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The fight to breathe life back into the Dead Sea

The sun rises over the Dead Sea on September 15, 2017
Jessi Satin
Activists say the equivalent of 600 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water is lost from the Dead Sea each day

The famed properties of the Dead Sea have spread around the world for millennia. Legend has it that King Solomon gifted salts from the Dead Sea to the Queen of Sheba, while Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra ordered the first spa to be built on its shore in order to add its benefits to her beauty regimen. The writings of Aristotle, too, noted the water’s remarkable properties. In the centuries since, people have travelled from around the world seeking its healing and rejuvenating properties.

Jessi Satin

Now, with water levels in the Dead Sea dropping at a rate of more than one-meter per year, experts and activists warn that by 2050 the Dead Sea could be reduced to nothing more than a puddle, and the damage irreversible. Some predict that the Dead Sea could even dry up entirely.

However, activists Like Noam Bedein, founder of “Dead Sea Story”, and Jacky Ben Zaken aren’t letting the world wonder dry up without a fight. With a camera lens and a boat, they strive to educate the world about why the Dead Sea is drying up and the effect it has in the region.

Jessi Satin

“This salt formation behind us a year ago was almost completely under water,” Bedein explains to i24NEWS, gesturing to a towering salt formation that now has become completely exposed. “Coming out here for the first time in April 2016 only the tip of it was discovered.”

According to Bedein’s calculations from this formation, over a one-year period the water level has dropped 158 centimeters (5 feet 2 inches).

Noam sets out twice a month capturing the morphing landscape through photography, and a 360 degree virtual reality camera. Combining his striking images with interactive lectures, he works to raise awareness of the situation both in Israel and abroad, most recently speaking at a number of college campuses in North America with the Israel media advocacy NGO Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).

“It was an amazing experience,” Bedein says, describing his recent trip to a number of college campuses in North America to share his work on the Dead Sea.

Photos on the Left-Noam Bedein. Photo on the right-Jessi Satin

“When you combine the environment cause, art and photography and college campuses, it’s the best and most creative way to talk about Israel,” he continues. “Through the environmental cause, this enables us to work with many campuses that big on environment and water issues, and through that showing that Israel is a leading country in the concept of desalinating water, and thinking globally about solving water related problems.”

Jacky Ben Zaken, founder of Salty Landscapes, operates the only civilian boat sailing on the Dead Sea offering educational tours to Israelis and tourists.

Jessi Satin

“I always start the tour by asking people ‘what do you know about the Dead Sea?’ And usually it’s not a lot,” Ben Zaken recalls. “They say ‘it’s salty, nothing lives there and its disappearing.’ And then I see the reaction of people when we finish the tour.”

“This whole business of mine -- the boat tours -- started to bring awareness, to bring another point of view of the Dead Sea. To actually show people what there is to lose,” he adds.

- Where is the water going? -

Current estimates from these activists say that the equivalent of 600 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water is lost from the Dead Sea every day. But where is the water going?

Jessi Satin

Bedein and Ben Zaken, as well as other activists, describe three main factors leading to the disappearance of the Dead Sea.

Firstly, climate is a factor, with the area receiving an average of about only 2 inches of rainfall annually.

Secondly, they point to cosmetic factories built by both Israel and Jordan on the shores of the Dead Sea. The cosmetic factories pump water from the Dead Sea’s main basin into evaporation pools in order to extract the minerals.

NASA/ Robert Simmon

The third and perhaps largest contributing factor lies to the north -- the Jordan river -- which historically has been the main source of water feeding the Dead Sea.

“Today the Dead Sea is getting maybe five percent or less of the historic water flow,” Gundi Shachal, Community Coordinator of Ecopeace, an organization of Jordanian, Palestinian, and Israeli environmentalists tells i24NEWS. Shachal further explains that Syria, Israel and Jordan have all built dams along various points of the river system, so that the water can be redirected for domestic and agricultural purposes.

The problems of Dead Sea are only a piece of a larger picture. Low water supplies, drought, growing populations, and aged, leaking water infrastructures are leaving many communities in the region high and dry.

Jessi Satin

As groundwater levels drop, wells and aquifers dry out. The Sea of Galilee in Israel’s north this year also dropped to its lowest level in a century. If these water sources disappear, it could have consequences that spread beyond our corridor of the Middle East.

“Lots of things are influenced by the Dead Sea,” says Shachal. “We are going to lose the nature reserve around the northern Dead Sea if this goes down further and it’s a very vulnerable area. 500 million migrating birds come through this region twice a year.

“If the freshwater resources are lost and this is gone then I don’t know what will happen to those birds,” she continues, adding that “Africa is dependent on them and Europe is dependent on them for pollination and spreading fruit seeds and all kinds of other things in nature.”

Jessi Satin

- Swallowing the Earth -

The damage doesn’t stop there, threatening the communities in the area as well. As the Dead Sea waters retreat, fresh water from springs in the surrounding mountains trickles into its place. The ground surrounding the Dead Sea consists of hundreds of years of compacted layers of salt and silt. When the fresh water begins flowing under the surface it dissolves the salt deposits. When enough of these layers are washed away, sinkholes open, swallowing the earth.

Jessi Satin

Such sinkholes have forced the closure of roads, public beaches, and spas once popular with tourists. The number of sinkholes on the Israeli side today number at more than 6,000, compared to just a few scattered about the area in the 1980s.

“I see the changes day to day, weekly,” Ben Zaken says. “When I sail with the boat all of a sudden you have ground or a reef sticking out from the middle of the water that wasn’t there three days ago.”

Noam Bedein

“It’s not nice you know, hearing about another sinkhole opening,“ he continues, adding that “the disaster now is financial, its demographic. When they closed down our beach and 20 people lost theirs jobs, families had to leave the area.”

Jessi Satin

According to Bedein, working to save the Dead Sea could solve more than one problem in the region.

“Restoring the historical natural water resources of Israel -- which is the Jordan river and the Sea of Galilee -- restoring those is giving true and natural hope to the Dead Sea and also opportunities for building bridges and communication and friendships with countries all around the Middle East.”

Tune into i24NEWS on Friday, December 22nd at 18:00 IST, 11:00 ET for a one- hour special edition covering the Dead Sea.

Jessi Satin is an i24NEWS Producer and Photographer


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