Water levels in the Dead Sea are declining and have been for more than 30 years. The headwaters of the Jordan River feed down from Lebanon and Syria into Israel and then to the Sea of Galilee. The river, traveling further south, is joined by other tributaries and finally terminates in the Dead Sea. Large upstream withdrawals of water for irrigation and human consumption are contributing to the decline of the Dead Sea, as water levels are now falling at rate of approximately one meter per year.
A recent agreement between Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority may be the first small step toward rehabilitation. But transboundary water management in this arid region is notoriously tense. Ongoing cooperation will be necessary if any restoration efforts are to be successful, but given the strategic imperative of each individual nation to first ensure its own domestic water supply, this is by no means certain.
Driven by the demands of a growing population, the region heavily exploits the Jordan River and its tributaries for irrigation and municipal consumption. In order to provide for these demands, the water of the Jordan River system has been engineered to better ensure supply. This includes large infrastructure projects to divert waters to other more comparatively dry regions.
The National Water Carrier, a series of pipelines, canals and pumps, transfers water from the Sea of Galilee to a variety of population centers throughout Israel. When combined with other diversion projects, the Jordan River's flow becomes a fraction of its natural rate.
Environmental groups are still wary of the impacts the addition of a foreign water source will have on the lake.
The Dead Sea plays an important role in the region's economy. Split into two halves, the southern part of the sea would likely be dry if it were not for the intervention of the extractive industry, which pumps water from the northern half into artificial lagoons on the southern end. Mineral extraction and tourism are the two industries that dominate the economic activity around the salty waters. Israel and Jordan receive the greatest economic benefit from the Dead Sea, while the Palestinian Authority has limited access. One of the ramifications of the shrinking lake are large sinkholes. The result: degradation of the structural integrity of infrastructure, with the potential to threaten onshore economic activity, especially tourism.
In 2002, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan, alongside the World Bank, explored the possibility of restoring the Dead Sea using water from the Red Sea. Recently completed feasibility studies indicate that 1.2 billion cubic meters of water per year would be necessary to prevent a further decline. A memorandum of understanding, signed on Dec. 9 by all participating nations, took the first step, albeit a very small one toward making this a reality.
While primarily a water swapping agreement, it laid the framework to potentially bring roughly 100 million cubic meters a year of water from a yet-to-be-built desalination plant near Aqaba to the Dead Sea. While this volume of water will not be sufficient to restore equilibrium to the ecosystem, it can provide a testing ground for the feasibility of the project in the future.
Environmental groups are still wary of the impacts the addition of a foreign water source will have on the lake. Water remains a precious commodity in the arid region, and while tourism of the Dead Sea has local economic benefits, the needs for municipalities and agriculture upstream will likely continue to overpower the environmental needs of the Dead Sea in the near term. Artificial solutions like the Red-Dead Conveyance project could provide alternative routes to preserving this unique ecosystem. But in a region that has historically been contentious, continued cooperation is also not a certainty.
A previous version of this article had a video attached.