Thursday, August 05, 2010

Hope Where the Waters Meet and Recede

The Dead Sea is one of the great ecological and natural wonders on the planet. It marks the lowest point on the surface of the planet. It straddles the Israel, West Bank, and Jordanian borders, and accessible to all three.

The Palestinian Authority, in conjunction with Israel and the Jordanian government are hoping to increase tourism to the region and get the area listed as one of the great natural wonders of the world.
In another point of convergence, the governments of Israel, Jordan, which lies across the water, and the Palestinian Authority have joined in a bid to promote the Dead Sea in an Internet competition to be voted one of the new seven natural wonders of the world.

With the water level now dropping by more than three feet a year, many here hope that the competition will focus attention on ways to restore the waters.

“We chase after the water with steps,” said Yusef Matari, a lifeguard at the private beach, Neve Midbar, or Desert Oasis. Mr. Matari has been working in the area for 20 years. “It changes every month,” he said. “There is no permanent shore.”

Some of the ultra-Orthodox women kept on long robes, adhering to strict religious codes of modesty, although Mr. Matari, perched in his lifeguard’s hut on a slope high above the current water line, was the only man in sight.

At nearby Kalia beach, the managers have been trying to encourage more young people to come down for parties by renovating the beach bar, and promoting it as the lowest watering hole in the world.

Dahani Utseh, 35, paddled in the salt-thickened water. She had come with her brother-in-law and her small daughter from Nablus, in the northern West Bank. It was her first time.

While the Palestinians claim about 25 miles of shoreline that lie in the West Bank as part of a future state, Aviv Cohen, a site manager who lives at the settlement, said the negotiations were not his business. The settlement, which is a small kibbutz, or communal farm, is investing heavily, with plans to build a restaurant and a visitors center, he said.

Khalil Tufakji, a Palestinian geographer, said the Palestinians also have more distant plans to build hotels and health spas.

But at this place, where heaven and earth are farthest apart, the challenges that pit people against nature are particularly stark.

The water level has been dropping steeply since the 1960s, mainly as a result of Israel, Jordan and Syria diverting almost all the waters of the Jordan River, which used to feed the Dead Sea, for domestic use and agriculture. Potash industries on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the lake also play a significant role in depleting the Dead Sea, since the extraction process relies heavily on evaporation ponds. The southern basin, where the industries and the Israeli hotel district are located, was always shallow. Now it would be completely dried out were it not for the industrial evaporation pools, whose water is artificially pumped in from the northern part.

One proposed solution is to construct a water conduit from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which would generate hydroelectricity and provide desalinated water, primarily to Jordan, which is acutely short of water, and also help refill the Dead Sea. The governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority agreed to a World Bank-sponsored feasibility study that has begun.
The waters are receding by three feet every year because of the evaporation and decline in water coming into the Dead Sea from the Jordan River. Increased usage upstream has limited the water entering the Dead Sea, hastening its evaporation.

It's good to see that there can be some agreement on what are truly important issues such as water rights and how to protect vital assets.

The receding waters have created some unusual sights, including docks and signs warning of swimming where there is no water. More dangerous are the sinkholes that develop as the soils dry up and contract. Some are big enough to take out a car.

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