Israel’s Sea of Galilee and Dead Sea are dying – What is being done?

Dead Sea
The Dead Sea, at more than 400 meters below sea level, is the lowest point on earth. The body of water, which serves as one of Israel’s main tourist attractions, is shrinking due to drought, evaporation and continual pumping for industry. (Karyn Simpson/MEDILL)

By Karyn Simpson
Medill Reports

ISRAEL – The Dead Sea is dying. So is Israel’s Sea of Galilee – the country’s only surface-level source of freshwater. The effort to save these sacred and historic lakes involves a convoluted mix of religious tradition, tourism and technology.

Over the past several decades of carving out an oasis from the desert, Israel has pushed back countrywide water scarcity through desalination, conservation, efficient use of the country’s limited freshwater, and wastewater treatment and reuse. Today, approximately 80 percent of Israel’s drinking water comes from desalination plants, meaning that even as Israel enters its sixth consecutive year of drought, the country should continue to have a stable supply of drinking water for its residents.

The main concern surrounding the drought is the health of Israel’s two natural, above-ground bodies of water, the freshwater Sea of Galilee and the saltwater Dead Sea – both sacred to residents, if for entirely different reasons. While the Dead Sea is valued particularly because of its contributions to Israeli tourism, the Sea of Galilee holds special import in religious history and because many residents remember when it was the country’s main source of water.

“The Sea of Galilee, for all the people in Israel, is emotional – 100 percent emotional,” said Arnon Eshel, who works at Sapir, the water pumping station for the Sea of Galilee. “We come here, we see the Sea of Galilee as it looks now, we are in totally depression.”

The ongoing drought has reduced the Sea of Galilee to some of its lowest levels in history, 215.5 meters (about 707 feet) below sea level. To try to assuage the rapidly decreasing levels and prevent any irreparable environmental damage, Israel has almost completely ceased pumping from the Sea of Galilee. But some pumping is necessary to keep the machines working and to fulfill Israel’s peace agreement with neighboring Jordan.

Sea of Galilee
This water holding tank at Sapir, the pumping facility alongside the Sea of Galilee, mirrors the sea’s water level. On the far side of the tank, just below the fence, a red marker shows the sea’s normal level: 208 meters below sea level. The water is currently at 215.5 meters below sea level. (Karyn Simpson/MEDILL)

“For Jordan, by peace agreement, we have to supply to them 50 million cubic meters (about 13.2 billion gallones) per year from the Sea of Galilee,” Eshel said. “Which means that Jordan is the biggest customer of water from the Sea of Galilee.”

Some of the streams which feed into the Sea of Galilee flow from Jordan, meaning that a portion of the water that ends in the Sea of Galilee should belong to the Jordanians – the crux of the peace agreement. While Israel once faced attacks from Jordan, as evidenced in the historic Yom Kippur War, having water be part of the peace agreement has ensured cooperation between the two countries, Eshel said.

“One of the things that Israel understands, that it’s smart to make cooperation with the agriculture in Jordan, by the government, of course, and have a quiet border – 400 kilometers [248.5 miles], totally quiet border,” Eshel said. “If some terrorists want to try to attack Israel, they say not from here. If it come from here, Israel [will] destroy that area.”

Though Israel has considered building a pipeline from the seawater desalination plants to Jordan to fulfill this water requirement without having to pump from the already-low Sea of Galilee, Eshel said that the construction for such a project would be too cost-prohibitive to be feasible.

Today, only 5 percent of Israel’s drinking water comes from the Sea of Galilee, amounting to approximately 25 million cubic meters (abut 6.6 billion gallons). That is just enough to keep the machines working, Eshel said. The biggest culprit to the sea’s decline is evaporation, and without adequate rainfall, the sea has no chance to replenish what it is losing.

“Every year, we [lose] something around 240 million cubic meters (about 63.4 billion gallons) to evaporation,” Eshel said, which appears as about one meter each year in depth. This descent can be seen from the shoreline, which now contains meters of sand where there used to be water.

“When I was a child, every day I need to choose whether I’m going to school or going to swim. Most of the time I’m going to swim. Don’t judge me – there was no air conditioning when I was a child,” Eshel said. He grew up along the Sea of Galilee and held up a picture of the coastline by his home – a long stretch of concrete sidewalk that ended at the water’s edge. In the photo, water lapped against the wall about a foot below walking level, and small boats floated only a meter or two away from shore.

“I never even needed to think if we have the ability to jump or not,” Eshel said.

He held up a second picture – that same stretch of coastline outside his childhood home taken in recent years. The water’s edge had receded 15 to 20 feet, leaving only sand near the concrete sidewalk where Eshel used to jump off, and old boats were beached on the sandy bank where they used to float.

An idea has been proposed to build a pipe sometime in the next three years that would funnel desalinated water into the Sea of Galilee, Eshel said. This would be intended to provide water to the settlements around the Sea of Galilee and to help combat the effects of the drought on the lake, but some Israelis are hesitant to support such a project because of the “one good winter” concept, he said.

“People are afraid we will invest a lot of money for that kind of project, and after one good winter, we won’t need to use it,” Eshel said, referring to how, in non-drought years, Israel typically gets enough rain in the winters to make up for the hot, dry summers. “This is people without vision. People with vision understand, even if we have a good winter, so it’s going to be just one. Then we have another 10 years of drought years. You need to be with courage, but it’s not easy.”

A similar debate surrounds the Dead Sea, which is too salty to be used for drinking water, but is a big part of Israel’s tourism industry.

“The Dead Sea is shrinking because the input from the lower Jordan River is about less than 10 percent” of what it once was, said Noam Weisbrod, a hydrology professor and the director of the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “Simply, there is no input and the output is bigger than the input, so the net reduction in the water level is about one meter per year in the last 30-40 years. In the last two years, it was 1.15 meters per year vertically.”

That 1.15-meter, or approximately 4-foot, vertical decline means the Dead Sea’s coastline has shrunk several meters inward depending on the location along the coast, Weisbrod said. Even with the drought, what Weisbrod called the “Dead Sea works” – the factories that process and sell water, salt and mud from the Dead Sea – are still drawing water.

“Water level in the Dead Sea is going down dramatically, and it’s not just the water supply,” said Yael Dubowski, civil and environmental engineering professor at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. “It’s also the fact that we have lots of industry here both on the Israeli and the Jordanian side that actually uses, evaporates the water… to get the minerals. So there is an industry in the south that celebrates evaporation, and you have less fresh water coming in, and this lake is basically dying. The Dead Sea is dying.”

The solution, which has already received preliminary funding from the World Bank, has been called the Red Sea-Dead Sea project and will involve Israel and Jordan working together to pipe water from the Red Sea, in Jordan, to the Dead Sea, which is on the border between both countries.

“The advantage of this program is mostly because it’s along the border between Israel and Jordan,” Weisbrod said. “Because it’s going to help both Israel and Jordan, you can define it as something that will help the environment and at the same time will deepen the peace process and the agreement between the countries.”

Adding water to the Dead Sea would be beneficial to both countries, as well as hopefully help stop the formation of sinkholes along the coastline. But the project is facing even more pressure from Jordan than from Israel, Weisbrod said. This is because the plan involves building a desalination plant at the saline Red Sea, desalinating the water, and sending the fresh water to Jordan and southern parts of Israel. The twice-as-concentrated brine, the output from saltwater desalination, will then be piped to the already-saline Dead Sea.

“The pressure from the Jordanian side is bigger than the pressure from the Israeli side because Jordan really needs the desalinated water that will be part of this thing,” Weisbrod said. “The water situation in Jordan is really on a level of catastrophe. There is running water in Amman, which is the capital, only two, three days a week, and we’re talking about a city with more than 1 million people.”

While it seems like a beneficial plan on most counts, significant environmental concerns must be addressed, Weisbrod said. Scientists are not sure how the water from the two seas will react, but their high concentrations of calcium and sulfate could combine to create gypsum, which would float on the surface of the Dead Sea. Another problem is that the pipeline will likely run along the rift valley in Jordan, an area that is prone to earthquakes.

“What happens if there will be an earthquake that will end up in a leak of seawater into the aquifers?” Weisbrod said. That would ruin the aquifers. “This is irreversible situation, and these aquifers are being used for the villages along the Arava… In general, some people say, ‘Look, the history show us that every time we, you and me, people, try to control the environment and change the world by doing such mega project, it ends up in a disaster.’”

Funding has been secured, according to Dubowski, but not without heavy debate. Some parties wanted Israel to bring water from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River in the north, and let the Dead Sea be replenished more naturally, Dubowski said, which would also remove the political aspect of the problem.

“Scientifically, I think it makes more sense to go for the north, but you cannot separate between science and politics also,” Dubowski said. “And with regard to political issues, it makes more sense to choose this solution, so Jordan will have its own desalination factory and have more control on it. It was a very complex suggestion where you need to consider all aspects – political, geographical, scientific ones.”

Photo at top: The Dead Sea, at more than 400 meters (about 1,300 feet) below sea level, is the lowest point on earth. The body of water, which serves as one of Israel’s main tourist attractions, is shrinking due to drought, evaporation and continual pumping for industry.
(Karyn Simpson/MEDILL)