When Yariv Kita, the business director of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, drives out of his kibbutz, he can’t escape reminders of the destruction sinkholes have wreaked on his home.
Directly across from the entrance to the kibbutz is a dead date orchard, the palm trees doubled over like sagging rag dolls. Behind that are the remains of the kibbutz’s public beach — an array of crumbling tourist facilities, including a campground, kiosk, and a restaurant.
“The sinkholes are threatening our very existence,” said Kita.
The area, including the remains of what was once Route 90, is now a closed no-go zone, the landscape pockmarked with holes caused by the rapidly dropping water level of the nearby Dead Sea.
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.
The sinkholes come in all shapes and sizes, some more than 50 meters (160 feet) across and 30 meters (100 feet) deep, others less than a meter. In 1990 there were a little over 100 sinkholes, according to the Geological Survey of Israel. Today, there are more than 6,000, with new ones showing up daily.
Kibbutz Ein Gedi is just one case among a multitude of economic challenges the sinkholes are inflicting on residents living near the Dead Sea. Hundreds of residents are precariously trying to make a living in an area whose geographic features are literally changing beneath their feet. Solutions are possible, local leaders claim, though expensive. But inaction will plunge the area deeper into isolation and poverty, they say.
“We lost 300 dunams (75 acres), it’s just totally gone,” said Kita. “We’ve lost tens of millions of shekels. We’re still assessing the financial impact.”
Beyond the physical loss stemming from the sinkholes, Kita said, the kibbutz is also beginning to lose something less tangible: hope.
“What’s in danger is really the issue of continuing the settlement of the Dead Sea region,” Kita said. “No one has left the kibbutz — we love this place — but it’s a big worry.”
Like many rural areas, Ein Gedi struggles with demographic issues of attracting young people to the region and encouraging the new generation to stay local rather than moving to the center.
“We’re a small, isolated spot, and there’s no reason to come live here,” said Kita. “Right now we have only three babies in the [kibbutz’s communal] children’s home. We need to renew ourselves. Without new life, we won’t survive.”
“We’re asking for support and help,” Kita added. “This is too big for us to do on our own. The state needs to help us. We’re not responsible for this problem, we have no control over it, and we need to make a living here.”
It’s a challenge for any rural kibbutz to attract new members. But with Ein Gedi’s businesses literally getting swallowed by sinkholes, the situation is even bleaker. The kibbutz itself is not in the sinkhole danger zone, since it is situated farther from the shoreline. But as the sinkholes expand, employment shrinks.
Floating on a tax-free sea
Tamar Regional Council mayor Dov Litvinoff, who is a member of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, echoes Kita’s sentiments, but he is more hopeful that the sinkholes can be managed.
‘We’re talking about continuing the Zionist idea of settling the west bank of the Dead Sea. But I’m optimistic. Even with the problems, it’s possible to continue living here’
“The problem of the sinkholes won’t go away, but I think it’s a problem we can live with,” he said. “We need guidance to figure out how to live next to this issue, we need tools, we need government assistance to keep the residents in the area.”
“We’re talking about continuing the Zionist idea of settling the west bank of the Dead Sea,” he added. “But I’m optimistic. Even with the problems, it’s possible to continue living here. I don’t accept this giving up, this bitterness that there is nothing that we can do here.”
Litvinoff wants the government to approve special status for residents, similar to that granted to residents of the Gaza-adjacent communities, who receive benefits and tax breaks that make living in the area economically advantageous.
To bring tourists back, he wants to create a special economic zone in the Dead Sea area, a value added tax-free area like one enjoyed by Eilat to encourage shopping and commercial enterprises.
But recognizing that the industry may never be what it once was, Litvinoff sees alternate employment opportunities that are not dependent on tourism as the future.
He cited a partnership with Tel Aviv University to expand the Dead Sea Research Center, which would bring a highly educated population to the area. Kita wants to see a technology park, including a high-tech accelerator, to create new jobs. Litvinoff is lobbying the state for NIS 300-NIS 400 million ($80 million-$106 million) to improve road infrastructure over the next five years. Regular winter floods shut down the roads for days at a time, forcing children in the area to miss up to three weeks of school for flood days, he said. The NIS 60 million ($15 million) bridge over Arugot Stream was supposed to solve this issue, but the bridge was built in a sinkhole-prone area and was abandoned after just six years of use.
The sinkholes are caused by freshwater dissolving salt deposits, causing the earth around these deposits to collapse as they disintegrate. As the Dead Sea level drops, the underground freshwater chases after the receding shoreline, encountering new salt deposits and creating additional sinkholes.
“Today we have better knowledge of where we can build and where we can’t,” said Litvinoff. “But building is also more expensive, because we have to drill before doing any construction. If we find salt [deposits], we know we can’t build there.”
‘It doesn’t feel like a pool’
The Dead Sea is featured in every brochure or commercial advertising Israel, and no one is more aware of the importance of good infrastructure in the region than the Tourism Ministry. While there are a few scattered initiatives around the northern Dead Sea, The Tourism Ministry is putting all of its eggs in a single basket: Ein Boqek, the main tourism hub on the shores of the Dead Sea’s southern basin.
In 2012, the government allocated NIS 833 million ($222 million) for a five-year project to rehabilitate the Dead Sea. The majority was for tourism and hotel development, with NIS 134 million allocated for environmental protection and sinkholes along the northern part. The Tourism Ministry is about to issue tenders for the “Dead Sea Valley Project,” which will include 14 new hotels between Ein Boqek and Hamei Zohar, another beach a few kilometers south. This will double the number of hotel rooms from the current 4,000 rooms to 8,000 rooms.
But while the Tourism Ministry rushes to build more rooms, visits from abroad have declined over the past five years. In 2010, 183,000 international tourists visited the Dead Sea, while in 2015, that number dipped to 143,500.
Domestic tourism has increased over the past five years, from 634,000 in 2010 to almost 750,000 in 2015, though Israelis are unlikely to spend the same amount of money as their foreign counterparts.
With the closure of Mineral Beach and Ein Gedi Beach, there is only one recognized beach on the northern basin of the Dead Sea, Kalia Beach, which is public but has an entrance fee. Many people access the water through an unrecognized beach at Einot Samar.
The vast majority of people who go to the Dead Sea go almost exclusively to Ein Boqek, which sits on the shores of a man-made evaporation pool that’s designed to separate the minerals from the water.
Litvinoff doesn’t see an issue with that. “The water is the same, the feeling is the same, and the minerals are the same,” he said. “You say it’s a pool, but it’s 80 square kilometers. It’s one and a half times the size of Tel Aviv, so it doesn’t feel like a pool.”
When it rains, it pours
Ironically, while the northern basin of Dead Sea is in desperate need of water, the southern basin has the opposite problem: flooding. The southern basin hosts all of the Dead Sea Works factories. They pump water out of the northern basin into the southern basin in order to extract minerals such as potash and salt, among others. “They extract the minerals they want, and whatever they don’t want, these sediments just settle to the bottom, which actually means that the floor of the evaporation ponds is rising,” said Edelstein. As they continue to pump the same amounts of water into the southern basin, flooding is inevitable.
“I always tell tourists not to stay at a hotel right next to the water, because their basement is probably filled with saltwater,” said a half-joking Jaky Ben Zaken, who runs boat tours for tourists near Mitzpe Shalem.
In December 2015, the government approved a NIS 3.8 billion ($980 million) plan to harvest some of these sediments in an effort to stop the flooding. Israel Chemicals, the company operating the factories, will supply NIS 3.04 billion and the government will provide the rest, the Haaretz newspaper reported. The dual problem of simultaneous shrinkage and flooding is one of the prime examples of how each location along the Dead Sea requires a unique solution.
In an effort to address some of these problems, Eli Groner, the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, met with a group of leaders from several ministries and regional councils during a tour of the area on January 26. “Among other things, the team examined the effect of environmental problems on the sources of income in the region, on tourism, agriculture, [and] transportation infrastructure,” said a spokeswoman.
In order to stay at its current level, the Dead Sea needs about 800 million cubic meters per year. In the best-case scenario, 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, according to EcoPeace, which promotes cooperative programs between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians.
To keep the sea afloat, Groner pointed to the planned so-called Red-Dead canal project, which will funnel Red Sea water into the Dead Sea.
“As a mid- and long-term solution, the State of Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan are promoting the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project, a pipeline that will pump hundreds of millions of cubic meters of water to the Dead Sea. The first phase of the project is expected to scale back the annual drop in water level, and if it is decided to expand the project, it will stabilize the water level.”
A number of countries and global leaders have already committed money to this $10 billion project, which is currently looking for tenders. According to the plan, a water desalination plant in the Jordanian city of Aqaba, located next to Eilat, will pump its brine (very salty water leftover from the desalination process) 200 kilometers north to the Dead Sea. This will solve another problem: As desalination provides much-needed water to both southern Israel and Jordan for agriculture and consumption, the brine needs to go somewhere other than the Red Sea, which is home to sensitive corals.
Scientists will carefully monitor the Dead Sea water level to maintain a balance. However, this project is only going to bring an estimated 80-100 million cubic meters per year, and 225 million cubic liters per year in the future. Since the Dead Sea needs 800 million cubic meters per year just to stay stable, this expensive project will provide needed water but won’t “save the Dead Sea” as advertised to global donors.
No wasted drop
“You can’t blame Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] or Trump or even [Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, and we’re not even blaming God,” said Uri Schor, the spokesman for Mekorot, Israel’s Water Authority. “The fact is that over the last few years, the north is getting less rain. But the water need is rising, because there are more people, not just Israelis, but also Jordanians.” This includes an influx of almost 1 million Syrian refugees to Jordan.
Over the past winter’s rainy season, the Sea of Galilee just rose 40 centimeters (16 inches). During an average winter, it should rise about 1.75 meters (almost six feet), Schor said. The lake’s level is still 40 centimeters under the “Lower Red Line,” a demarcation invented after the Sea of Galilee plummeted beyond what is now called the “Upper Red Line.”
Thanks to Israel’s prowess in desalination, the country is siphoning the minimum amount of water possible from the Sea of Galilee so it can maintain the reservoir as an emergency backup. This amounts to about 25 million cubic meters of water per year. Previously, Israel was taking over 350 million cubic meters of water per year from the Sea of Galilee.
“Solutions will only come from working together,” he said. “The problem sits on the border, so you must have cooperation. Without cooperation and without understanding, there absolutely won’t be a solution.”
Opening the dam to allow water to flow down the Jordan River naturally is simply not an option, said Schor. Mekorot, like the government, supports the Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project. “This solution has a lot of problems,” Schor noted. “But the issue of bringing water from the Sea of Galilee isn’t possible. It can’t be the way it was before.”
Edelstein, of EcoPeace, said that the situation is so dire that even their environmentalists aren’t being picky about the kind of water they receive. “We don’t need Sea of Galilee water. It could be desalinated water, or even treated wastewater,” she said. Any mix of that water could rehabilitate the Jordan River and help the Dead Sea survive.
But everyone – geologists, activists, politicians, leaders, and residents alike – agrees that the problem will require creative thinking and nimble execution from both Israel and Jordan.
“This problem is regional and doesn’t belong to anyone — that’s why understanding and cooperation is important on all sides,” said Ariel Meroz, a geologist with the Israel Geological Survey who participated in a Potsdam University conference in Jordan for geologists from Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, and Germany. He said scientists at the conference mostly put politics to the side to share knowledge and ideas. “Solutions will only come from working together,” he said. “The problem sits on the border, so you must have cooperation. Without cooperation and without understanding, there absolutely won’t be a solution.”
We’ve been here before
Although the sinkholes feel like a new phenomenon, evidence for prior incidences of sinkholes is found in an unlikely source – the Torah.
In 2001, Eli Raz, a resident of Kibbutz Ein Gedi and one of Israel’s foremost experts on sinkholes, authored a paper along with Amos Frumpkin of Hebrew University. In the paper, the pair hypothesized that sinkholes may have been part of Genesis Chapter 14 about Sodom and Gomorrah. Biblical scholars estimate this story took place around 2,000 BCE, a time when there was a dramatic drop in the level of the Dead Sea, according to geologic evidence. During the battle of the four kings, verse 10 reads: “The valley of Siddim [today’s Dead Sea] was one slime pit after another; the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fell into these in their flight.”
“The two kings, living in this valley, must have been familiar with the pits which seem to have characterized the region,” Raz and Frumpkin wrote. “The fact that they did fall into the pits suggests an unexpected occurrence, presumably catastrophic collapse which swallowed the fleeing kings.”
Raz knows firsthand what this catastrophic collapse feels like. In 2003, he spent 13 hours trapped in a sinkhole, writing a goodbye letter to his family on sheets of toilet paper after a sinkhole he was measuring collapsed with him inside. He was eventually rescued.
Israel has come a long way in the past 4,000 years. Today, detailed satellite imagery, called the satellite radar interferometry (InSAR) method, enables engineers and geologists to detect minute, millimeter-size shifts and dips in the ground using satellites photographing from space. This method enables authorities to close Route 90 and the beach at Ein Gedi before sinkholes swallowed people whole.
But unlike the time of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Jordan River that fills the Dead Sea stays parched and dry. Society can build new bridges, dams, and roads, in an effort to work around the Dead Sea’s disappearance and live with the new reality sinkholes have created.
With no permanent solution for the Dead Sea’s rapid decline on the horizon, the sinkholes threaten to swallow an entire region’s hope for the future, in addition to the buildings and roads that have already succumbed.