JERUSALEM — The Dead Sea has been rapidly disappearing for the past 50 years, one of the world’s natural wonders careening toward ecological collapse.
In a rare display of regional cooperation, representatives of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority signed an agreement Monday to refill the ancient salt lake with briny water pumped from the Red Sea.
The agreement calls for the construction of a large desalination plant in Jordan, on the Gulf of Aqaba, that would suck billions of gallons from the Red Sea and convert it to drinking water. The water would be shared by — and sold to thirsty customers in — Jordan and Israel. In addition, as part of the agreement, Israel agreed to increase the amount of water it sells annually to the Palestinian Authority by as much as 30 million cubic meters.
Billions of gallons of “reject brine” — essentially, super-salty water created by the desalination process — would be pumped via a new, 100-mile pipeline and discharged into the Dead Sea.
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Estimated construction costs for the pipeline and desalination plant could run about $500 million. The first drop of water to enter the Dead Sea would probably not appear before 2017.
The deal was signed Monday in a ceremony at the World Bank in Washington, which for years has underwritten feasibility studies, environmental assessments and economic modeling about how not only to save the Dead Sea, but how to share costs and resources to provide drinking water for a thirsty region bristling with conflict.
The project, supported by the Obama administration as a symbol of regional cooperation and a sign for what could be accomplished if peace were to take hold, has been the subject of study and debate since the 18th century.
The Dead Sea is an ecological wonder and generator of superlatives good and bad. It appears in the Bible, but not much. The Crusaders called it the Devil’s Sea. Today, it is a popular destination for tourists, who pack themselves in mud from its shores and float in water that is 10 times as salty as most oceans. There are salt ponds, potash mining and a mystical vibe — with lots of quicksand and sinkholes.
It is the lowest spot on Earth, a vast, sulfurous and strange inland sea, landlocked in a great rift valley, a cradle of civilizations and religions.
The water level of the lake has dropped more than 80 feet in the past half-century, as the Jordan River has withered to a trickle, sucked dry by Israeli and Jordanian agricultural projects. The sharp decrease in inflow from the river, and the desiccation of local natural springs, has reduced the surface area of the lake by one-third.
Government scientists and World Bank officials said the desalination deal would begin a very long, slow, uncertain process of stabilizing the Dead Sea. But some environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth in the Middle East, warned that “the brine should not be transferred into the Dead Sea because of detrimental impacts.”
Supporters of the project say that since the Dead Sea will receive only 26 billion gallons of brine from the project a year, a fraction of what is needed to hold the Dead Sea at current levels, the benefits of the projects outweigh the risks.
Scientists say they will monitor the sea to look for impacts.