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Why Israel, Palestine and Jordan Are Rallying Around a Single Cause

Unfortunately their extraordinary plan to revive the Dead Sea could ease tensions or it could create an environmental disaster.

Fathi Huweimel leans carefully over the edge of a jagged slab of broken asphalt, peering down into a 60-foot-deep crater that was level ground just yesterday. All around him sprawl the ruins of Ghawr al Hadithah, once a farming village in central Jordan but now a jigsaw of broken houses, shattered roads and abandoned tomato fields growing wild amid the massive holes pocking the earth. To the east, the village gives way to desert fringed by stark, sere mountains. To the west, a few hundred yards away, lie the glimmering waters of the Dead Sea.

“We’ve had about 75 holes open up in the last two years,” says Huweimel, a thickset man with a broad mouth and deep brown eyes who has lived all of his 45 years in the area. He works as a field researcher with Friends of the Earth-Middle East, an environmental organization. “Everyone is leaving,” he continues. “Those who stay are staying because they have no choice.”

The holes first started appearing in the 1980s, but the pace at which new ones open up has increased dramatically in recent years. Miraculously, no one has been killed by a cave-in yet, though there have been some close calls. A group of seven women — including Huweimel’s aunt — were harvesting tomatoes together one day when the ground collapsed with a roar just 2 meters in front of them. A small salt factory that employed about 100 people was evacuated before it collapsed.

The cause of all this destruction is water — or, rather, the lack of it. The ground is collapsing into sinkholes because the water beneath it is retreating. And the water is retreating because the Dead Sea, a storied feature of the landscape since at least biblical times, is drying up.

The sea — actually a huge lake straddling the Israeli-Jordanian border at the lowest point on Earth, 420 meters below sea level — has been fed for millennia by the Jordan River. But today, so much water is siphoned out of the Jordan to feed farms and cities that practically nothing is left to replenish the Dead Sea.

Over the past three decades, the sea’s level has fallen by some 25 meters and continues to drop by an average of another meter every year. Its surface area is dwindling apace; the sea’s shore has retreated as much as a mile. That is dealing a severe blow to the hotels and spas dotting what used to be the sea’s beaches. Moreover, as the water retreats, it destabilizes the ground around it, spawning the sinkholes that have devoured Ghawr al Hadithah. Underground freshwater springs that feed nearby oases rich in wildlife are also being dragged down.

“It’s a time bomb,” Huweimel says. “It will only get worse if nothing is done.”

It’s an extraordinary problem that has generated an extraordinary response. The governments of the three peoples that live along the Jordan River and the Dead Sea — the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians — are working together to promote a potential solution: a conduit to bring ocean water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. It’s being touted as a triple win: The water would replenish the Dead Sea, and in the process generate hydroelectric power, which would in turn run desalination plants to make potable water for the region. As a not-inconsiderable political bonus, it would constitute the first major project ever undertaken by all three nations.

There’s just one problem. The conduit might make things even worse.

One morning in late spring, Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of Friends of the Earth-Middle East, takes me to the Lido Café at the northern end of the sea on the Israel side. For decades, the Lido was an elegant open-air restaurant where well-heeled residents of Jericho and Jerusalem would come to have a leisurely lunch, smoke nargileh water pipes and step right off the patio for a dip in the Dead Sea. Today, weeds push through the patio’s broken tiles, and paint is peeling off the parts of the walls that are still standing. A hunched, leafless tree sulks by steps that once led to the water but now stop abruptly 3 feet above trash-strewn desert. The Dead Sea is barely visible in the distance, across a half-mile of bare, dun-colored earth.

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