Shrinking Dead Sea faces fight to survive
EIN GEDI, Israel, June 7 (Reuters) These days, a cart takes visitors from Israel's Ein Gedi resort to the edge of the Dead Sea.
Twenty years ago, tourists stepped right onto the shore.
The Dead Sea, the lowest point on the earth's surface, is shrinking as its salty waters rapidly dry up.
With no clear solution to the problem, environmentalists and tourist businesses are worried.
''Every time I come here the beach is further and further away. One day there will only be a puddle left,'' says Gidon Bromberg, of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, West Asia.
Too salty to sustain life, the Dead Sea is a draw for tourists who come to float in its greasy-feeling buoyant brine.
Devotees also believe its waters and the mud at the margins are good for the skin.
The Dead Sea has been shrinking for decades as the inflow dwindles from its main source, the Jordan River.
Israel, Jordan and Syria rely on the river and its tributaries to meet the needs of increasing populations and agriculture in the arid region, and diversions have slowed the biblical river to a muddy trickle.
Mineral extraction industries have also played a part by helping to accelerate evaporation.
SINKHOLES The Dead Sea has fallen over 20 metres in the past 100 years and is now losing about one metre each year.
As the water level has fallen, it has caused thousands of sinkholes to open up on land. The Ein Gedi resort closed some campsites after a 3-metre hole opened up under someone's feet. Some holes are even deeper.
''The ground is falling out from underneath us, literally,'' said Ein Gedi resident Gedi Hampe.
The Dead Sea is not expected to disappear entirely because it is fed by underground water sources and winter rainfall. As it shrinks, it also gets more salty, which in turn makes it harder for the remaining water to evaporate.
Scientists believe that if nothing is done, the water level will drop by as much as 100 metres more -- almost a third of its current depth.
CANAL PLAN With that in mind, a World Bank-backed feasibility study is to be carried out on a plan to build a 200 km canal to replenish the Dead Sea with water from the Red Sea to the south.
The idea is that the water would be pumped to a height of 220 metres in the border area between Israel and Jordan and then flow down to the Dead Sea, some 420 metres below sea level, generating electricity on the way.
But the ''Two Seas Canal'' plan would cost an estimated 5 billion dollars and the economics of the project are in question.
Scientists also wonder whether it would really be beneficial for the environment.
The Dead Sea's unique make-up would be changed forever by introducing sea water into a body that has only ever been fed by fresh water. While sea water contains mostly sodium salts, the Dead Sea has much more magnesium and potassium.
''The cost of the damage that would be caused to the environment may be greater than any possible benefits,'' said local geologist Eli Raz. ''The best plan for the Dead Sea is to let the Jordan river flow again, this is its natural state.'' But the chances of that happening are next to nothing given the reliance of the region's countries on the Jordan's water.
Environmentalists are pushing for the Dead Sea to be declared a World Heritage Site by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, hoping this will force surrounding countries to come up with a plan.
''Finally, people have begun to realise the urgency of the situation. It is so dramatic that it can no longer be ignored,'' said resident Hampe.
REUTERS CH RK0903