 60% and 40%, respectively, she said. “[The industries] keep taking out more and more water every year from the northern basin, and since there is less water overall, their impact is even greater,” said Edelstein.

ICL Fertilizers' Dead Sea Works, the world's fourth largest producer and supplier of potash products (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israel Chemicals’ Dead Sea Works, the world’s fourth largest producer and supplier of potash products (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Local leaders dismissed the focus on the factories, noting they provide many jobs in an economically depressed area. “What’s more important [than factories] is returning the water from the source,” said Jaky Ben Zaken, a resident of Kibbutz Shalem who runs educational boat tours on the Dead Sea and works with a number of scientific researchers. “The Jordan is gone. If you don’t do anything with that, it doesn’t matter what the factories do.”

Ben-Zaken recalled that six years ago, during a particularly rainy winter, the Israel Water Authority opened the Deganya Dam to avoid flooding. “In some places, the Jordan river was 70 feet wide,” he said. “The Dead Sea rose by 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) in four days. I was working at the baptism sites with my boat, making sure people didn’t get swept away.”

A different solution for each place

In the 1980s, Einot Tzukim was one of the most popular national park destinations in Israel, a desert oasis of freshwater pools that fed into the Dead Sea. More than 400,000 people a year ambled along its shady paths, alternating swims in fresh and salty water. Like every other Dead Sea business, each year the park would extend the paved path to the beach.

In the late 1990s, the shoreline retreated even farther, past a muddy area rife with mini-canyons and sinkholes about to collapse. When an attempt to build a wooden boardwalk over the mud flats didn’t work out, the park faced the truth: it would have to close the beach, which it did in 2000. Just 6,000 visitors came to the park that year. As the shoreline retreated farther and farther away, the freshwater pools, which provide home to endangered fish and thousands of birds, also began chasing after the water. The animals had trouble adapting as the pools quickly disappeared and popped up in new spots every few months.

The freshwater holding pools at Einot Tzukim on January 3, 2017. Three pools act as reservoirs for the NIS 2.5 million pumping project, (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
The freshwater holding pools at Einot Tzukim on January 3, 2017. Three pools act as reservoirs for the NIS 2.5 million pumping project, (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

In 2011, Eldad Hazan, the manager of Einot Tzukim, convinced the Nature and Parks Authority and other partners to invest NIS 2.5 million ($667,000) in a massive pumping project. These pumps bring the freshwater from the spot where it emerges from underground — a constantly changing spot close to the constantly changing shoreline — to three permanent holding pools. The holding pools are close to the site of the original springs, near the picnic tables of the visitors’ area.

Now more than 120,000 visitors each year come to enjoy the shade of the poplar trees and the gurgle of freshwater springs. Free guided tours introduce them to the park, where the pumping project has enabled the protection of Arabian tooth carp and Jordan river tilapia, two fish that are native only in that area.

“We made a compromise: Take local water and use it in the area, but manipulate it so we can keep the site as a place for hikes and hanging out and swimming, and conserve the unique habitats of this place,” said Hazan.

People can still find ways to utilize the distinctive and irreplaceable sites in the region, but every single place affected by the sinkholes requires a different solution, Hazan said. For Einot Tzukim, it was water pumps. In other places, it will be bridges, boardwalks, feats of engineering, identifying alternate locations, or other creative solutions. It will take massive amounts of money and years of study, he said.

A water pool built for visitors at Einot Tzukim on January 3, 2017. The park closed their beach access in 2000, but the number of visitors has climbed steadily since the pumping program allows them to continue operating the visitor's area. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
A water pool built for visitors at Einot Tzukim on January 3, 2017. The park closed their beach access in 2000, but the number of visitors has climbed steadily since the pumping program allows them to continue operating the visitor’s area. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

Hazan added that the crumbling structures of Mineral Beach and Ein Gedi beach are a stark, daily reminder of what could happen to his park. “It shows us what kind of situation we’re in, it warns us that we must think, we must plan, we must stay humble,” he said. “Nothing is guaranteed, it’s completely uncertain. Einot Tzukim could be in the same situation as them in two years, though we hope it will be different because we’re doing risk assessment.”

The grass is greener on the other side of the sinkhole

Although the sinkholes have wreaked massive destruction environmentally and economically, they also have a stunning beauty that is found nowhere else in the world. Eli Raz, Israel’s best-known sinkhole scholar, has proposed an “open geological park” allowing visitors to (safely) observe sinkholes from platforms and viewing towers. An architectural firm visited the site he proposed, near his home of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which has a high concentration of sinkholes. But the project was stopped, and Raz is not sure why. Dov Litvinoff, the mayor of the Tamar Regional Council, said finding a company to insure the site would have been impossible.

“I can bring people because I know the area so well,” said Raz, who offers sinkhole tours in his free time outside of his research commitments. “Because there isn’t a site like this, people are going into these areas on their own and getting into trouble. There needs to be one site that is accessible and safe.”

The receding shore line leaves a thin crust of salt behind as the water level of the Dead Sea drops more than a meter a year, like this area pictured on January 11, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
The receding shore line leaves a thin crust of salt behind as the water level of the Dead Sea drops more than a meter a year, like this area photographed on January 11, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“With all of the tragedies here — and the decline is really tragic — there’s also all of these beautiful opportunities that come from the sinkholes, like digging for salt diamonds,” said Raz. “Beyond the intellectual experience of researching the sinkholes, visiting them is an experience that really awakens all of your senses. The sinkholes are very aesthetically beautiful.

“There are so many possibilities for geologists. They can really study so many different aspects; it’s like an open case study,” he added.

Salt formations can take many shapes and forms, such as this one found on the shores of the Dead Sea north of Mitzpe Shalem on January 11, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
Salt formations can take many shapes and forms, such as this one found on the shores of the Dead Sea north of Mitzpe Shalem on January 11, 2017. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

“Geology is always about what happened, maybe one million years ago, maybe half a million years ago, but at the Dead Sea you see things that are happening right now,” said Meroz of the Geological Survey of Israel.

Even sinkholes have a silver lining

Harel Ben Shahar, the director of the Arava Region for the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which includes the Ein Gedi reserve, noted that there were a few unintended yet positive consequences of the sinkholes. As traditional tourism options disappear, Ben Shahar is looking for alternatives, including developing new archaeological sites and building wheelchair-accessible hiking paths, to attract more visitors.

Harel Ben Shahar, the director of the Arava Region for Nature and Park’s Authority, which includes the Ein Gedi reserve, stands in front of an abandoned date orchard near the nature reserve on January 3, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Harel Ben Shahar, the director of the Arava Region for Nature and Park’s Authority, which includes the Ein Gedi reserve, stands in front of an abandoned date orchard near the nature reserve on January 3, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Furthermore, although the new Route 90 bypass lies much closer to the protected land of the Ein Gedi reserve, the twists and turns force drivers to travel at 50 kph instead of 90 kph (30 mph instead of 55 mph), which has drastically reduced the number of gazelle fatalities from car accidents, he said. The Ein Gedi Park is in the process of lobbying the Transportation Ministry to designate the area a scenic byway, which would grant it additional funds to remove some of the detritus left from tourism past: groves of dead date palms and abandoned gas stations, kiosks, public bathrooms, parking lots, and other structures.

“I don’t see the shrinking of the Dead Sea as a good thing, but the sinkholes are a good thing because it means you can’t develop the land at all,” said Michael Blecher, a senior ecologist with the Nature and Parks Authority at the Ein Gedi reserve. “It will be a real nature conservation area; you won’t be able to enter there at all. That’s what they taught me in Russia when we learned about conservation areas. I don’t understand what this obsession is in Israel with going into every single last spot. Why can’t you leave some of it to nature?”

No one appreciates Blecher’s sentiment more than the red fox, emerging out of the sinkhole onto the Ein Gedi beach into what looks like an apocalyptic wasteland. Without pausing to check the scene for humans, the fox bounds across its new domain fearlessly, weaving through cracked picnic benches and a crumbling restaurant. Through the empty eatery’s window, the Dead Sea sparkles in the sunlight, every week a little bit farther away.

A view of the Dead Sea from an abandoned restaurant at the Kibbutz Ein Gedi public beach on January 3, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
A view of the Dead Sea from an abandoned restaurant at the Kibbutz Ein Gedi public beach on January 3, 2017. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
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