by Tyler Nicoll
With an upcoming trip to Israel, I felt it would be quite fitting to blog about an environmental treasure found there, the Dead Sea. One of the most unique features on earth, it is the lowest point on earth at an elevation of approximately 400 meters below sea level and is the world’s saltiest large body of water, with a salinity of just under 300 ppt in the top layer of water and 332 ppt in the lower layer. For the sake of comparison, the Atlantic Ocean, the saltiest ocean in the world, has a salinity of approximately 35 ppt.
The lake’s extreme salinity excludes almost all life except some forms of bacteria. While there is a lack of wildlife in the Dead Sea itself, the surrounding region has unique flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the Nubian Ibex, Arabian Leopard and the indigenous Dead Sea Sparrow.
In addition, the water and mud contain over 35 elements including, chlorine, calcium, potassium, magnesium, bromine, sulfur and iodine. The mineral rich mud is said to have many beneficial and therapeutic health properties – a tradition I can’t wait to try and not to mention it’s just a great excuse to play in the mud.
As a result of impacts from water and mineral extraction as well as increasing development pressure, the wildlife and wetlands in the surrounding area and the Dead Sea itself are in peril.
The Dead Sea water levels are dropping at a rate of more than one meter per year. According to the latest available data on July 1, it stood at 427.13 meters (about 1,400 feet) below sea level, nearly 27 meters lower than in 1977. This is primarily due to increasingly intensive withdrawal for irrigation from the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers, which feed directly into the Dead Sea. The second major cause is the direct withdrawal of water from the Dead Sea used for the manufacture of fertilizer by the Potash Industry in Jordan and Israel. In addition, regional development plans including the construction of new hotels and expansion of industry will further deplete the natural resources. Without drastic changes in consumption rates, a comprehensive development plan, and a feasible solution to the problems this region is already facing, the Dead Sea is on course to dry out by 2050.
The water usage in the region has numerous detrimental consequences. Factories are facing higher pumping costs to extract potash, salt and magnesium out of the Dead Sea as water levels fall. Pumping water directly out of the rivers for irrigation creates a hydraulic gradient which causes an accelerated outflow of freshwater from surrounding underground water aquifers back into the rivers. This will rapidly deplete the aquifers which are an important source of freshwater.
The receding water levels cause buried salt to dry out and also decrease hydrostatic pressure which is needed to maintain a stable shoreline. With this new landscape, when rain water infiltrates the ground, the buried salt dissolves creating soft underground areas. Combine this with the decreased hydrostatic pressure along the shoreline, and there is an unstable situation in which inevitable sinkholes form. The area is becoming treacherous as roads and structures are becoming severely damaged due to the formation of sinkholes and mud. In addition, the receding shoreline has created erosional terraces, which make it difficult and increasingly unsafe for tourists to access the water for traditional or medicinal purposes.
Is there a solution to the sinking sea in an area of rising demand?
A joint Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian plan consisting of a Red-Dead Sea pipeline, a 180 Kilometer long underground pipeline that will carry 2 billion cubic meters of sea water per year from the Red Sea through Jordan to the Dead Sea.
The proposed pipeline is designed so that the downward flow of water goes through a hydroelectric plant that would power a desalination plant. The brine waste-product from the desalination plant would be discharged to the already saline Dead Sea. This plan will also provide a new supply of freshwater to the water stressed countries, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.
The plan is seemingly holistic with multiple positive effects but is not without potential adverse environmental impacts. The World Bank held hearings earlier in 2013 to gather public comments on this plan.
The environmental and social assessment, led by the Environmental Resources Management, an international consultancy, indicates that “all potential major environmental and social impacts can be mitigated to acceptable levels” — with one major caveat. If more than 400 million m3 of sea water is added to the Dead Sea, the body of water could be afflicted with algal blooms or the formation of gypsum crystals. However, these effects from the addition of such a large volume of water are difficult to predict. Furthermore, much more than 400 million m3 of water is needed to stabilize or raise the water level of the Dead Sea.
So we are between a rock and a hard place, or in this case a dry and a potentially even drier place. Is it better to do nothing for fear of the unknown effects, or forge ahead with the best plan possible and hope that solutions can be devised as new environmental complications arise? In August of this year, the Jordanian Prime Minister chose the latter of the two options by deciding to press on with the Red-Dead Pipeline project, although some environmental groups continue to reject the project.
The peril of the Dead Sea provides important lessons. We need to increase the sustainability of our society by looking for comprehensive, globally accepted solutions and most importantly realize we live on a planet with finite resources. The Dead Sea is a one of a kind environmental feature and it is in danger of being lost forever, or at least drastically changed. I hope that many generations after me will continue to have the chance to visit such an interesting natural feature.
Dead Sea. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Dead Sea. FoEME (Friends of the Earth Middle East).
Glausiusz, Josie. Environmental Concerns Reach Fever Pitch over Plan to Link Red Sea to Dead Sea. Nature.com. Nature Publishing Group, 27 Feb. 2013.
Liven, Ido. Dead Sea, Red Sea Plan Raises Environmental Hackles. Rappler.