Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Dead Sea

Though a beloved tourist spot for Jordanians, Israelis, Europeans (and someday perhaps, Palestinians) The Dead Sea is, for lack of a better word, dying. Made up of water of high salinity, and, due to low altitude and high radiation, this water is susceptible to high amounts of radiation, thus causing a high evaporation rate. When the Dead Sea is healthy, water flows from the Galilee to the River Jordan (Upper and Lower) and into the Dead sea, where it evaporates, leaving a pool of water with high levels of salt, Many people claim the area to have great medicinal and spiritual value. Whatever its physical value, the government cannot deny its financial value to the tourist industry. Both Israel and Jordan have made massive amounts of financial gains through the use of the Dead Sea, its salt and mud based products, and the peat that is left behind after evaporation.

Man-made interference has, however, thrown off the ecological balance of the Jordan River Bioshed, and this includes the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea is shrinking in surface area by about 1 m per year. Though this thought is scary enough for the tourist industry, many political players are wondering why they should care. The answer lies in the ripple effects-- more immediately, the sink holes. Essentially, what is happening is that, in its healthier days, the fresh water that flows down from the mountains under ground is balanced by the salt water that lies below it, creating a stable interface of water. The fresh water then evaporates, leaving a pool of salt and water mixture behind, But because the sea water is shifting and exposing these salt layers, the fresh water actually comes into contact with the salt layer, which then dissolves the salt. This creates a cavity under the soil, which, given the proper circumstances, creates a sink hole. These sink holes are appearing all along the shore of the Dead Sea, putting at risk the hotels, beaches, spas, kibbutz, and even highways.

The issue of sink holes is not an israeli-only issue. What happens on one bank of the dead sea occurs on the other bank as well. Although the jordanian side is marked by cliffs, so erosion and sink holes aren't as obvious, the depletion of the water's surface area has continued to a point where it is becoming noticeable. This is problematic for the Jordanians tourism industry, among other things, which, for a struggling economy is highly important and could cause severe repercussions.

So what is causing the sea water level to shift in the first place? If you go back to my previous post, I talk about how, due to the National Water Carrier and other man-made diversion sources for water, the Israelis have decided to dam the jordan river. The jordan river right now is at 10% of its natural flow rate. Since the jordan flows into the Dead sea, reducing its waterflow at such a extreme rate is putting the entire biosphere on a shift, resulting in the loss of water to the dead sea. The water of the dead sea continues to evaporate at the same rate it always did, but the water is not replenished by the Jordan.

Critics will say that the dead sea has decreased in size before, due to natural phenomenon. This is true. The Dead Sea is a naturally dynamic system-- it has always had ups and downs due to the natural course of things. But now it is obvious the reason it is dropping today is because of human interference. While the sea has seen such lows naturally in the past, the really disturbing aspect is the rate of decline-- the Dead Sea has never decreased in surface area so rapidly.

There's a secondary consequence to the rapidly shrinking dead sea that affects Israel's economy more than tourism-- industry. The peat industry relies on evaporation from the Dead Sea to provide it with potassium rich soil, which it then exports all over the world. In order to create the correct reaction to maintain this naturally occurring phenomenon, the industry artificially separates the Upper Dead Sea from the Lower Dead Sea, keeping the lower portion at a depth of 1 meter. Hotels have sprung up around this portion of the dead sea, but now are facing the opposite problem from the Northern part-- flooding. Due to the maintained amount of water and evaporation, peat production is booming, so much so that the industry is unable to keep up. So if the soil is growing larger and larger, and the water needs to be maintained at the same depth level, hotels are now dealing with flooding issue. This produces a secondary conflict between the chemical industry and the hotel/tourism industry.

When I asked an Israeli water/environmental researcher on if he thought there was hope for the Dead Sea to recover he said: “ let's put it this way: I don't think it gets any worse than where we're at. If the government doesn't get involved and change things, there's very little people like me can do. But I think once they see the economic impact, they'll want to change things.

The Dead Sea is a transboundary resource. It really could be an environmental phenomenon like ths one that shapes the future political climate. Each country is too small and too financially burdened to deal with this crisis on its own. As the researcher told me “we each have problems, but if we're creative we can see these problems as opportunities.”

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