The news was greeted with great fanfare: The Dead Sea, it was announced last week, is among the finalists in the competition to determine the seven natural wonders of the world.
Up against the likes of the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Great Barrier Reef, people around here have high hopes that this salty inland lake, the lowest place on the Earth's surface, will emerge victorious by the time ballots from around the world are tallied in 2011.
Looking out across the pale blue water and the ancient Judean Hills to the west, Maysoon Zoubi, Secretary-General of Jordan's Ministry of Water and Irrigation, is pleased that the Dead Sea entry was the product of co-operation among Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. All three border the body of water - it's known as Yam Hamelach or "Sea of Salt" in Hebrew; Bahr Lut or "Sea of Lot" in Arabic - and all three hope to cash in on the tourism that such international recognition will stimulate.
For decades, Israeli hotels and spas have stood on the southwestern shore of the Dead Sea; Jordan has built 8,000 hotel rooms on the eastern side and plans 25,000 more. The Palestinian Authority hopes to benefit from visits to the northwestern shore, including Qumran, the site where the Dead Sea scrolls were uncovered.
There's just one problem: This coveted, unique body of water may not be around to enjoy the accolades for long. The surface of the Dead Sea is falling at the rate of one metre per year. "Unless something is done soon, it will be gone in 50 years," says Ms. Zoubi, who knows it will take further co-operation among the three parties if this fate is to be avoided.
The Dead Sea has no outlet. Its loss of water comes from the considerable evaporation that results from the region's year-round hot climate. But until 40 years ago, enough water flowed into the Dead Sea to keep its level constant.
The problem is that the Jordan River, which flows into the Dead Sea, is no longer deep and wide. It's reduced to a trickle (mostly of effluent) after Israel and Jordan have used its water for irrigation and fish ponds.
To compound the problem, the Sea of Galilee, the main provider of the Jordan's water, is at its lowest level ever recorded. Opening the dam at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee (also known as Lake Kinneret in Israel) would make no difference - there isn't enough water to reach even the lowest level of the even the lowest level of the dam.
Four consecutive years of drought is one of the reasons water has been so scarce. But Israel's diversion of the Jordan's water just north of the Sea of Galilee is the biggest culprit. Since the mid-1960s, water from rivers that originate in Lebanon, Syria and Israel's Hula Valley has been drawn off by Israel's national water utility to satisfy the thirst of the country's southern population centres. (As well, under the terms of its 1995 peace treaty with Jordan, Israel supplies the Hashemite Kingdom with at least 55 million cubic metres of that water each year.)
What's the solution to the Dead Sea's demise? Once again, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have displayed remarkable co-operation in agreeing on an approach, but it's a cure that may prove more devastating than the illness. The three governments say the best solution is to construct a pipeline or canal to bring water to the Dead Sea from the Red Sea, 190 kilometres to the south.
It's not the first time that a scheme to replenish the Dead Sea with water from either the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea has been proposed, but it's the first that may actually get built. For while the World Bank is still conducting feasibility studies, Israel and Jordan are impatient to begin work.
Encouraged by President Shimon Peres, Israeli entrepreneurs have proposed a multi-faceted project that would convey water from the Red Sea via a combination of pipeline and canal, giving rise to waterside residential communities and resorts along the way, as well as hydro-electric generators to take advantage of the 400-metre drop to the Dead Sea, and desalinization plants to produce drinking water.
Environmentalists, however, have railed against the idea, and Jordan's King Abdullah announced this year that his country will proceed on its own with a simple pipeline if Israel insists on pursuing such a time-consuming scheme.
The reason for Jordan's enthusiasm for the Red-Dead scheme is obvious: Jordan is one of the world's most water-deprived nations. While it gets some water from Israel, its chief supply is from underground aquifers, and it's currently using water from 10 of the 12 aquifers at twice the sustainable rate. Maintaining the level of the Dead Sea will ensure the aquifers aren't further drained, officials reason, and a pipeline can bring water for desalinization as well.
"We have no choice," says Ms. Zoubi. "Our population has grown so quickly," largely because of the influx of refugees from Iraq in recent years, on top of Palestinian refugees already in the country. "We have to do something."
Some question whether the Red-Dead scheme will work.
"The plan is a disaster," says Dan Zaslavsky, Israel's former water commissioner and a professor of hydrology at the Technion technological university in Haifa. "It's idiotic. It's uneconomic and it's harmful."
First of all, says Prof. Zaslavsky, "the Dead Sea doesn't need a pipeline or a canal; it already has one, the Jordan River.
"If Israel stops diverting water from the source of the Kinneret and the Jordan River," he explains, "water will flow naturally into the Dead Sea as it did 50 years ago."
As for Israel's water requirements, "it makes more sense to satisfy those needs with desalinization facilities on our Mediterranean coast," he says. "And we can do it for nothing."
Prof. Zaslavsky says Israel could produce 400 million cubic metres of water annually using desalinization, at a cost of $200-million a year. That's less than relying on the drought-afflicted Sea of Galilee. "With desalinization, you get a 100-per-cent reliable source," Prof. Zaslavsky says. "And a profit."
Restoring 400 million cubic metres of fresh water to the Dead Sea every year would maintain the sea at its current level, he says, "and might even recover some of its loss." It would also save the $50-million a year currently being spent to remove excess salt that settles in the sea's southern evaporation ponds.
In contrast, the Red-Dead plan suffers from some serious flaws, several scientists have noted.
First, it would be constructed right on the fault line of the Arava, the northern extension of Africa's Great Rift Valley. "There's almost a 100-per-cent chance that earthquakes will cause harm to any water conduit," Prof. Zaslavsky says.
Second, despite the 400-metre drop in elevation, the energy needed to move the water those 190 kilometres would require a power station of its own.
Given such objections, why hasn't the Israeli government agreed to restore the Jordan River flow and opt for desalinization?
Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, says it all comes down to the Finance Ministry's refusal to support the budget for desalinization facilities. They don't want to "waste money" on desalinization, Mr. Eldar noted recently, because "God is great, and perhaps next winter he will open the tap and fill the Kinneret."
In the meantime, he says, the government is content to have Israelis conserve water by not watering their lawns.
Prof. Zaslavsky thinks there's one factor that may finally get the authorities to pay attention to the northern alternative.
He notes that when seawater, such as that in the Red Sea, is mixed with water from the Dead Sea, "a chemical reaction takes place that spontaneously produces gypsum."
The creation of gypsum, he says, "will turn the water milky," and few people will want to float in that.
Then, wonder of the world or not, it will be the Dead Sea's highly valued tourism that will evaporate.
Disappearing natural wonder
The Dead Sea is vanishing at a rate of one metre a year in depth.
Israel began to divert the Jordan waters north of the Sea of Galilee in 1965.
(July, 2009 estimate)
(July, 2009 estimate)
Israel's major tourism centre is south of Ein Gedi
(July, 2009 estimate)
Jordan's major tourism centre is south of Suwayrah.
The Dead Sea is shrinking because the Jordan River is being tapped for drinking water and irrigation.
WATER FLOW INTO THE DEAD SEA*
in millions of gallons per year
* from Jordan River and other sources
SURFACE BELOW SEA LEVEL
SURFACE AREA IN SQUARE MILES 386
Early 21st century
SURFACE AREA IN SQUARE MILES 251
SURFACE AREA IN SQUARE MILES 166
CARRIE COCKBURN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
SOURCES: CIA WORLD FACTBOOK; THE WASHINGTON POST