5 March 2009

Dead Sea dying?

by Kate Melville

The water levels in the Dead Sea are dropping at an alarming rate (14 km3 of water in the last 30 years) with serious environmental consequences, according to scientist Shahrazad Abu Ghazleh, from the University of Technology in Darmstadt in Germany. Abu Ghazleh's study, published this week in Naturwissenschaften, shows that the drop in water levels is not the result of climate change; rather it is due to ever-increasing human water consumption in the area.

Normally, the water levels of closed lakes such as the Dead Sea reflect climatic conditions; they are the result of the balance between water running in from tributaries and direct precipitation, minus water evaporation. In the case of the Dead Sea, the change in water level is due to intensive human water consumption from the Jordan and Yarmouk Rivers for irrigation, as well as the use of Dead Sea water for the potash industry by both Israel and Jordan. Over the last 30 years, this water consumption has caused an accelerated decrease in water level (0.7 m per year), volume (0.47 km per year) and surface area (4 km per year).

Abu Ghazleh says that this rapid drop in the level of the Dead Sea has a number of detrimental consequences, including higher pumping costs for the factories using the Dead Sea to extract potash, salt and magnesium; an accelerated outflow of fresh water from surrounding underground water aquifers; receding shorelines making it difficult for tourists to access the water; and the creation of a treacherous landscape of sinkholes and mud as a result of the dissolution of buried salt which causes severe damage to roads and structures.

To address the mounting stress on water resources in the Dead Sea basin and the environmental hazards caused by its lowering, the Abu Ghazleh suggests that the diversion of Jordan water to the Mediterranean coast could be replaced by desalinization of seawater, causing the recession of the Dead Sea to be considerably slowed, and buying time to consider the long-term alternatives such as the Red Sea-Dead Sea Channel or the Mediterranean-Dead Sea Channel.

The authors conclude that either of these channels will require a carrying capacity of more than 0.9 km3 per year to slowly fill the lake back to its levels of 30 years ago and to ensure its long-term sustainability.

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Source: Naturwissenschaften