The Dead Sea is seen as one of the most impressive natural wonders of the world. It has also been known for centuries for its healing properties. But the unique Middle Eastern salt lake is threatening to dry up.
The Dead Sea sublimely shimmers turquoise-blue in the mild winter sunlight. The waves gently roll on to shore.
A few tourists slowly wade into the very salty waters. With 34 percent salinity - 10 times higher than an ocean - instead of sinking into the Dead Sea, swimmers rather bob on the surface like a cork. On the shore, an American woman is lovingly rubbing healing mud on to her husband.
A nature reserve with healing properties
It is a unique place located some at 420 meters (1,377 feet) below sea level, making it the Earth's lowest elevation on land. Visitors to this natural wonder find themselves transported back to biblical times in this spectacular landscape with sandstone-colored mountains. "This is the first time that I've ever seen a salt-beach," says Vince Russo from the US State Michigan, who is visiting here with his girlfriend. "It's really beautiful."
Particularly well-known to people suffering from skin conditions or allergies, this idyll however is in danger: the body of water located between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories is slowly drying up. "The water level sinks by at least one meter every year," says German environmentalist Gundi Schachal, who has lived for decades in the Ein Gedi kibbutz close to the shoreline.
One reason is that fresh waters of the river Jordan, the main tributary, are being nearly pumped dry. South of the lake, companies like the Dead Sea Work and Arab Potash Company (Jordan) also cause a reduction in the water levels by letting water evaporate in order to access valuable minerals.
In the past, visitors were able to go straight into the water at the Ein Gedi Spa. Today, a tractor has to take them nearly two kilometers out to the waterside on a shore that is every-growing. Schachal first came to the kibbutz in 1979. "Back then, the water came up nearly as far as the main road," the 54-year-old recalls.
On the way to the beach there are hazards. The ground is porous, so much so that with every step you take you have to fear that the ground might break away. Some 5,000 sinkholes have formed over the past decades. And every year that number grows by a further 300. Four people have already been injured when the ground gave way under them, Schachal says, as she shows visitors an abandoned campsite on the beach.
"Please do not walk around on your own," the athletic slim woman warns as she leads the way through a restricted area that looks quite post-apocalyptic. Some of the concrete slabs, where tents used to be pitched, have broken after the ground under them gave way.
Today, camping is prohibited. Along the entire shoreline, there are signs in English, Arab and Hebrew warning of sinkholes. The beach can only be accessed in a few places and the number of tourists over the past few years has been on a steady decline, from 183,500 in the year 2010 to 143,500 in 2015.
Can the Red Sea save the Dead Sea?
To save the Dead Sea, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories together with the World Bank have agreed to create what is being dubbed the "peace canal." Saltwater from the Red Sea is to be pumped into a desalination plant in the Jordanian coastal town of Aqaba and turned into fresh water. The remaining salt brine is to be pumped through a 180-kilometer pipeline into the Dead Sea. The transport through a falling gradient is also to be used to create electricity.
Environmentalists warn of hazardous effects the project could have on the ecosystem. "The chemical components in the Red Sea water are completely different to those in the Dead Sea," Schachal says. This mix could cause gypsum to form. Furthermore, algae could be transferred from the Red Sea, and that could undermine the ecosystem in the Salt Sea. The German conservationist, who also runs a small zoo in the kibbutz, advocates reviving the river Jordan by limiting the amount of water pumped off for industrial use.
German geology professor Stephan Kempe, from Darmstadt's Technical University, sees the international pipeline project as the lesser evil. "Of course it would be better to reanimate the river Jordan", says Kempe, adding, "however, that is not realistic." The fresh water, including the upper reaches, is needed in Syria, Jordan, Israel and in the Palestinian territories, particularly in view of the current refugee crisis.
He explains that even if the river Jordan could be returned to its old strength, it would not raise the water level in the Dead Sea but merely help to stabilize the situation. When asked about the "peace canal," Kempe creates an analogy by comparing the Dead Sea to a human dying of starvation: "If you are starving to death and I offer you a grilled sausage that might at some point in the future cause cancer - would you refuse it?"
Sara Lemel (dpa)