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Encore: The Dead Sea is drying up because of overexploitation and climate change


The Dead Sea is ancient. The history of its salty, therapeutic waters goes back to the Bible. But this natural wonder is rapidly drying up, even changing the land around it. NPR's Daniel Estrin recently took to the water to explore what is being lost and what it will take to prevent more destruction.


DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: The Dead Sea is magic. It is the lowest exposed place on Earth. It is 10 times saltier than the ocean. So you don't sink in it. You float. The mud and the waters are full of minerals - great therapeutic for your skin. But the Dead Sea is dying. The lake level is dropping 4 feet every single year. So we've taken this rare boat ride on the Dead Sea to see some of these changes.

JACKIE BEN ZAKEN: You're seeing a living disaster in front of your eyes, you know? And since the sea's receding so fast, you know, you see it. It's not that there's a change that you don't see. No, you see it.


ESTRIN: Jackie Ben Zaken (ph) has special Israeli permission to give boat tours here. After all, it's a border zone and shared with Jordan. It's hard for aquatic life to exist in the salty waters, hence the name, Dead Sea.

BEN ZAKEN: You see this thing that sticks out there when you go up? Seven years ago, I used to tie my boat there.

ESTRIN: Seven years ago? Wow.

He's pointing to a spot that's now dry land high above us. It's shocking to see, a 4-foot drop every single year. The cause is that in the last several decades, the freshwater sources that feed into the Dead Sea have been diverted for drinking water and irrigation.

BEN ZAKEN: We are living in the Middle East, OK? So there's not a lot of water.

ESTRIN: Also, Israeli and Jordanian companies pump out and evaporate Dead Sea water to harvest its rich minerals for export. The salty sea is receding so quickly, it leaves behind stunning salt pillars along the shores.

So it's beautiful, but it actually tells you that there's something not so beautiful happening.

BEN ZAKEN: Of course. Of course. It's not the natural changes. It's the rapid changes that the environment can't adapt to. It's too fast, you know?

ESTRIN: You get a sense of how an entire landscape can change when a lake is dried up. Cavities along the shore open up into sinkholes.

So we're just looking at - it looks like this huge crater that has just collapsed.

BEN ZAKEN: That's a sinkhole.

ESTRIN: We stop at a beach that's been condemned because a sinkhole swallowed up the parking lot.

Here are some abandoned beach chairs. Oh, here's a little mini barbecue set.

Farmers have also abandoned their watermelon and basil farms along the shores.

YAEL KIRO: We will just walk down here. There is a very big sinkhole.

ESTRIN: Dead Sea researcher Yael Kiro from the Weizmann Institute of Science shows me a part of the main road alongside the Dead Sea that collapsed four years ago.

KIRO: Really, really careful. And maybe...


ESTRIN: Oh, my gosh. This road just sinks into itself. It's like the Earth has opened up and swallowed it.

KIRO: It breaks my heart. There's just so much destruction. This is just a direct result of the lake level drop. I don't know. It just makes me sad.

ESTRIN: Climate change makes this worse. The area is getting hotter. Rainfall is dropping. Populations are growing, and there's not enough water for drinking and irrigation, let alone for saving the Dead Sea. There are many proposals to rehabilitate the Dead Sea, like filling it with desalinated water from the Red Sea or rehabilitating the Jordan River - the Dead Sea's main water source - or trying to compel the companies mining the Dead Sea to help pay for its rehabilitation. But there's been no action.

GALIT COHEN: And this is so sad because the solutions is so not easy and very, very expensive now, unfortunately.

ESTRIN: Galit Cohen is the director general of the Israeli Environmental Protection Ministry.

COHEN: If you want to bring back water to the Dead Sea, it means desalination, water all around. And this is very, very expensive, of course. And not all the countries around us can pay for that amount of the money.

ESTRIN: Israel and Jordan are former enemies with chilly relations. They did recently sign a deal where Jordan will give Israel solar energy, and Israel will give desalinated drinking water to Jordan, which is parched. But there's still no action plan to save these biblical bodies of water they share, the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. King Abdullah of Jordan spoke about this at the U.N. climate change conference in Egypt.


KING ABDULLAH II: The Dead Sea and the sacred Jordan River are treasures of the past and legacies for our future. Our generation must not be the broken link.

ESTRIN: Along the shores, I meet Shay Rabineau of Binghamton University, who's hiking around the Dead Sea and writing a book about it. He just finished hiking the Jordan side.

SHAY RABINEAU: What we've heard is a lot of pessimism, right? People on the Jordanian side have said, our lives have gotten worse. It seems like most people are accepting that the level of this part of the sea may drop another 100 meters, 150 meters in the future.

ESTRIN: That could take over a hundred years. Some researchers are optimistic that as the Dead Sea level drops more and more, an urgency will grow to save it with desalinated water. The question is how long the natural wonder that's existed for millions of years will keep disappearing 4 feet a year.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the Dead Sea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.

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