The Dead Sea is a sea whose history takes us back to the earliest days of recorded time. Here, at Qumran, scribes of a Semitic sect wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. They had left the increasing paganism of Jerusalem for the purity of the desert, where they led lives of prayer, work and communal living, searching for the meaning of life while awaiting the Day of Light. And here, a people chose death rather than loss of freedom as they defied the Roman Empire at Massada.
The Dead Sea, which has witnessed many ancient legends and seen the passing of many legendary figures, is now witnessing its own end. The lowest place on Earth has reached its lowest point.

Some Facts

The Dead Sea is the saltiest, densest non-shallow body of water on the planet; its ionic composition is unlike any other saltwater body anywhere. The sea's unique environment is highly sensitive to change, whether natural or manmade. And since the middle of the present century, it has been shrinking steadily, due mainly to human interference in its water balance.
The water level of the Dead Sea currently stands at 411 meters below sea level. The volume of about 140 billion cubic meters of water contains 50 billion tons of various dissolved solids. The sea, approximately 50 kms in length and with a maximal width of 17 kms, is actually a terminal lake whose main supply of water is the River Jordan.
In 1944, 972 million cubic meters of water flowed from the Jordan into the Sea; by 1984, this figure had dropped to a mere 180 million cubic meters. In 1900, the bordering wadis yielded an estimated 1.2 billion cubic meters of inflow; by 1940, this amount had dropped to approximately 900 million cubic meters; by 1960, it had dwindled to 810 million cubic meters and by 1985, to only a relative trickle of 125 million cubic meters.
In the 1980s, the average rate of decline was 65 mm/p.a. Now, the Dead Sea level is dropping at the rate of 80 mm a year, reflecting an acceleration of some 25 percent in the past few years. Thus, new buildings which once stood at the edge of the sea have already receded away from it.
Springs are quite common on the eastern slopes, which receive more rainfall than do the western ones. On the western shores, there is a cluster of springs in the north, but none in the south; brooks flow only in the two oasis valleys of Ein Gedi. The water inflows of the western side have been steadily dropping due to accelerated development and human interference in the water balance.
Three nations share the Dead Sea ecosystem: Palestinians, Jordanians and Israelis. In an effort to raise the standard of living in the area, the Dead Sea, today, is earmarked for rapid development.
Proposals exist for the building of some 50,000 new hotel rooms all around the shore, for tourists who come primarily to enjoy the uniquely therapeutic benefits of the mineral-rich water and the surrounding atmosphere, with its desolate, desert solitude.
Unfortunately, some 18 new water-diversion projects threaten to reduce the amount of fresh water flowing into the Dead Sea to a literal trickle. Also, other development plans, such as an international highway planned along the western shore, threaten to destroy forever the solitude and barrenness for which the region is famous.
Additionally, the potash industry in the southern part of the basin continues to expand, causing an increase in water evaporation and in air pollution. Israel has been cited by world bodies as being a significant contributor to the hole in the ozone layer because of its production of methyl bromide.

A Holistic Approach

Clearly, severe conflicts of interest, on both the national and international levels, exist between industry, tourism, agriculture and long-haul transport in the development plans currently proposed for the Dead Sea.1 To date, no master plan has been devised to coordinate among these plans, and if development around the Dead Sea continues to proceed in this ad hoc manner, it will fail to satisfy the interests of any of the stake-holders. Political issues, too, are currently impacting negatively on possibilities for sustainable development.
The aim of EcoPeace is to produce a holistic approach to the development of the Dead Sea, taking into consideration environmental factors, such as the carrying out of a detailed environmental and economic study to assess prioritization, and to ensure coordination and cooperation among the various planners. If one party, for example, were to decide to promote tourism while the other decided to extract water for agriculture, the two parties would soon defeat each other's purpose.
EcoPeace also seeks to establish an International Joint Commission for the Dead Sea, to oversee and implement an integrated development program for the area. Similar commissions which exist for other shared ecosystems around the world may be used as a model. The commission will act as a bridge to bring together the diverse interests of the Dead Sea as a whole, and be a means to advise and assist governments in protecting the Dead Sea region. To this end, meetings have been held with Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian experts, who have described the current environmental conditions of the region, the environmental impacts of proposed development, and suggested ways to minimize the impact of industry, energy, water, transportation or tourism on the ecosystem. The findings of the meetings have revealed a severe lack of integrated strategic planning: all parties have sought to maximize their individual gains in each sector, while ignoring the development plans of their riparian partners.
EcoPeace is currently implementing the first stage of developing a regional plan for environmental protection and sustainable development of the Dead Sea Basin. The concerned ministries, parliamentarians, municipal heads and private sector stake-holders discussed priorities for the Dead Sea management and future joint strategies at a workshop that took place at the end of May 1998 in Amman, Jordan.

The Need for Immediate Action

By the time the outcome of the Amman workshop is synthesized into studies and surveys in the fields of archaeology and biodiversity, the second phase of the project is expected to commence. A Dead Sea Advisory Council will be created, with the task of integrating the development plans and strategies with the sustainable development of the Dead Sea region, placing special emphasis on environmental protection and ecosystem conservation. The plan will be designed to serve as a basis for the sustainable development of the shared ecosystems of the Dead Sea and its environs. It will, therefore, become a model for regional cooperation and, by the very nature of its work, a model for sustainable peace.
Concurrently, EcoPeace is actively involved in researching the concept of the creation of a free-tourism area (FTA) in the northern part of the Dead Sea. The creation of a regional tourism center for the sustainable development of tourism in the Dead Sea region, based on the participation of the three peoples involved (Jordanians, Israelis, Palestinians), would contribute to the protection of the environment. Again, it is anticipated that the creation of an FTA would be a model for the promotion of peace in the region - in this case through tourism.
But if tourism or any other activity in the area is to have a future, immediate action to protect the Dead Sea is needed. The Dead Sea must be listed with UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and/or a Man and Biosphere Reserve as a matter of international urgency.
       Because the Dead Sea is already dying.

1 See EcoPeace Inventory of New Development Projects, 1997.