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Mideast disputes slowing rescue of famous, shrinking Dead Sea

The Dead Sea has retreated about 3 feet a year for about 25 years. Jordan and Israel say the sea could vanish by 2050. (Nader Daoud/Associated Press)

GHOR HADITHA, Jordan -- Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians are slowly pushing through the tangle of their disputes and suspicions in a race to save a biblical and ecological treasure, the Dead Sea.

The famously salty sea is shrinking. It has receded by about 3 feet a year for the past 25 years, and Jordan and Israel warn that if the trend continues, it will vanish by 2050 along with its unique ecosystem -- defeated by river diversions, mineral extraction, and natural causes, such as evaporation.

A crucial project to boost the water level by piping in water from the Red Sea has long been held up by disputes between Israel and its Palestinian and Jordanian neighbors.

"But the ball began to roll a few months ago because of the gravity of the situation and the dangers facing the Dead Sea, which is an important resource not only to the countries that border it, but to the whole world," said Mohammed Thafer al-Alem, Jordan's water minister.

The urgency is made clear by a dramatic side effect of the dwindling water: sinkholes.

These yawn open in a flash, leaving pits 100 feet deep or more in the spongelike terrain. At Ghor Haditha, a Jordanian village of 6,000 people on the Dead Sea's southern tip, signs warn of the peril and huge holes dot the vegetable fields.

The sinkholes happen because underground aquifers shrink and salt left by the receding Dead Sea waters erodes the earth.

The Dead Sea, or Salt Sea, is mentioned in the Old Testament. The sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have stood on its banks, and from nearby Mount Nebo, Moses reputedly first saw the Promised Land.

The placid, sun-baked lake, surrounded by spectacular desert cliffs, has also become a tourist attraction for both Jordan and Israel, because of its curative waters and black mud. Five-star hotels are sprouting on its shores, creating pollution problems.

The Dead Sea lies nearly 1,400 feet below sea level. It is 42 miles long, up to 11 miles wide, and more than 1,000 feet deep. With a salinity of about 30 percent -- more than eight times that of oceans, it is considered the world's saltiest body of water. It is bounded by Jordan in the east and Israel and the West Bank in the west.

The Jordan River, which flows into the Dead Sea, is part of a river network whose overuse and diversions by Jordan, Israel, and Syria compound the shrinkage.

After Jordan and Israel signed peace in 1994, they began mulling ideas to save the Dead Sea. One plan, to draw water from the Mediterranean, about 50 miles to the west, was shelved as too costly, so "Med-Dead" shifted to "Red-Dead" -- an underground pipeline bringing water from the Red Sea, 125 miles south.

But the collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and subsequent violence put the brakes on the project.

The sides agreed in late 2005 to launch a feasibility study for the pipeline, but Israel balked following the landslide January 2006 election victory of the militant Hamas group and its eventual takeover of the Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With renewed Jordanian prodding to resurrect the project, a compromise was reached to include Palestinian moderates on a committee overseeing the project.

The feasibility study finally began this year, with 60 percent of its $15.5 million cost provided by the United States and other Western donors. The pipeline itself will cost $1 billion and take two years to complete, if funding can be found. There are also plans for a $1.5 billion plant to desalinate Red Sea waters for use by Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinians.

"The Red-Dead project is very significant to Israel because the surrounding area is water-poor and in 10 or 15 years, there will be no water there," except whatever is piped in for drinking water, said Jacob Keidar, an Israeli Foreign Ministry official, referring to groundwater wells in the nearby Jordan Valley area. He spoke in a telephone interview from Jerusalem.

Alem, the Jordanian water minister, said the shrinkage was "more catastrophic" than that of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

The Aral, between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, has lost three quarters of its surface area in less than half a century because of Soviet-era diversion of rivers to promote farming.