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Saving the Dead Sea

By Randy Pinsky

An Israeli, a Jordanian and a Palestinian once swam across the Dead Sea…Sounds like the start of a joke, but that’s actually the premise of Dead Sea Guardians.

The Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies was honored to host filmmakers Yoav Kleinman and Ido Glass on March 13, 2023 about the historic swim to save this iconic yet rapidly shrinking sea. The Dead Sea, termed for its inhospitable waters, is shared by Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories. Collaborative environmental efforts to force international attention and enact real and committed change, have the potential of leading to geopolitical alliances. As Israeli swimmer and agro-tech expert Oded Rahav reflected in the film, “If you want to reach your destination fast, go alone. If you want to go fargo with friends.”

How Low Can You Go

The Dead Sea (Yam HaMelech, or ‘the salt sea’ in Hebrew) is the lowest place on earth and is ten times saltier than any of the world’s oceans, boasting an impressive salinity level of 36%.

Yet it is far from ‘dead’, as its name would suggest. Surrounding areas are the sites of annual bird migrations, and home to critically endangered species of flora and fauna.

The sea is located in the Judean desert in southern Israel, bordering Jordan and the Palestinian territories, with Jerusalem being the nearest major city.

Over the past several decades, the sea has been receding alarmingly, shrinking a meter in depth each year. Much of this can be attributed to the diverting of water from the Jordan River - the historic source of the Dead Sea - for agricultural and domestic use.

The shrinking of the Dead Sea is also connected to other problems such as sinkholes. With water rapidly receding, groundwater diffuses under the shoreline, dissolving the salt deposits and weakening the crust above. The ground can therefore collapse without warning, leading to beaches being closed, spas and hotels, moved, and roads rerouted.

The “dying Dead Sea” is thus an ominous prediction of other imminent concerns, leading environmentalists to push for collaborative - and urgent - action.

Floating While Catching Up on the News

Look in any Israeli travel brochure, and the iconic image is that of tourists floating in the Dead Sea, reading the newspaper. Beyond being the site of the world’s first historically recorded spa, the water and minerals have medicinal healing properties.

It is in fact the unregulated extraction of these minerals by Israel’s Dead Sea Works and Jordan’s potash factories for fertilizer which is causing the bulk of the crisis.

While environmentalists have been warning about the problems of short-term gain and long-term damage, solutions are complicated by prevailing conflict and politics. Indeed, “it has been impossible to agree on a path forward.”

Enter three swimmers with a unique mission.

“I Believe if the Dead Sea Dries Up, the World Will Dry Up”

The three swimmer coordinators banded together to raise international awareness for the “environmental catastrophes happening in their backyard.”

Dead Sea Guardians was presented at the Other Israel Film Festival and the Sundance Film Festival, with the directors also creating educational companion guides for school tours.

What is important to note is that “the facts of the matter are not in dispute. 

The question is what to do about it.

One Small Stroke for Man, One Giant Swim for Mankind”

Over 25 swimmers from around the world joined the project. Wearing special goggles and receiving careful instructions, they engaged in the first such swim[1] across the Dead Sea.

While making a powerful statement, the swim was fraught with perils, both natural and political. The sea’s extreme salinity made it dangerous if water got into eyes and swallowing even a cupful could be fatal.

Politically, moreover, was the criticism of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians working together. Islamic militants opposed joint ventures, “accusing Arab staffers of acting as ‘collaborators’ with Israel.”

Human-Led, Human-Fixed

While climate change plays a contributing role to the dwindling sea levels, the majority of the damage is due to “overconsumption and poor water management in part due to the ongoing conflict, troubled politics and destructive economics in the region.”

But as director Glass pointed out, “if we can destroy it, we can fix it.”

Stronger agricultural and profit-generating tourism industries often win over environmentalists in regards to priorities, however. In 2021, for example, Israel waived a $20 million debt owed by the Dead Sea Works cosmetics factory for water pumped from the shrinking natural resource, to the horror of many environmentalist groups.

So What Can Be Done? 

Of the various proposals being made, the one which has garnered the greatest consensus has been the Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance. A proposal which was signed into being in 2013, its feasibility and risks are still being evaluated. The Conveyance proposes directing water from the Red Sea, with some being desalinated for use by Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

“If it’s successful, the project [w]ould not only revive the sea but [would] also help ease political tensions and water shortages in the region,” in addition to being the largest joint project between Israel and an Arab state.

“The Environment Cannot Wait for Politicians”

The swim was motivated by the Zulu word, Ubuntu, meaning, “I am because we are.”

It alludes to the shared responsibility and the collective imperative to act. As noted directors Glass and Kleinman, “We can save the sea- we still have time.”

Organizations like Friends of the Earth: Middle East with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian staff, have been instrumental in leading change, “becoming a model of regional cooperation at a time when most such ventures have all but disappeared.” They have lobbied their respective governments to recgonize the Dead Sea as a United Nations World Heritage site - a designation which would restrict development through creating an environmental protection plan.

In taking collective action, “water, a historic cause of anxiety, contention, and even war in the region, becomes a conduit for economic and social cooperation.”

It’s A Start

“Now’s the Time to Save the Dead Sea,” proclaimed an article in The Times of Israel.

Indeed, the timing is ideal due to falling desalination costs, technical advances and valuable progress in normalized relations in the region such as the Abraham Accords.

In reflecting on the historic swim, Israeli coordinator Rahav shared his wish that one day, people would tell their children the following story: “Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there were these people who stood up for a sea, swam across it and by doing so, they saved it.”


[1] The date of the swim, November 15, was named Dead Sea Recognition Day.

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