The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea. — Isak Dinesen
Is the Dead Sea dying? Clever sensationalist headlines often claim so, and driving through the the banks of what was once underwater certainly insinuates it might be.
Like for many of the voracious travelers in my Vibe Israel group, visiting the Dead Sea was a bucket list moment. And in my three weeks in Israel, I was lucky enough to do it three times, three ways – and each brought new insights into the intricate issues currently facing the lowest place on earth.
While there’s much strife over why it happened, who is to blame, how it can be solved, and how much it matters, there is no debate over whether or not the Dead Sea is sinking – fast; about five feet per year. The abandoned ruins of what was once waterfront property and now crumbles miles from the shoreline is evidence enough of that.
I spent hours in Israel learning from and listening to locals share their stories and insights about what’s happening to the Dead Sea, and hours reading and researching once I was hooked. I assumed the answer would be a simple and sweeping, “climate change,” but this is The Middle East – it’s more complicated than that.
Many factors have contributed the the dropping water levels of the Dead Sea, and what percentage of the blame to place on each varies depending on who you ask.
First, there’s the arid climate that evaporates the water more quickly than it can be replenished by its source, the Jordan River.
Second, there’s the fact that the Jordan River is also in striking decline, and what’s left — as much as 98%, according to some sources — is largely diverted for drinking water (necessary for the booming populations of Israel, Jordan, and Palestine), and agriculture (a non-negotiable in Israel, a country with self-sufficiency at its core).
Third, there’s the fact that the region’s mining industry has been given complete freedom to extract unlimited phosphates from the sea for fertilizer and pesticides, a process that involves displacing mind-boggling amounts of water. Fourth, the governments of drought-plagued Israel, Jordan and Palestine have been accused of mismanaging resources, proactively hoarding water, and not working cooperatively to address the issues.
The good news? Scientists concede that The Dead Sea won’t disappear completely. The sea – technically, an inland lake — will, at some point, reach an equilibrium with the point of evaporation and settle at a new, much lower volume.
The bad news? The Dead Sea sinking is a sign of a larger crisis in water management in the Middle East. It’s not alone. Galilee, another “sea” — that’s actually a lake — is largely diverted for drinking water, and soon may be making doomsday headlines of its own. Along the shores of the Dead Sea, an environmental, economic, and cultural crisis is already underway.
Thousands of dangerous sinkholes, caused by the receding waterline and increasing exponentially in number each year, have led to closed beaches and roads and abandoned homes and businesses. The Dead Sea has drawn tourists for its therapeutic health powers and unique floating abilities for centuries – with fans reaching back in history as far as Cleopatra and King Herod.
The mineral rich mud and waters are purported to relieve the pain of psoriasis, eczema, osteoarthritis and more. And of course, the cosmetic benefits are widely touted – imported mud that claims to smooth and soften skin and costs a fortune back home can be slathered on for free on the shores of the Dead Sea – assuming you can make it past the sinkholes.
Carefully avoiding the partitioned off stretches of shore and road, our group ventured down past sea level, towards the lowest place on earth. But first, we had to pass the ruins left in the receding shoreline’s wake: a once bustling restaurant here; a long-since abandoned building there.
They did make for beautiful photography backdrops.
Our bus was humming down a road that was once prime shorefront property when we spotted colorful murals among the monotonous desert expanse. We pulled over to investigate, and found a group of artists hard at work on the open air museum known as Gallery Minus 430 (don’t miss the videos and artists highlighted on that page).
Painters from around the world had applied for a building or a wall with which to create a mural using raising awareness of the Dead Sea’s plight, using supplies donated by a sympathetic local paint manufacturer.
The buildings turned canvases were once a Jordanian military base that was later used as a kibbutz before finally being abandoned. My favorite work? “The Dead Sea” spelled out in Aravrit, a lettering system created by Israeli typographer Liron Lavi Turkenich that merges both Arabic and Hebrew, perhaps a nod to the cooperation that is essential to any Dead Sea solution.
Next we explored the ruins of Aktrakzia, a water park that shuttered in 2000 among political tensions and declining tourism in the area. Our group photographer Or Kaplan made magic there, and he wasn’t the first artist to do so – it’s a nostalgic and evocative place for Israelis who grew up coming here as children.
The Dead Sea is a little more than 30 miles long and 9 miles wide and shared by both Israel and Jordan, yet there is a wide diversity of experiences you can have there, even on just the Israeli side — though needless to say, experiencing it from Jordan is too on my bucket list. I consider myself something of an aquaholic, and the Dead Sea might just be one of the most unique bodies of what I’ve ever swam, floated, or dived in.
Ein Gedi, once a popular access point for nature-loving tourists to enjoy the Dead Sea, has been hit hard. The beach is now closed out of fear for public safety, and The Ein Gedi Spa, built on the water’s edge in the 1980s, now must shuttle guests the mile down to the shoreline via trolley. Some research suggests that the Dead Sea’s reclining levels already cost Israel alone around $60 million in lost tourism revenue annually.
At Kalia Beach, on the northern tip of the Dead Sea just thirty minutes from Jerusalem, you might not see the sparkling salt formations on the shore like in the south, but you can spot Jordan in the distance, so close it feels like you might be able to swim there. You can also literally cover yourself from head to toe in Dead Sea mud. There’s an entrance fee of 35 shekels, which provides access to numerous amenities, from bathrooms to changing areas to showers to lifeguards to best of all, The Lowest Bar on Earth.
While I think morally that honor went to Banyan Bar, I happily sipped on a rum cocktail before noon, thoughts of environmental crises far from my mind as we dug into a floating girl talk session and mud-covered photoshoot.
The next day, we visited the shores of Ein Bokek, where I’d been scuba diving in the Dead Sea earlier on this trip. Ein Bokek, which looks from afar a bit like Atlantic City, is actually on the shores of industrial evaporation basins. While the reservoirs are so expansive it’s hard to tell the difference, The Dead Sea itself evaporated here in the 1980’s. Still, with its crystal formations lining the shores, this is perhaps more so what tourists picture when they think of The Dead Sea.
Intrigued by the sight of a lone tree in the distance, Becky and I swam out to find what we later learned was an art installation of sorts: a tree kept alive by nutrient-rich mud that a local paddles out each day; the one live thing in an ever-shrinking lifeless sea. It was one of my personal favorite memories from Israel.
While the Dead Sea, ten times saltier than standard seawater, famously has nothing visible living in it, it does support a rich ecosystem of wildlife in the Jordan Valley surrounding it. But it’s not just the ecology and the economy that are at stake. There’s also the historical value and cultural significance of a place that is part of the fabric of three major world religions.
So at this point you may be wondering – what are the solutions? Ideas abound, from reduced personal water usage (Israel has made impressive progress on this front), to reduced subsidies for agriculture (unlikely, given Israel’s reluctance to import food), to cooperation between the region’s governments (clearly, not an easy ask), to an overhaul of the permissions given to the corporations getting rich – and paying no royalties — off the Dead Sea’s resources (hopefully coming in 2030, when the Dead Sea Work’s current contract expires).
The primary efforts, however, have focused on the so-called “Red-to-Dead Canal,” a $10 billion dollar pipeline which would transport water from the Red Sea via the world’s largest yet-to-be-built desalination plant, though environmentalists warn that the ecological impacts are impossible to predict (look at Lake Atitlan, for a cautionary tale). And with the level of cooperation necessary between governments that have a present day literal water shortage and centuries of metaphorical water under the bridge between them, skeptics wonder if the plan will ever come to fruition anyway.
Can we, as travelers contribute to solving this water crisis? While there’s little the average tourist can do about unsustainable industrial practices, complicated Middle East politics, or drought, you needn’t feel hopeless. Here are a few ideas.
• With the Middle East facing widespread water shortages, be mindful of your water usage on your travels. Take short showers and turn off the water when you’re soaping up. Turn off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth. Rewear clothes and wash them only when necessary. It sounds so small, but the cumulative effects are huge. Find other ideas for sustainable travel here.
• Visit local Dead Sea businesses. You’ll have an incredible experience, show support to local communities, and prove to the government that tourism is an economically valuable asset to the area.
• Consider writing respectful emails to the Ministry of Energy, encouraging them to regulate the mining industry as part of one Israeli vlogger’s Dead Sea sustainability campaign.
• Educate yourself! While this post is a good start, if I do say so myself, don’t miss National Geographics’ take, The Smithsonian Magazine’s report, or the incredible aerial photographs in the BBC’s investigation.
Perhaps a bigger question than is the dead sea dying, is, is the dead sea worth saving? I can see how, at first glance, it might seem the region has larger issues; more pressing uses for that precious water.
On deeper examination however, it’s clear — there are enormous ecological, economical, and cultural repercussions to turning a blind eye to this constant recalibration of the lowest place on our planet.
But there is also something else here that I understand now, now that I’ve floated on and swam under and clamored along the shores of and rolled myself in the mud of this sea; even if I can’t quite explain it. Something intangible; something that calls me to say yes, there is joy and wonder here, and this is a place on the earth that deserves to exist, that generations after ours deserve to experience.
Did you know the Dead Sea’s water levels are dropping? What are your thoughts on a solution?