The first time I went to the Dead Sea I was lucky enough to have a guide. As we drove along Highway 90, the world’s lowest road, Bracha pointed to the lake as she explained that the wasteland surrounding it had been water when she was a child.
The lake’s shoreline has, on average, shrunk by 100cm each year since the 1950s, but 2013 saw a loss of 1.5m. It is no coincidence that the water loss directly coincides with the founding of Israel and its government-funded Dead Sea Works Ltd. (DSWL). Scientists suggest that in 2050, just 100 years after Israel’s birth, the Dead Sea will have been bled dry by its numerous consumers.
DSWL and Arab Potash Ltd. began extracting the water on an unprecedented scale, cashing in on the lake’s minerals and natural potash deposits. They export their fertilisers all over the world at the expense of the Dead Sea and the wider environment.
The Dead Sea is known as a miracle treatment for psoriasis, cystic fibrosis, and is even being used for research into Alzheimer’s disease. But it is a finite resource.
Tracing its history back 70,000 years, it features in the Bible and the Qur’an, where it is often unflatteringly referred to as “The Stinking Sea” due to its foul dead-fish smell. The odour may not be appealing, but the lake and the surrounding area are steeped in invaluable cultural and historical wealth. Only recently, the Dead Sea Scrolls, which feature long-lost and ancient psalms, were found in nearby caves. But if it is overlooked as a cultural gem, it is certainly not overlooked for its ability to create revenue.
We pulled off Highway 90 and had a fair trek through the wasteland, past the steaming factories which suck the water up through gigantic pipes. Once we arrived, though, a feeling of calm overtook us. The smell is surprisingly intoxicating, and the atmosphere is thick because of the constant evaporation. When you’re floating in that oily water you feel truly serene; you can feel the lake working its magic on you and the history is almost palpable.
But you can still see the distant smoke from neighbouring factories snaking its way into your view. DSWL and Arab Potash are not entirely responsible for the commercialisation of the Dead Sea. The salt crystals and mud are being exported daily all over the world in the form of beauty and health products which can be found in most people’s bathroom cabinets.
Israel and Jordan have accepted that there is a serious problem and are taking steps to raise the water level by pumping in water from the Red Sea. Mixing seawater and lake water is a huge concern for environmentalists and scientists, who argue that the waters’ differing densities and chemical contents could cause the Dead Sea to turn red, like the Lagoona Colorada, become a breeding ground for bacteria and develop layers due to stratification. One scientist called the future Dead Sea a “foul smelling lake of chemical waste”. Far from the paradise that Bracha remembers just 45 years ago