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The Dead Sea has been a religious and cultural landmark of the Middle East for thousands of years. Saltier than the oceans, the lake is like none other in the world.
But in the past 30 years, the Dead Sea has lost about a third of its surface area. As much as 95 percent of the flow of its main tributary, the Jordan River, has been diverted for agriculture and domestic use. Excessive mineral mining for potash and magnesium chloride is removing water at a rate of 150 million cubic meters per year. As water levels drop by as much as one meter per year, the combination of diversion and evaporation is threatening both economic development and the natural oases that support the Dead Sea's unique ecosystem.
In an effort to halt the sea's rapid disappearance, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, with the help of the World Bank, are proposing a project to import water from the Red Sea in the south. While dramatic engineering may be necessary to save this timeless attraction, environmentalists warn that less-risky alternatives are being ignored.\n
If built, the Red-Dead conduit is expected to cost $15 billion. Projects of this scale are not unprecedented, especially as water demand grows rapidly in many regions of the world. According to the United Nations World Water Development Report, water withdrawals have increased sixfold since the 1990s, twice the rate of population growth. Costly projects to meet demand - the $60 billion Chinese South-North water transfer, for example - have come under fire by environmentalists for failing to address the underlying causes of water stress, such as a lack of conservation.
By introducing water of a different density and composition to the Dead Sea, however, engineers may drastically alter the very thing they are trying to save. The Dead Sea is rich in calcium, while the Red Sea is rich in sulfate; mixing the two could create a surface layer of gypsum. New algae growth might also change the buoyancy of the water and alter its blue water to appear red. These critical changes could damage the tourism industry in both Israel and Jordan.
As an alternative to the diversion project, environmentalists and local geologists propose rehabilitating the Jordan River. According to Dan Zaslavksi, a former Israeli water commissioner, regenerating the flow of the river to bring water to the Dead Sea will cost no more than $800 million, substantially less than the $15 billion estimated for the Red-Dead plan, Al Jazeera reported. Critics also suggest reforms in the chemical industries on both sides of the sea.