Twenty-five swimmers from around the world crossed the Dead Sea on Nov. 15. (photo from EcoPeace)
On Nov. 15, some two dozen swimmers made the seven-hour trek across the Dead Sea, starting from the Jordanian side and swimming to the Israeli.
The demise of the Dead Sea is not news. According to the group EcoPeace Middle East – a Jordanian, Palestinian, Israeli environmental peace-building organization – the sea has receded by 25 metres in the last three decades and has lost a third of its surface area. Yet, hope remains.
The recent event’s initiator and a participant swimmer, Oded Rahav, stated in an EcoPeace press release, “If it’s possible to do the impossible, like swimming across the Dead Sea, then it’s possible to save the Dead Sea. We are not just interested in raising awareness, but creating real action to benefit the Dead Sea.”
Co-sponsoring the event with EcoPeace was Tamar Regional Council in Israel.
“A group of Israeli swimmers approached EcoPeace last spring with an idea to do a first-ever event – to swim across it [the Dead Sea]!” said Mira Edelstein, project coordinator of EcoPeace’s Jordan River Rehabilitation and Save the Dead Sea projects. “Not only were they looking for an idea to follow their previous success in topping a Guinness record – swimming from Cyprus to Israel – they also sought a way to raise awareness about the need to save the Dead Sea.
“They, naturally, turned to EcoPeace, as we’re the only regional environmental organization in the Middle East working on the issue of the rehabilitation of the River Jordan, which is in direct correlation with saving the Dead Sea. We gladly took on co-organizing the event and worked hard to make it happen, especially in getting permission from the Jordanian army to ‘sail’ across the border in the middle of the sea, starting from the Jordanian side.”
There were 25 swimmers from all over the world who participated, including from Israel, Palestine, South Africa, New Zealand, Greece, Spain and Denmark. They had to swim with a full-face snorkeling mask because of the water’s extreme salinity and they also had to adapt their swimming style because of the water’s high density. It was a life-risking venture and the swimmers were accompanied by a medical team, as EcoPeace notes in the press release: “A drop in the eye causes severe irritation, and chance swallowing of its water can be fatal if not treated immediately.”
The event generated an unprecedented amount of media attention and EcoPeace hopes this will help its ongoing efforts to get local decision-makers to take action on the issue.
“We’re also being approached by several other organizations to do other cross-border events – bicycle event, music event, art event, etc. – and we’ll review all of them to see which is more feasible and which will give us the best results,” said Edelstein, who was born and raised in New York and made aliyah in 1993. She now lives in Gan Yavne, which is near Ashdod. She joined EcoPeace in 2004.
“Personally, as an environmentalist but also a general nature lover, the Dead Sea is such a pearl of nature with so many unique qualities found nowhere else on this earth, that it would be a tragedy to lose it,” she told the Independent. “This is a man-made catastrophe and we must work as hard as possible to reverse it.”
Edelstein explained that the threats to the Dead Sea are coming from two directions.
“First is from the north,” she said. “Historically, the main inflow to the Dead Sea has been the Lower Jordan River. And, with the diversion of more than 95% of the Jordan River’s water by Israel, Jordan and Syria, leaving a meagre five percent to reach the Dead Sea … no wonder the Dead Sea is shrinking – by more than a metre a year.
“EcoPeace is working extremely hard to rehabilitate the Lower Jordan River back to at least a third of its historic flow, not only for the river’s own integrity – this is the holy Jordan River! – but we’re doing this for the Dead Sea as well.
“Second is from the south – from both Israeli and Jordanian mineral industries. These industries are using the most simple, antiquated, water-intensive technology to harvest minerals from the Dead Sea: evaporation. Unfortunately, both industries have no incentive to change their extraction technology, because they do not pay a penny for the amount of water they use.”
EcoPeace is working to change this; however, discussions about extracting minerals using systems based on desalination technologies (reverse osmosis) have come to a standstill, as they cost money, while evaporation is free.
“They claim they are studying them (these technologies), but have concluded that they’re very expensive,” said Edelstein. “Our point is exactly that – that until they will be forced to pay for the amount of water they use, any kind of change will be expensive.”
With the Israeli mineral industry’s contract with the state on its last leg, Edelstein is hopeful that a new contract will include putting a price on the Dead Sea’s water.
“EcoPeace is working very hard to get a bill passed through the Israeli parliament wherein the Dead Sea Works [part of the company ICL Fertilizers] will need to pay for the amount of water they use,” she added.
“Both of these actions together, that EcoPeace is working on, will help stabilize the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea will not yet be completely saved or restored, but we understand we first need to halt its destruction and [then] to work on stabilizing it.”
While there was a plan to draw water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, the original mega-project, which the World Bank was studying for more than a decade, has been deemed unfeasible. The present-day Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project “is different than the original one,” said Edelstein. “This project is based on a water swap between Israel and Jordan, which also includes a component for Palestinians to get more water from Israel.”
With both the Jordanian and Israeli governments working closely, mainly on furthering the canal project, EcoPeace applauds the joint efforts, but does not see the project as the solution.
“I do believe that the Dead Sea is high on the public agenda,” said Edelstein. “It’s not difficult to find information on the issue. Our website is being upgraded and we’ll soon have updated information to share, but recent news articles are a good place to begin.”
For more information about EcoPeace, which was formerly called Friends of the Earth Middle East, its Dead Sea and other projects, visit foeme.org.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.