The power-generating canal Theodore Herzl envisioned has become imperative to avert environmental calamity.
The Dead Sea, one of the world’s most un-swimmable lakes, joined this week gloried swimming venues from the English Channel to the Cook Straits when a battalion of gutsy adventurers entered its oily waters in Jordan, and emerged some seven hours and 17 kilometers later on the opposite, Israeli, shore.

The Ein Gedi beach, where 24 of 30 swimmers arrived swimming, had seen a lot since David bathed in the nearby waterfall and Herod built a winter palace on Masada to its south. This beach, however, never saw swimmers emerge from across the lake, as no one is known to have ever swum across the world’s lowest, saltiest and creepiest sea.

Then again, throughout its millennial life there was no concern for the future of this pristine landmark, where snowy salt chunks float freely on azure waters between reddish cliff tops and treeless slopes.

Now there is concern, in fact alarm, which is what brought here the swimmers, some of whom had previously swum a relay from Cyprus to Israel, and others of whom had swum in the Andes’ Lake Tres Cruces Norte, whose altitude of 5,909 meters is the antithesis of the Dead Sea’s 430 meters under sea level.

Washing the salt off their burning skin, the swimmers had clearly accomplished their modest goal, to highlight what sounds like an oxymoron, but is nonetheless fact: The Dead Sea is dying.

WITH ITS surface dropping one meter every year, the Dead Sea is now 40 meters lower than its level in the 1930s, and the peninsula that back then ended in the middle of its southern width, has since become a broad bridge between two separate lakes.

The coastline’s visible retreat created in some places mud fields, leaving rusting piers and decomposing boats stranded far from the waterline. The seaside Kalia Hotel’s ruins, where Jewish and Arab vacationers could see British officials proceeding from seaplanes to the lobby, are now buried in a parched swath of whitish soil well to the lake’s receded north.

Worse, the newly unveiled coastal surface’s many salt deposits frequently cave in, thus creating sinkholes that are serious safety hazards, gradually lacing the coastline with a continuum of craters.

Meanwhile, the lake’s retreat is making the wintertime flash floods change the course of local creeks as they run from the Judean Desert’s foothills. The water’s unruly path has already felled a bridge over the Ein Gedi Stream.

THE DEAD SEA’S CRISIS is one of Israel’s most pressing ecological challenges, but its ailment is part of a global scourge.

The Aral Sea, wedged between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was the world’s fourth largest lake until the 1960s, when Soviet planners diverted the two rivers that fed it in order to multiply regional cotton output. That part of the plan was indeed accomplished, but the lake, where a full Czarist flotilla used to sail in a body of water nearly ten times the Dead Sea’s length and 15 times its width – shrank to one tenth of its original size, with most of its 1,100 islands vanishing.

Similarly, Iran’s Lake Urmia, near its Turkish border, was originally the world’s sixth largest lake and the Middle East’s largest, before losing 90% of its water, after surrounding rivers were dammed and local springs were pumped unsupervised.

The Dead Sea’s shrinkage has yet to be nearly that catastrophic, what’s more that it is much deeper than both of these lakes were before their depletions. Even so, it, too, is a victim of irrigation, following more than half-a-century of two massive diversion projects: Lake Kinneret’s waters to the Negev Desert through the National Water Carrier, and the Yarmuk River’s into Jordan’s side of the Jordan Valley, through the Jordan Valley Unified Water Plan.

This depletion has been exacerbated by industry.

Israel and Jordan mine the lake’s abundant riches – potash, from which fertilizers are made; bromine, which is used to make disinfectants, fire repellents, water purifiers, and medicines; and, on the Israeli side, also magnesium, which ends up in cars, trucks and beverage cans.

The potash plants’ production method involves considerable evaporation of the lake’s water in order to separate it from its minerals. Though a portion of the water is returned to the lake, much of it disappears in the process.

This human-caused depletion is then multiplied by the region’s daytime heat, which averages 31 centigrade and in the summer hovers daily around 40 degrees.

AS IS often the case with environmental catastrophes, the economic benefits behind the Dead Sea’s crisis are impossible to ignore.

The lake’s mining generates annually on both its sides more than a combined $4 billion and its tributaries’ diverted waters feed Jordanian and Israeli farming. Yet the depletion’s damage is glaring, and in the long term arguably offsets these benefits.

The most crucial damage is to transportation. The lake’s coastline abuts two spinal, north-south roads, Jordan’s Route 65 and Israel’s Route 90, which links Metulla and Eilat and, at 480 km., is Israel’s longest road. Now the proliferating sinkholes are becoming a threat to its safety.

Then there is tourism, both historic and medical, which in the long term is even more precious for this region’s development than its mineral riches.

The receding shoreline has already severed the beach from the Einot Tzukim Nature Preserve at the lake’s northwestern corner, where tourists used to amble from the Ein Feshha water springs.

An attractive and modernly designed beach and promenade now sprawl by the 12 hotels clustered at the southern lake’s shoreline, where 4,000 rooms, a 15-minute car ride from Masada, comprise the lake’s main tourism magnet. This small and industry-controlled sub-lake, which has effectively become a system of artificial pools, separate it from the crisis facing the lake’s main body of water to the north.

However, the main lake’s central beach and camping site outside Kibbutz Ein Gedi were last year fenced off and shut down, as sinkholes gathered around abandoned beach umbrellas and lifeguard huts that remained stranded atop waterless salt fields.

This, in brief, is what the swimmers who arrived here Tuesday came to decry, braving the fish-less lake’s salinity, which is 10 times higher than the ocean’s and, if swallowed, might kill.

THE GOVERNMENTS on both sides of the lake were aware of the crisis before the swimmers’ sounded the alarm, and in fact are in the process of possibly solving it.

According to an agreement budgeted by the World Bank and signed last year by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, a 300-km. system of canals and pipes will be built on the Jordanian side between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, terminating at the latter’s northeastern shore.

En route there, the Red Sea waters will feed a power station that will be located about halfway between both seas. Then, before spilling into the Dead Sea, a portion of the water will be desalinated. Both water and the power will be shared among the agreement’s parties.

In a typical Israeli paradox, the $1b. project, which has already been tendered out, avoids running through Israel due to its environmental organizations’ opposition.

“The project will turn the Dead Sea into an artificial lake whose unique waters will be overwhelmed by the Red Sea’s entirely different waters,” warned the “Adam Teva v’Din” (meaning ‘Human, Nature and Law’) environmentalist group.

Activists also claim the Jordan-centered project will be vulnerable to the Syrian-African Rift’s frequent seismic tremors.

As they see it, the Dead Sea’s salvation should rest on the restoration of its original feeds from the Kinneret and the Yarmuk through the Jordan.

The government found this thought impractical and, in order to bypass the environmentalist opposition, opted for the Jordanian canal. Consequently, thousands of Israeli jobs that the canal could have created were lost.

It will take many years before the scheme’s full impact will be possible to gauge. The crisis along its current shoreline will therefore continue to fester. Then again, the train has already left the station. The Dead Sea will next decade be swallowing waters it never tasted, and thus launch a new chapter in its history.

The canal idea was famously conceived by Theodor Herzl in his utopia Altneuland (The Old New Land), where he portrayed a power generating conduit from the Mediterranean to the lowest place on earth.

“The Dead Sea was spread out like a deep blue mirror,” he wrote while imagining several visitors arriving at its north end.

Overwhelmed by “the thunder of the canal waters” roaring about them – “their ears were assailed.” So will ours, as we will watch the ailing Dead Sea struggle back to life.