Environment Ministry to propose minimum target for Dead Sea water level

With unique saline lake level falling by around 1.10 meters per year, call to government will be made in coming weeks, with search for alternative water sources to sustain it

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

People walk along the shore of the Dead Sea on November 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk along the shore of the Dead Sea on November 5, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry will call on the government to set a target below which the level of the Dead Sea will not be allowed to fall, because, in the words of ministry Director-General Galit Cohen, “Business as usual is not an option” for the rapidly diminishing lake.

The ministry has been working as part of an interministerial group on the future of the shrinking Dead Sea that is being coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office and is due to report in the coming weeks.

Within this framework, the ministry has been leading discussions on the long-term view the state should take regarding the unique sea at the lowest place on earth that is best known for keeping bathers afloat due to its high salt levels.

“The most important thing is to determine a target for stabilizing the level,” Cohen told The Times of Israel. “Business as usual is not an option.”

The ministry will not recommend a figure, preferring to leave this to a professional team.

The Dead Sea currently is located at minus 436 meters (1,430 feet) below sea level and is dropping by around 1.10 meters (3.6 feet) every year.

Environmental Protection Ministry Director General Galit Cohen. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Cohen said the only way to stabilize the Dead Sea, which has shrunk by half since 1976, would be within the framework of an agreement with Jordan, which sits along the eastern shore of the water.

If Israel were to unilaterally decide to divert less water that would otherwise flow down the Jordan River into the Dead Sea (there are no plans to do so), the Jordanians would oppose it because they are so short of water to drink, she said.

The Jordan River used to supply some 1,200 million cubic meters (MCM) of water to the Dead Sea, but with Syria, Jordan, and Israel diverting most of it for drinking water, agriculture, and other human needs, just 50 to 100 MCM reach the saline sea today. Water from streams entering from the east and west has also been diverted.

Furthermore, pumping by mineral extraction companies on both sides of the Dead Sea is responsible for around 50 centimeters (20 inches) of the 1.10 meters by which the level drops each year, Cohen said.

A view of the Dead Sea, which is dropping dramatically in height because of severe drought, on April 20, 2021. (Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP)

Around 700 MCM are currently being lost in annual evaporation. That figure was higher when the surface area of the sea was greater.

For comparison, Israel’s desalination plants supply a total of 600 MCM yearly.

Asked how additional water might be made available for the Dead Sea, Cohen, who has dealt with aspects of the issue since she started working at the ministry in 2000, said that water would need to be taken from a variety of sources.

Some might be brought from the Red Sea via a more modest pipe than was proposed at the beginning of the millennium. Some could come from increasing the flow from the Sea of Galilee into the Jordan River, whose rehabilitation would offer many other benefits as well. Finally, ways might be found to reduce the amount of water pumped for mineral extraction.

“I want to believe that this is possible,” she said.

In November, Israel and Jordan signed their largest-ever cooperation agreement, which will see the construction of a major solar power plant in the Hashemite Kingdom to generate electricity for Israel, while Israel will sell additional water to Jordan. The deal was brokered by the United Arab Emirates.

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