In recent times, the Dead Sea has grabbed eyeballs for all the wrong reasons. Although it is renowned for its therapeutic mineral-rich black mud, the receding water level might reduce it to a mere mention in books and documentaries. If steps are not undertaken for conservation, the Dead Sea might live up to its name and do a disappearing act by the middle of this century. Read on to explore the causes threatening the hypersaline lake, its repercussions on the environment, and possible ways of preservation.

Depletion of the Dead Sea

Today, activities like aggressive mining of the Dead Sea minerals and building dams have dealt a major blow to the water body. The receding water level has led to the exposure of the salt-encrusted and cracked land. The waterbody is replenished by groundwater but, of late, these waters are diminishing, while the Disi aquifer that feeds the lake is nearly exhausted. The evaporation of the water at the surface has increased significantly due to climatic changes in terms of global warming and decreasing or scanty rainfall.

Way back in 1976, the Dead Sea was divided into two segments — the deep Northern Basin and the shallower Southern Basin; the division was a result of the sea level dipping below the elevation of an east-west ridge. The water level of the Northern Basin continues its downward slide whereas the sea level of the Southern Basin has been rising; this is due to the fact that the chemical abstraction industry has been pumping out water from the Northern Basin and filling in the Southern Basin. Additionally, the deposition of commercially unattractive salts at the bottom of the Southern Basin has contributed to the rise in its water level.

The Drying Up of the Lake

The water level was approximately 389m below the mean sea level in 1970 whereas, in 2012, it was 426m. The lake has lost nearly one-third of its surface over the past three decades of the last century; the water level is steadily declining by 1.1m every year.

Disappearing Dead Sea Minerals

Intensive mining of Dead Sea minerals for beauty products and other uses (like making fertilizer) has depleted the lake of its unique deposits. Activities pertaining to continuous siphoning of the water containing rich deposits of salt and essential minerals have stripped the lake of its natural sediments. The saltwater is deposited in evaporation pans and subsequently naturally evaporated, leaving behind Dead Sea minerals like potash and bromide. More than 60 billion gallons of water are pumped out of the lake each year.

Mudflats & Loss of Estuaries Ecosystems and Endemic Species

The receding shoreline has left a devastating impact on the estuarine ecosystems. During the last 50 years, the major portion of this area has seen the creation of saline mudflats as more than 300km2 of the seabed has been exposed. A substantial decrease of freshwater inflow into the lake has not only increased the salinity of the water but has posed a risk to the few life-forms (like hypersaline tolerant algae and bacteria) existing in the water.

Drop in the Groundwater Table

As groundwater flows towards the sea from nearby aquifers to make up for the loss of retreating seawater, it leads to a considerable fall in the levels of the surrounding groundwater. To make matters worse, the retreating shoreline has exposed the saline lands unsuitable for cultivation or any other use. Agricultural farms located nearby are also facing an acute shortage of water to till their lands as they need to find other sources for irrigation.

Formation of Sinkholes

To date, more than 6,000 sinkholes have appeared around the periphery of the lake, both on the Israeli and Jordanian side, and added to the extent of natural destruction. Tourists visiting the water body need to be wary of these underground craters formed due to the receding level of the Dead Sea water and the subsequent dissolving of the layers of salt in the freshwater. These sinkholes damage the environment in the long run; they collapse at any time and swallow up agricultural land, roadways, and buildings, hinder development plans and pose a hazard to people in the vicinity. Alarmingly, portions of Highway 90 have disappeared as a result of the sinkholes.

How to Deal with that Sinking Feeling

Scientists, developers, politicians, NGOs, and agriculturalists have been brainstorming to identify ways and the best action plan to sustain the local environment and save the lake. The situation is being closely monitored and, over the last 20 years, various authorities in Jordan have been pondering over the situation. Israel has closed several hotels and resorts in the region. Fundamental changes in the usage of water coupled with measures like construction of water treatment plants and long-term investment may be feasible options and go a long way in the conservation of the lake.

Some environmentalists opine that, eventually, if no solutions are identified while the water levels continue to get depleted, the lake will not cease to exist but become a shadow of its former self; its briny composition laden with salt will ultimately form an equilibrium with atmospheric moisture and stop the evaporation of water.