Rising waters threaten Dead Sea tourist resorts

Industrial operations in the southern part of the Dead Sea mean the water level is rising, prompting a plan to send excess salt to the sea's northern section, where water levels are dropping.

A bather wades in the waters of the Dead Sea near Neve Zohar, Israel. Israel's tourism and environmental protection ministers are endorsing a $2bn plan to chip off the salt buildup on the part of the lake that is rising and send it by conveyor belt to the northern end, which is dropping. Ariel Schalit / AP Photo
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EIN BOKEK // 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. Less well known: part of the lake is overflowing, threatening one of Israel's key tourism destinations.

Israel is 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 is racing to stabilise what it calls "the world's largest natural spa" so hotels on its southern end are not swamped and tourists can continue to soak in the 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 commissioned to find a solution.

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

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

Israel's tourism and environmental protection ministers are endorsing Mr Tal's most expensive proposal: A complex US$2 billion (Dh7.3bn) plan to chip off the salt build-up on the part of the lake that is rising and send it by conveyor belt to the northern end that is dropping.

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.

The pharaohs were embalmed with the lake's natural asphalt lumps, and Cleopatra 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. Dead Sea tourism revenue was US$300 million (Dh1.1bn) last year, propping up an industry that accounts for thousands of jobs.

Efforts to preserve the Dead Sea as a natural treasure shine a spotlight on how extensively the lake has been exploited by industry, and also depends on industry to survive. Israel's Dead Sea Works and Jordan's Arab Potash mine Dead Sea waters for potash and other minerals, exporting them for use in fertilisers, cosmetics, cars and laptops.

The southern basin now in danger of flooding nearly dried up before the chemical companies intervened, digging a 16-kilometre canal to pump water to the parched southern end, turning it into a network of evaporation pools. That pool is where the bulk of the Israeli hotels lie, and where tourists bob in filmy water so heavy with salt and minerals that they float high in the sea.

But as the water rises, it encroaches on hotel beaches, where blobs of salt stick out near the shores and the salty floor sparkles in the turquoise waters. At one beach, stairs leading to the lake have become half-submerged, and a sun umbrella permanently affixed to the edge is now deep in the water.

Dead Sea Works says it will pay some of the bill to dredge the salt from the evaporation pools and send it north, but is negotiating its share with the government, said Noam Goldstein, the company's vice president of infrastructure.

Israel, Jordan and Syria are responsible for the northern Dead Sea's dramatic shrinkage: They have redirected the Jordan River and its tributaries for drinking water, drastically reducing the amount that used to flow into the Dead Sea.

Gura Berger, project manager for the tourism ministry's Dead Sea public relations campaign, says the lake needs help to survive.

"We want the Dead Sea to be considered a wonder of the world, so there will be an interest to protect it," Ms Berger said.