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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C
Dead Sea

Dead Sea threatened both by shrinking and flooding

While the water level of the fabled Dead Sea is dropping nearly 1.2 metres a year – part of it is also overflowing and threatening one of Israel’s key tourism destinations.

THE DEAD SEA is dying, goes the conventional wisdom: the water level of the fabled salty lake is dropping nearly 1.2 metres a year.

What is less well known, is that part of the lake is actually overflowing and threatening one of Israel’s key tourism destinations.

Israel is feverishly campaigning to have the Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth and repository of precious minerals — named one of the natural wonders of the world. At the same time, it’s racing to stabilise what it calls “the world’s largest natural spa” so hotels on its southern end aren’t swamped and tourists can continue to soak in the lake’s therapeutic waters.

Without intervention, “in five to 10 years, (the water) would flood the hotel lobbies, no question,” said Alon Tal, one of the researchers the government has commissioned to find a solution.

The Dead Sea is divided into a northern and southern basin, which are located at different elevations, largely disconnected and kilometres apart. That means the rising waters of the southern basin cannot simply pour into the shrinking basin in the north.

Heavy industrialisation is what’s causing the waters on the southern basin to rise. Chemical companies have built evaporation pools there to extract lucrative minerals from the lake. Millions of tons of salt are left annually on the floor of these pools, causing the water to rise 20 centimetres a year.

Israel’s tourism and environmental protection ministers are endorsing Tal’s most expensive proposal: a complex $2 billion plan to chip off the salt buildup on the part of the lake that’s rising and send it by conveyor belt to the northern end that’s dropping.

They’re also demanding that Dead Sea Works Ltd — the multibillion-dollar Israeli industry that mines the mineral-rich waters — foot the bill.

“As the polluters, they should pay,” said Roee Elisha, associate director of the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company Ltd, a branch of Israel’s Tourism Ministry.

The Dead Sea, which is linked to the sites of the biblical Sodom and Gomorra, runs more than 100 kilometres through Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Its minerals have been sought after since ancient times: the pharaohs were embalmed with the lake’s natural asphalt lumps, and Cleopatra is said to have used its skin-rejuvenating salts and mud.

Today, the lake is one of Israel’s top tourism draws. Half of the 3.45 million tourists to Israel paid a stop there in 2010. Almost 200,000 stayed in the 4,000 hotel rooms along the lake. Locals flock there too, with more than 630,000 — or almost one in 10 Israelis — spending time at Dead Sea hotels last year.

- AP