Could the Dead Sea, where the water level has been dropping by 3.5 feet every year for the past three decades, be saved by industry?

Unsustainable industrial practices are a large part of what brought about the Dead Sea's dire (and drier) circumstances in the first place. Over the past 30 years, the sea has been dropping. The water level at the lowest point on earth is 25 meters lower than it's ever been, and falling every day. In 2012 alone, it fell as much as 4.9 feet — a new and disquieting record.

Fifty years ago, the sea was 47 miles long. Today, it's a mere 34 miles. An entire third of the sea's surface area has disappeared; its shoreline has retreated as much as a mile in places. By 2025, the sea is expected to have fallen to 1,440 feet below sea level, reports Jewish Times. (Right now, it sits at 1,300 feet below sea level.)

The sea — really an enormous salt lake on the Israel-Jordanian border at the southern outlet of the Jordan River — contributes significantly to the gross national product of Israel, Jordan and Palestine. It's part of the religious heritage of three world religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — and contributes to the rich historical and cultural significance of the region. The sea's disappearance would deal grave, perhaps irrevocable, damage to the ecology and economy of the Jordan Rift Valley. Environmentalists are understandably worried, as are the huge commercial industries that harvest potash and other minerals.

They're not alone. Shrinkage is also concern for the tourism business, which fears that the steady stream of international visitors will dry up as the sea does. Public policy researchers suggest the Dead Sea's ebbing shores are already costing Israel around $60 million annually in lost tourism revenue.

An observation dock on the Dead Sea

Photo: Guillaume Paumier/Flickr

Population and industrial concerns

What happened? People did, mostly. Population growth in Israel, Jordan, and Palestine has boomed in the last half century and the demand for water with it. To meet multiplying domestic and agricultural needs, the Jordan River (along with all of the springs and tributaries that feed into it, including the Sea of Galilee) has been dammed, diverted, piped, sourced, and tapped to near extinction. Now only a polluted trickle reaches its final destination, the Dead Sea — and in the summer months, sometimes not at all.

That inflow is crucial. The Dead Sea is constantly evaporating in the dry desert heat; the river replenishes this loss naturally — or used to, anyway. According to a May 2010 study cited in Pacific Standard, a staggering 98 percent of the Jordan's natural water flow is now pulled for human use before it can reach the Dead Sea. The river “deep and wide” where Michael rowed his boat ashore — the river in which John baptized Jesus — arrives at the Dead Sea in a slimy stream composed of agricultural runoff and sewage.

If that were the only issue facing the Dead Sea, the environmental crisis would already be dire enough, but it's not. While the Jordan River drips into the sea's north end with all the strength of a leaky tap, factories in the south are deliberately pumping out the shrinking supply of remaining water into evaporation pools to extract potash and other valuable minerals. Israel's Dead Sea Works and Jordan's Arab Potash Co. are the largest of these extraction companies, and the worst offenders, displacing water to harvest the sea's rare concentrations of bromide, potassium, and magnesium for commercial use — in fertilizers, primarily.

Israel Chemicals Ltd. (ICL), which owns Dead Sea Works, is the country’s second-largest company by market value, according to Bloomberg. It made a $1.3 billion profit in 2012. Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the tri-national environmental group, Friends of Earth Middle East, has been quoted in The Independent attributing as much as half the drop in Dead Sea water levels to ICL and Arab Potash.

Reversing the Dead Sea's retreat and stopping Dead Sea exploitation will not be simple. In a land of water scarcity (Jordan is one of the 10 driest countries in the world, and the recent influx of Syrian refugees is only making the situation worse), getting governments to cut back or refrain from making use of the Jordan River and its tributaries for necessary water resources is a difficult sell.

Convincing companies like Dead Sea Works and Arab Potash Co. to limit, reform, or halt their exploitative mineral harvesting, when those companies are some of the largest and GNP-significant in their respective countries is similarly unlikely to gain much traction. Then, too, the geographical position of the Dead Sea itself makes any solution a diplomatic challenge. Establishing and maintaining cooperation across border lines, between Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians — historically, no easy task — presents its own problems and complications.

The Dead Sea from Jordan

Photo: jemasmith/Flickr

What's to be done?

Solutions range. Some suggest, and have already demanded, higher royalties from exploitative industries for water use and salt removal. Others lean toward drastic interventions to reduce Jordan River diversion. The most hotly controversial of these is the World-Bank-backed pipeline, dubbed the Red-to-Dead Canal, a $10 billion project that would connect the Red and Dead seas and require building the world's largest desalination plant.

Environmentalists remain worried and highly skeptical, citing unpredictable ecological impact and algae growth. Government officials debate back-and-forth, struggling to reconcile politics and centuries' worth of antagonism into constructive, multinational cooperation on such a massive scale.

Meanwhile, tangible steps and environmental aid are coming from an unexpected quarter: industry.

Although businesses are usually the villain in this story, Ari Fruchter, Dead Sea activist and CEO of Naked Sea Salt, believes smart, environmentally savvy industry can provide at least part of the answer to the sea's crisis. "The decline here is man-made, but its solution can be also," argues Fruchter. He's gazing out across the water from the Ein Gedi Beach. It's a windless day, and the surface is smooth as glass, mirroring the sky.

"Companies have spent the last 50 years putting profit before thought and respect. We are seeing the results." He points to the shoreline, where the sea's retreat has left easily observable evidence: long stretches of tumbled rocks, crusted in white salt, marooned high and dry and far from the shore. Not long ago, those rocks were underwater, along with the entire beach.

"It's past time for careless business and unsustainable production to be replaced by a new type of company that honors the Dead Sea as a natural resource and works to protect it with careful business and environmentally green practices," says Fruchter.

His company, Naked Sea Salt — the first to partner sustainable production methods with an active role in Dead Sea advocacy — will soon begin manufacturing its first full run of the salt, with distribution support from natural and organic online retailer The salt is considered the healthiest in the world given its high density of minerals and naturally low sodium content.

"Our environmental commitments are at the center of our company, just as the Dead Sea is at the heart of our work," says Fruchter. "We want to be a pioneer in the region, an example of the ways business can become part of the solution, instead of the problem." He and his Palestinian business partner have partnered with the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies to achieve their environmental goals, ensuring their production process does no harm, raising awareness with their products and outreach work, lobbying the government, and even donating a portion of revenue to fund environmental protection programs.

"We want to start a conversation around the dinner table," says Fruchter. "Every time our customers pass the salt, I want them to think about our story. If we can build global support for the Dead Sea, we can halt its destruction and work to get the water back."

He's running white-crusted pebble in his hands, watching the salt crumble. "If we don't all work together soon — government and scientists, tourists, and even yes, those of us in the commercial sector — we'll be too late."

Emily HowsonEmily Howson is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Durham, N.C. Her short fiction has appeared in American Fiction, Raleigh Review, The St. Anthony Messenger, and other places. She is the winner of the 2010 Brenda L. Smart Fiction Prize and the 2009 Joyce Durham Essay Contest. She has an MFA from North Carolina State University. One of her short stories is currently a semifinalist for The Florida Review's 2013 Editors' Award in Fiction.

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Can private industry solve the Dead Sea disaster it created?
Could the Dead Sea, where the water level has been dropping by 3.5 feet every year for the past three decades, be saved by industry?