Dead Sea salt, wounds and trea­sures

The Jerusalem Post - - OBSERVATIONS - • By LIAT COLLINS liat@jpost.com

Don’t look back now, Mrs. Lot. The en­tire Dead Sea is dis­ap­pear­ing. The salt pil­lar com­monly de­scribed in Is­rael as Lot’s wife, the bib­li­cal char­ac­ter pun­ished for turn­ing around to see the divine de­struc­tion of Sodom and Go­mor­rah, teeters pre­car­i­ously near the south­ern part of the Dead Sea. How­ever, the kid­ney-shaped body of water once seen on post­cards and maps no longer ex­ists. The north­ern part of the sea is com­pletely sep­a­rate from the south­ern half, where the ho­tel and tourism ar­eas can be found and whose water is now a se­ries of in­dus­trial evap­o­ra­tion pools.

I trav­eled to what is known in He­brew as Yam Hame­lah, the Salt Sea, with my son dur­ing the Sukkot va­ca­tion last week, only half jok­ing that I wanted to see it while it still ex­ists.

Our trip was no usual one. We didn’t take touristy photos of peo­ple float­ing in the salty wa­ters at the low­est spot in the world and we didn’t plas­ter our­selves with the black mud fa­mous for its heal­ing prop­er­ties and for be­ing one of Cleopa­tra’s pre­ferred cos­met­ics. In­stead, we took a sun­rise boat ex­cur­sion to learn more about the unique site, tak­ing photos of the ex­traor­di­nary for­ma­tions and dig­ging in the mud for black “salt di­a­monds.”

We were part of a small group guided by Noam Bedein, who heads the Dead Sea Re­vival Project and is pas­sion­ate about sav­ing the body of water. Bedein be­lieves in en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­vo­cacy through ed­u­ca­tion and for the past two years has been doc­u­ment­ing the Dead Sea’s de­cline in a se­ries of stun­ning pho­to­graphs and time-lapse images. (De­tails of the boat tours and a se­lec­tion of Bedein’s photos can be found on his web­site: Dead­seast­ory.com.)

One of his well-doc­u­mented ge­o­log­i­cal land­marks, a huge salt col­umn that be­gan to emerge from the drop­ping water level of the sea two years ago, crashed a month be­fore our visit, un­der­lin­ing the ever-chang­ing – and pre­car­i­ous – na­ture of the area.

The col­umn played a role in set­ting pho­to­jour­nal­ist Bedein on his new path as Dead Sea doc­u­menter and ac­tivist. Pre­vi­ously he es­tab­lished and ran the Sderot Me­dia Cen­ter to draw at­ten­tion to the south­ern town that has come to sym­bol­ize the rocket at­tacks from Gaza. Now he of­ten takes the story of the Dead Sea’s beauty and woes abroad.

“At sun­rise on a Septem­ber morn­ing in 2016 I cap­tured this unique salt for­ma­tion. As I got near enough to pho­to­graph it, I sud­denly re­al­ized that I had doc­u­mented this same for­ma­tion only five months be­fore, while it was mostly un­der water,” he re­calls.

“Only when peo­ple see it, do they un­der­stand what it means when we say that the Dead Sea is dry­ing out,” he adds, pos­ing for a pic­ture hold­ing time-lapse images of the rise and fall of the salt struc­ture.

The morn­ing was full of sur­prises. In or­der to reach sites that are oth­er­wise in­ac­ces­si­ble, Bedein takes small groups out in a rub­ber dinghy skip­pered by Jacky Ben Zaken, a mem­ber of a nearby kib­butz, and equally in­tent on sav­ing the Dead Sea.

Bedein pre­pared us for the fact that there are waves, some quite pow­er­ful, which bathers close to the shore don’t see. But we did not need to wear life jack­ets be­cause in the (un­likely) event of an emer­gency we would float.

Us­ing the Zo­diac boat, our group of 10 was able to land on newly cre­ated and rarely vis­ited beaches, some with “salt pearls” like a rough white sand, oth­ers with a moon­scape scenery, mul­ti­col­ored lay­ered rocks, and caves with salt sta­lac­tites that could have pro­vided the back­drop for a fairy tale.

The tremen­dous loss of water is ev­i­dent. “The equiv­a­lent of 600 Olympic pools of water are emp­tied ev­ery day from the Dead Sea,” says Bedein. This means the water level drops by about 1.5 me­ters a year. “The next gen­er­a­tion is not go­ing to know the Dead Sea as we know it,” he says. “Sci­en­tists reckon that by the year 2050, there will be equal quan­ti­ties of fresh­wa­ter and salt water and by then it will re­main only as a small pool.”

The Dead Sea, sit­u­ated about an hour’s drive south from Jerusalem, cre­ates a nat­u­ral bor­der with Jor­dan, which Is­rael sup­plies with large quan­ti­ties of water un­der the peace agree­ment.

The three main causes of water loss in the Dead Sea are lack of water flow from the Jor­dan River, cli­mate change and in­dus­trial use, says Ben Zaken. “The Jor­dan River used to be some 70 to 100 me­ters wide,” he says. “To­day, it is only some 2.5 me­ters wide.”

Ben Zaken’s ves­sel, the Dead Sea’s only ex­pe­di­tion boat, al­lows Bedein to show the haunt­ingly en­chant­ing land­scape which makes it clear why the area was nom­i­nated as one of the nat­u­ral wonders of the world.

The boat passes by a cliff with stripes – each layer rep­re­sent­ing a year, much like the rings of a felled an­cient tree. We see the white strata from the sum­mer sea­son and the much thin­ner red strata of the brief win­ters. The three white strata at the base are no­tice­ably deeper than those on top, a very visual sign of the re­cent drought years.

The bright side to the Dead Sea’s de­cline is that the loss of water re­veals “hid­den trea­sure,” as Bedein puts it. Among them are the salt chim­neys. These form where fresh­wa­ter from the He­bron Hills flows into the Dead Sea and the micro­organ­isms of the fresh­wa­ter form a pro­tec­tive bar­rier. As the water lev­els drop, these chim­neys emerge but can­not sur­vive. “The tragic part of the story is that once a trea­sure is no longer cov­ered by the water, it dries out un­der the sun and even­tu­ally crum­bles and dis­ap­pears,” says Bedein.

On one beach we tread – care­fully – around sink­holes, a prob­lem now so preva­lent that roads pass­ing by the Dead Sea have had to be rerouted and for­mer tourist beaches aban­doned. Bedein says be­cause the sink­holes fill with fresh­wa­ter, he has seen peo­ple fish­ing in them. We spec­u­lated about how the fish might have got there – whether by hu­man hands or be­ing dropped by birds or spawned from a fish as a bird grabbed it. It seemed to echo Ezekiel’s proph­esy (47:8-10), “This water flows to­ward the eastern re­gion and goes down into the Arabah, and ... the water will be­come fresh... and there will be very many fish.”

Both Bedein and Ben Zaken note the tremen­dous amount of in­ter­est in the area be­cause of its bib­li­cal his­tory and its unique geo­phys­i­cal na­ture and min­eral-rich prop­er­ties. Sci­en­tists and schol­ars of­ten take their rides. Nat­u­rally, there are many dif­fer­ent ideas on how to stop the Dead Sea’s de­te­ri­o­ra­tion. These in­clude con­struct­ing a canal from ei­ther the Red Sea or the Mediter­ranean to sup­ply more water. Ben Zaken, how­ever, notes the dif­fi­culty in pre­dict­ing what ef­fect the vastly dif­fer­ent water would have on the Dead Sea. “It could cause an en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter in­stead of solv­ing it,” he warns, adding that lab­o­ra­tory tests are lim­ited in scope and might not in­di­cate what will re­ally hap­pen.

Bedein and Ben Zaken fa­vor treat­ing the prob­lem at source: The main prob­lem is that al­most no water flows into the Dead Sea from the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kin­neret) via the Jor­dan River any­more, be­cause of water di­ver­sion pro­jects. They sug­gest fo­cus­ing on re­plen­ish­ing the Sea of Galilee (which is also shrink­ing).

Our trip lasted three hours, but time seemed to take on a dif­fer­ent di­men­sion amid the dra­matic scenery. Ben Zaken notes that vis­i­tors al­ways feel bet­ter at the Dead Sea, partly be­cause of the high oxy­gen lev­els.

With its rich his­tory, com­pelling beauty and unique ther­a­peu­tic prop­er­ties, it’s tragic to think the Dead Sea might cease to ex­ist in the not so dis­tant fu­ture. It can’t heal it­self. That’s why Bedein and Ben Zaken want to spread the Dead Sea’s story and help avert a tragic end­ing. The Dead Sea need not die.

(Liat Collins)

NOAM BEDEIN holds time-lapse images of the emer­gence of the mag­nif­i­cent salt struc­ture that col­lapsed last month.

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