Fast Facts

  • The Dead Sea is part of the Great Rift Valley; it is the lowest spot on earth at 431m below sea level and more than 390m deep.
  • It is not actually a sea but a lake filled with incoming water with no outlet.
  • It is the second-saltiest body of water on earth (after Lake Aral in Djibouti), with a salt content of 31%.
  • Egyptians used Dead Sea mud (bitumen) in their mummification process; the last lump of floating bitumen surfaced in 1936.
  • The majority of Dead Sea minerals (including calcium and magnesium) occur naturally in our bodies and have health-giving properties.
  • The Dead Sea is three million years old but has shrunk by 30% in recent years (half a metre per year) because of evaporation and the demands of the potash industry, one of Jordan’s most valuable commodities.

The Dead Sea is Dying

The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth, and probably one of the hottest. The resulting evaporation produces an astonishing salinity of 31%, about nine times higher than the oceans. The high mineral concentrations mean incredible buoyancy and great photo opportunities – get a snapshot of your travel companions happily sitting upright on the water reading newspapers. The water’s oily minerals also contain salubrious properties. German health insurance covers periodic visits to the Dead Sea for psoriasis patients to visit and luxuriate in the healing waters.

Sadly, no natural resource in the Middle East shows more signs of relentless population growth and economic development than the Dead Sea. Technically, the sea is a ‘terminal lake’ into which the Jordan River, along with other more arid watersheds, deposit their flow. Despite the folk song’s characterisation of the River Jordan as ‘deep and wide’, in fact it has never been much of a gusher. When Israeli and Jordanian farmers began to divert its water to produce a new agricultural economy in the 1950s, the flow was reduced to a putrid trickle, and the Dead Sea began to dry up.

In 1900, the river discharged 1.2 trillion litres a year into the Dead Sea, but water levels in the river today are hardly 10% of the natural flow. The Jordanian and Israeli potash industries in the southern, largely industrial Dead Sea region exacerbate the water loss by accelerating evaporation in their production processes. The impact is manifested in sink holes, created when underground salt gets washed away by the infiltrating subsurface freshwater flow. Particularly ubiquitous on the western (Israeli side) of the sea, the ground literally opens up – with people, farming equipment and even trucks falling in. Perhaps the most acute environmental consequence though is the 27m drop in the sea’s water level, and the long and discouraging walks now required to reach the retreating waters.

Several solutions have been considered to bring back water to the Dead Sea. A ‘Med-Dead’ canal utilising the height drop from the Mediterranean Sea was discarded because of the prohibitively expensive price tag. But a similar pipeline from the Red Sea is currently under consideration, to pipe water from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Dead Sea’s southern shore, producing hydroelectricity as well as a desalination plant that would provide water to Amman. Environmentalists question the anticipated mixing of different salinities of sea water, while noting that it would ultimately not do enough to replace the water already being lost. Nevertheless, the US$1.1 billion 'Red-Dead' project has been put out to tender, and Jordan expects to break the first ground in 2018.