Bringing hope to the Dead Sea

Posted: 7 July 2004

Behind the headlines of Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, a grassroots non-profit group comprised of Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian environmentalists is working to save the shrinking Dead Sea. In the process, it is providing an example of successful transboundary co-operation within a land of seemingly relentless strife.

Writing in World Watch magazine, Gidon Bromberg, director of the Israeli office of Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME), describes how this multinational group came together under a shared passion for this ancient sea - and a shared alarm over its demise.

"Human desperation is never greater than when water is no longer in reach," writes Bromberg. "But for the Dead Sea to be managed sustainably, we believe there needs to be transnational cooperation at a level nearly unheard of in this region."

To facilitate this co-operation, FoEME embarked on an effort to forge a common understanding of the Basin's real value, taking into account the Sea's ecological, recreational, and cultural values as well as the industrial ones. In a study of people's "willingness to pay," they found that Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike are willing to pay substantial amounts of their own money to preserve the Sea.

Mythic place

The Dead Sea, which straddles the border of Israel and Jordan, is the lowest point on the planet and one of the most mythic places on Earth. Despite its name, the sea is abundant with life. Springs and oases along its shores provide water for 90 species of birds, 25 species of reptiles and amphibians, 24 species of mammals, as well as 400 species of plants. In addition to its cultural and environmental value, the Sea is a centre for tourism and potash and mineral mining, making it economically important to the region.

Fed by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea's surface level is dropping by nearly a metre per year as 90 per cent of the river's flow is being diverted for agriculture and urban use. The inflow of water from the Jordan has not kept pace with evaporation, which is causing a host of problems including thousands of large sinkholes along the shore and quicksand-like areas of mud.

FoEME is working to arrest the falling sea level through on-the-ground recommendations for better flow management of the Jordan into the Dead Sea, more carefully planned resort development, and protection of shoreline as nature reserves, among other things. To accomplish these goals, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan all need to co-ordinate, managing competing needs of farmers, city-dwellers, tourism, mining, and religious pilgrims.

"The hope of cooperation among the Middle East's embattled neighbours is not all 'daydreaming,' says Bromberg. "It's actually happening as we work to save the Dead Sea."

Source: Worldwatch Institute