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Sinkholes on receding Dead Sea shore are ‘nature’s revenge,’ not easily appeased

Experts say that at best, dramatic changes in the way natural resources are drawn from area may stop further decline, but restoration may be beyond hope

  • Hikers walk next to sinkholes across a dried-up sea area which 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)
    Hikers walk next to sinkholes across a dried-up sea area which 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)
  • A picture taken in the area of Ein Gedi shows the Araba River crossing a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, on its way to the southern part of Dead Sea, January 15, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    A picture taken in the area of Ein Gedi shows the Araba River crossing a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, on its way to the southern part of Dead Sea, January 15, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • A hiker visits patterns formed by crystalized minerals in Kibbutz Ein Gedi area at the shore of the southern part of the Dead Sea, a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, seen on December 26, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    A hiker visits patterns formed by crystalized minerals in Kibbutz Ein Gedi area at the shore of the southern part of the Dead Sea, a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, seen on December 26, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • The abandoned Israeli Ein Gedi resort that was destroyed following the formation of sinkholes created as a result of a drop in the Dead Sea water level, seen September 21, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    The abandoned Israeli Ein Gedi resort that was destroyed following the formation of sinkholes created as a result of a drop in the Dead Sea water level, seen September 21, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • Patterns formed by crystalized minerals some 20Km south of Kibbutz Ein Gedi in the southern part of the Dead Sea, a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, seen December 26, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    Patterns formed by crystalized minerals some 20Km south of Kibbutz Ein Gedi in the southern part of the Dead Sea, a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, seen December 26, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • A hiker visits patterns formed by crystalized minerals in Kibbutz Ein Gedi area at the shore of the southern part of the Dead Sea, a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, on December 26, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    A hiker visits patterns formed by crystalized minerals in Kibbutz Ein Gedi area at the shore of the southern part of the Dead Sea, a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, on December 26, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • People take a dip in the Dead Sea near the Mitzpe Shalem settlement in the West Bank, on September 24, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    People take a dip in the Dead Sea near the Mitzpe Shalem settlement in the West Bank, on September 24, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • An Ibex herd grazing in an abandoned palm grove that was destroyed following the formation of sinkholes filled with water as a result of a drop in the water level in the Dead Sea, near Israel's Kibbutz Ein Gedi, October 6, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    An Ibex herd grazing in an abandoned palm grove that was destroyed following the formation of sinkholes filled with water as a result of a drop in the water level in the Dead Sea, near Israel's Kibbutz Ein Gedi, October 6, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • People take a dip in the Dead Sea near the Mitzpe Shalem settlement in the West Bank, on September 24, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    People take a dip in the Dead Sea near the Mitzpe Shalem settlement in the West Bank, on September 24, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
  • Patterns formed by crystalized minerals and sinkholes on the surface of dried evaporation ponds of the Dead Sea, near the southern resort of Neve Zohar, October 6, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
    Patterns formed by crystalized minerals and sinkholes on the surface of dried evaporation ponds of the Dead Sea, near the southern resort of Neve Zohar, October 6, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

AFP — In the heyday of the Ein Gedi spa in the 1960s, holidaymakers could marinate in heated pools and then slip into the briny Dead Sea. Now the same beach is punctured by craters.

A spectacular expanse of water in the desert, flanked by cliffs to east and west, the Dead Sea has lost a third of its surface area since 1960.

The blue water recedes about a meter (yard) every year, leaving behind a lunar landscape whitened by salt and perforated with gaping holes.

Going forward, “you might be lucky to have a channel of water here, that people will be able to put their toes in,” laments Alison Ron, a resident of Ein Gedi who once worked at the spa.

“But there will be a lot of sinkholes.”

The sinkholes can exceed 10 meters (33 feet) in depth and are a testament to the shrinking sea. Receding saltwater leaves behind underground salt deposits. Runoff from periodic flash floods then percolates into the ground and dissolves the salt patches. Without support, the land above collapses.

Ghost town

At the Ein Gedi thermal baths, the roughly three kilometers (two miles) of rocky sand that now separate the spa from the shore are dotted with holes and crevices.

Further north, a whole tourist complex has turned into a ghost town, disfigured by craters and enclosed in fences. The pavement is gutted, the lampposts overturned, the date plantation abandoned.

The abandoned Israeli Ein Gedi resort that was destroyed following the formation of sinkholes created as a result of a drop in the Dead Sea water level, seen September 21, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

Ittai Gavrieli of the Israel Geological Institute told AFP there are now thousands of sinkholes all around the shores of the Dead Sea, in Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank.

They reflect human policy that has literally decimated the flow of water into the Dead Sea. Both Israel and Jordan have diverted the waters of the River Jordan for agriculture and drinking water. Chemical companies have extracted minerals from the seawater.

Climate change further accelerates evaporation. In Sodom, Israel, southwest of the Dead Sea, the country’s highest temperature in over 70 years was recorded in July 2019 — 49.9 degrees Celsius, or nearly 122 Fahrenheit.

‘Nature’s revenge’

Gavrieli said the Israel Geological Institute is monitoring the formation of sinkholes from space but it is not an exact science.

He said they are certainly “dangerous” but also “magnificent.”

“It has potential to become a tourist attraction, if you’re willing to take the risk on one hand and if insurance issues are clear,” he said.

Much too perilous, answers Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the EcoPeace organization, for whom the sinkholes are “nature’s revenge” for “the inappropriate actions of humankind.”

“We will not be able to bring back the Dead Sea to its former glory,” he said. “But we are demanding that we stabilize it.”

His organization, comprising Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists, advocates increased desalination of seawater from the Mediterranean to relieve pressure on the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan, which could then flow back to the Dead Sea.

EcoPeace Israel co-director Gidon Bromberg explaining water issues at Naharayyim in northern Israel on June 12, 2019. (courtesy EcoPeace)

EcoPeace would also like the industry to be “held accountable” by paying more taxes.

Inescapable decline

Asked by AFP, a spokesman for Jordan’s water ministry offered no detailed fix for the crisis. Instead, he said the donor community should play a “vital role” in sparking interest “to find reasonable solutions to the Dead Sea problem.”

In June, Jordan abandoned a long-stalled proposal to build a canal with Israel and the Palestinians to carry water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea.

Instead, Amman announced it would build a desalination plant to supply drinking water.

Even if the canal had been built, it could not have saved the lake on its own, said hydrologist Eran Halfi of the Dead Sea-Arava Science Center.

“The Dead Sea is at a deficit of one billion cubic meters per year and this was supposed to bring 200 million cubic meters,” he said. “It would slow the drop but not prevent it.”

A hiker visits patterns formed by crystalized minerals in Kibbutz Ein Gedi area at the shore of the southern part of the Dead Sea, a dried-up sea stretch which exposed and created a salt plain, on December 26, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

So is the Dead Sea doomed to evaporate? Scientists say its decline is inevitable for at least the next 100 years. Sinkholes will keep spreading over the century.

However, the lake could reach an equilibrium because as its surface decreases, the water becomes saltier and evaporation slows down.

In Ein Gedi, Ron said that forecast gave her little satisfaction. By diverting rivers and building factories, she said, “man has interfered.”

“We have to be ashamed of ourselves that we have allowed this to happen,” she said.

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