DEAD SEA, Jordan—In a region where hardly anyone can agree with anyone about anything, the governments of Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority recently signed an agreement to save the magnificent and strangely silent desert sea where Jesus once walked.
Just a few feet from where the Jordanian-hosted World Economic Forum met on May 20-22, an environmental disaster is unfolding. The Dead Sea, a place of immense historic and spiritual significance to much of the world, is dying. In living memory, the great salt lake has shrunk by a third. And each year, its shoreline recedes by another yard.
The Dead Sea is actually the deepest part of the Jordan Valley. Renowned since ancient times as a fertile oasis, the valley became a vital crossroads for three of the world’s great religions—Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Yet, partly because today’s incessant appetite for oil has made the Middle East a cauldron of chaos, developers left the Dead Sea alone and mostly untouched, leaving it almost unchanged since biblical times.
In 1994, though, the peace agreement signed by Jordan and Israel ended this isolation. Soon, dozens of resorts sprouted on the Israeli shore. The Dead Sea’s unique water and its famous black mineral-packed mud now draw hundreds of thousands of affluent tourists annually. Some visitors are so-called medical tourists, who seek unique treatments for arthritis or dermatological diseases. Many others arrive simply to experience the strange, oxygen-rich air, where an extraordinary spirituality seems to float among ancient desert cliffs.
The Jordanians have been relative newcomers to tourism, but are now in fast-forward mode. Today, their side of the Dead Sea boasts four lavish international resort hotels. Tourism now accounts for 11 percent of Jordan’s GDP, and a record 1.8 million tourists, many from the United States and Israel, are expected this year—a whopping 40 percent increase over 2004.
Despite the boom, however, Jordanian officials say they are determined to protect the region’s fragile environment. “The Dead Sea is the world’s largest natural spa,” says Akel Biltaji, King Abdullah’s tourism advisor. “But it does not belong just to Jordan, or just to Israel. It belongs to the whole world.”
“For us,” Biltaji says, “tourism is an important tool for peace. But at the same time we realize that this is a fragile part of the world, and so Jordan wants a niche market—not mass tourism.”
The decade-long peace dividend that’s led to such economic benefits, however, is now jeopardizing the Dead Sea. Its sole source of water, aside from sparse rainfall, is the Jordan River. But the Israeli and Jordanian governments have long diverted 90 percent of the river’s water for agricultural and industrial use. Dead Sea water levels have dropped by 80 feet. King Abdullah has now declared that saving the desert sea a national priority.
The plan calls for construction of a 130-mile channel linking the Red Sea with the Dead Sea, an audacious scheme that would bring millions of gallons of water into the Dead Sea and ensure its survival.
Aside from rescuing the Dead Sea by taking advantage of the 1,200-foot difference in altitude between the two seas, the channel would also provide energy for hydroelectric plants that in turn would power desalination plants— providing fresh water for millions. Jordan and Israel are two of the world’s most water-poor countries, and neither nation has any oil with which to buy water. But when the “Peace Channel” is built (on the Jordanian side of its border with Israel) both countries will share the 870 million cubic meters of fresh water gained annually from the desalination facilities.
Assistance from the World Bank would help finance the $3 billion project, as well as EU and U.S. loans.
The plan is not without opponents. Some environmentalists suggest that building such a lengthy waterway across the desert might harm rare Jordanian wildlife, such as ibex, leopards and hyrax. It could also risk pristine coral reefs in Jordan’s shimmering Gulf of Aqaba.
Manqeth Mehyar, Jordanian country director for Friends of the Earth, expresses cautious support for the plan. “I myself look at the Red Sea as the only hope for the Dead Sea,” she says. “But we really need to study the project properly. [But] if the impacts are tolerable, we can work around them. My worry about the Dead Sea is that we will sit and do nothing. At the rate we are going we are losing a very beautiful and important place.”
Steven Knipp is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for the South China Morning Post. He was recently in Jordan for the World Economic Forum.