Environmental groups to press for rehabilitation of Jordan River, Dead Sea

Coalition will monitor Dead Sea mining franchise renewal, push government to release more water into Jordan River from Sea of Galilee

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

A man floats on the Dead Sea, on January 23, 2023. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)
A man floats on the Dead Sea, on January 23, 2023. (Roni Ofer/Flash90)

Ten environmental organizations said Monday that they have joined forces to campaign for the rehabilitation of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea has been shrinking dramatically in recent years and is currently about half the size it was in 1976. Currently at 436 meters (1,430 feet) below sea level, it is dropping by 1.1–1.2 meters (45–48 inches) each year.

The umbrella body, called From the Point of View of the Sea, includes several not-for-profits already involved in water issues, such as Dead Sea Guardians, EcoPeace, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, EcoOcean, Zalul, and the Negev Desert-focussed Sustainable Desert, as well as Lobby 99, a crowd-funded legal organization that is following the impending renewal of the state franchise to mine minerals from the Dead Sea. The student-based Green Course has also joined, as has Life and Environment, the umbrella body for all of Israel’s green groups.

The movement is being temporarily co-chaired by long-distance swimmer, long-time Dead Sea activist and Dead Sea Guardians founder Oded Rahav, former journalist and Knesset member Mickey Rosenthal, and Sharon Banjo, who works for EcoPeace — an organization that brings Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians together to improve conditions in the Jordan Valley.

Rahav is an entrepreneur who has quit his job to focus on the campaign. Meeting daily with people on all sides of the Jordan River, he recently flew to Ohio to start getting US Jews involved. Next week, he will fly to France.

There was broad consensus around the need to rehabilitate the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, he told The Times of Israel, making it the “ideal Zionist vision” to “unite and heal” Israeli society.

Oded Rahav in Cleveland, Ohio, February 2, 2023. (Facebook)

The window of opportunity was more open than ever before, Rahav said, pointing to the Abraham Accords and the possibility for regional cooperation, and Israel’s technology — the country now has the ability not only to provide its water-starved neighbors with desalinated water but also to maintain Sea of Galilee water levels by adding desalinated water there.

“You don’t need to be Einstein to understand that if you invest in the areas and provide water, and enable tourism and pilgrimage to flourish, you can bring prosperity, which brings stability,” Rahav said. “With stability, you don’t need weapons. You just produce more tomatoes.”

As it recedes, the sea has left behind a barren landscape atop a layer of salt rock. As freshwater from winter rains comes down the mountains and onto the previously flooded plain, it has dissolved the subterranean salt rock, opening up over 7,000 sinkholes beneath the thin crust that seem to cave in almost at random.

South of the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River runs through Israeli territory on both sides, and then defines the Israel-Jordan border, before entering the West Bank and trickling into the Dead Sea.

One reason for the shrinkage is that not enough water is coming in from streams to the north, with water being diverted by Syria, Jordan, and Israel for human needs. Up until the 1930s, around 1,200 million cubic meters of water would flow south into the Jordan Valley each year from the Sea of Galilee. That figure has been reduced to just 10 mcm per year.

Hikers walk next to sinkholes across a dried-up sea area that exposed and created a salt plain, some 20 kilometers south of Kibbutz Ein Gedi in the southern part of the Dead Sea, on January 15, 2021. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The other reason is that water is being pumped out by factories on the Israeli and Jordanian shores (in Israel’s case Dead Sea Works) to extract valuable potash, bromine, and magnesium in massive evaporation pools. The factories only replace around half of the water that they remove.

The state’s mining lease has been enshrined in law for nearly seven decades. It runs out in 2030.

A view of the Dead Sea Works on February 2, 2018. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

In November, the Israeli and Jordanian governments signed a declaration of intent to partner in the ecological restoration and sustainable development of the Jordan River.

The new coalition will focus on several issues, among them the upcoming mining franchise renewal, repairing and preventing the recurrence of environmental damage as a result of Dead Sea Works activities, and a push to create a government planning team to plan for “the northern option” — the release of more water into the Jordan River from the Sea of Galilee.

Israel currently has no approved plans on the table to deal with refilling the Dead Sea.

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