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See Inside April 2011

Can the Dead Sea Live?

Irrigation and mining are sucking the salt lake dry, but together Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority could save the sacred sea



Eitan Haddok

The Dead Sea is a place of mystery: the lowest surface on Earth, the purported site of Sodom and Gomorrah, a supposed font of curative waters and, despite its name, a treasure trove of unusual microbial life. Yet its future is anything but a mystery. After centuries of stability—owed to a delicate equilibrium between freshwater supply from the Jordan River and evaporation under the relentless Middle Eastern sun—the lake is now disappearing.

Jordanians to the east, Israelis to the west, and Syrians and Lebanese to the north are pumping so much freshwater from the river catchment that almost none reaches the sea. Israel and Jordan are also siphoning water from the lake to extract valuable minerals, hastening the decline. Thousands of sinkholes have formed in the receding sea’s wake, curtailing tourism and development along the border because no one can predict where the next gaping hole will suddenly open, potentially swallowing buildings, roads or people.

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