The Dead Sea: Deader than Ever and Getting More So

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David Silverman / Getty Images

The dried-out center of the hypersaline lake

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Among those leery of this plan is Dead Sea Works, which has based a $20 billion business (the market cap of owner Israel Chemicals) on the current ecology. "We are afraid the mixture of waters will create something we don't want to see," says Noam Goldstein, vice president for infrastructure.

Potash is usually mined, but at the Dead Sea it is gathered by moving water from one evaporation pond to the next. In the first, the salt falls away, collecting on the bottom. In the next pond what gathers are crystals of carnelite, which are 25% potassium chloride. That's dredged and piped to a nearby factory that looks like something from a fanciful children's book as bulldozers move like toys atop a massive snow white mound of potash. The viewing point off Route 90 is almost a better show than nearby Mount Sodom, the massive, sinister-looking salt mountain with the outcropping known as Lot's wife.

"The real canal to the Dead Sea is the Jordan River," says Edelstein, of Friends of the Earth. "Not everywhere in the world do you have the Jordan River — which we've killed — a river that's holy to half of humanity." Reviving the Jordan, however, would require cooperation from all the countries currently draining it, including two technically at war, Israel and Syria. Such cooperation is also a precondition to the Dead Sea becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation that seems reasonable enough given its current position as a finalist to be named one of the Seven Wonders of Nature.

"The only thing that can really help is if the Dead Sea won the Seven Wonders," says Kedem, who sees tourism as the best protector of the place. Just now, though, tourism itself is in jeopardy, at least Israeli tourism. Jordan's plush resorts remain unthreatened, but every hotel on the western side was built not on the sea itself but on the shallow evaporation ponds to the south. This was a dubious choice in more ways than one. Guests peer from beach chairs at berms and earthworks. And the ponds are slowly filling up with salt — which means their water levels are actually rising. By 2030, six hotels will be flooded unless Dead Sea Works agrees to dredge the salt. It says it will, but is negotiating with the Israeli government and hotels over who should foot the $1.5 billion bill (about a year's profit).

It's a peculiar twist, given that receding water is the area's paramount problem. Even so, Dead Sea Works wants to dig yet another massive evaporation pond, filled with more water pumped from the actual Dead Sea, further accelerating its demise. Goldstein points out two other factors: the new pond would let visitors to the nearby mountaintop fortress of Masada look down on water again. And, not least: "We would be more profitable." With reporting by Aaron J. Klein

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