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The Dead Sea is dying. Drinking water is scarce. Jordan faces a climate crisis

Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

GHOR HADITHA, Jordan — The first time people here saw a sinkhole, they thought a small asteroid had slammed into the Dead Sea's salt-encrusted shore.

Then others appeared.

One swallowed the edge of a state-owned building. Another opened near a house and forced the family to move. Worried farmers scanned their fields and abandoned their harvests. At one point, a chunk of highway collapsed, disappearing several stories deep and leaving a lone PVC pipe that ran like a high-wire over the crater.

Finally, the residents of Ghor Haditha realized, the problem was literally beneath their feet, a symptom of the Dead Sea's death and a disturbing measure of the parched land Jordan has become. This small kingdom has long ranked high on the list of water-poor countries. But a mix of a ballooning population, regional conflicts, chronic industrial and agricultural mismanagement and now climate change may soon bring it another distinction: the first nation to possibly lose viable sources of freshwater.

The sinkholes are a harbinger of a future in a Middle East precariously balanced on dwindling resources. With the Dead Sea — a lake, really — shrinking at a rate of 3 to 5 feet a year, its saltwater is replaced by freshwater, which rushes in and dissolves subterranean salt layers, some of them hundreds of feet below. Cavities form, and the soil collapses into subsurface voids, creating sinkholes.

In the last three decades, the Dead Sea's level has fallen almost 100 feet. The rate of loss is accelerating, and sinkholes now number in the thousands, like a rash spreading on the exposed seabed.

 

"When I was younger, the water used to reach all the way up to that field," said Hassan Kanazri, a 63-year-old tomato farmer, as he pointed to a spot some 300 yards away from the water's edge. He stepped onto a patch of dark brown earth speckled with holes; the soft dirt gave way underfoot.

"We can't use tractors here. The land is too weak, so we've had to plow manually," he said.

The sinkholes are a piece of a larger danger revealing how Jordan's perennial thirst is worsening. A virtually landlocked desert kingdom with few resources, the country's yearly decrease in rainfall could lead to a 30% reduction by 2100, according to Stanford University's Jordan Water Project. Jordan's aquifers, ancient groundwater reservoirs that take long to replenish, are being pumped at a furious pace, even as the pandemic has increased demand by 40%, the Water Ministry says. And precarious finances mean desalinization, which serves some of Jordan's richer neighbors, is — for now — too expensive an option.

"The situation here is bleak," says Water Ministry spokesman Omar Salameh. "Without a huge amount of support to execute development projects, Jordan doesn't have the resources to provide water."

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