JERUSALEM -- The Dead Sea has been rapidly disappearing for the past 50 years, one of the world's natural wonders careening toward ecological collapse.
But in a deal signed recently and hailed as "historic," Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority agreed on an ambitious project to begin refilling the ancient salt lake with briny water pumped from the Red Sea.
The agreement calls for the construction of a large desalination plant in Jordan on the Gulf of Aqaba that would suck billions of gallons from the Red Sea and convert it to drinking water. The water would be shared by Jordan and Israel and sold to thirsty customers there. In addition, as part of the agreement, Israel agreed to increase the amount of water it sells annually to the Palestinian Authority by as much as 30 million cubic metres.
Billions of gallons of "reject brine" -- essentially, super-salty water created by the desalination process -- would be pumped via a new, 160-kilometre pipeline and discharged into the Dead Sea.
Estimated construction costs for the pipeline and desalination plant could run about $500 million. The first drop of water to enter the Dead Sea would probably not appear before 2017.
The Dead Sea is an ecological wonder and generator of superlatives good and bad. It appears in the Bible, but not much. The Crusaders called it the Devil's Sea. Today, it is a popular destination for tourists, who pack themselves in mud from its shores and float in water that is 10 times as salty as most oceans. There are salt ponds and potash mining and a mystical vibe -- with lots of quicksand and sinkholes.
It is the lowest spot on Earth, a vast, sulfurous and strange inland sea, landlocked in a great rift valley, a cradle of civilizations and religions.
Thanks to humans, this natural wonder has been dying for years.
The water level of the lake has dropped more than 80 feet in the past half-century as the Jordan River has withered to a trickle, sucked dry by Israeli and Jordanian agricultural projects. The sharp decrease in inflow from the river and the desiccation of local natural springs have reduced the surface area of the lake by one-third.
Government scientists and World Bank officials said the desalination deal would begin a very long, slow, uncertain process of stabilizing the Dead Sea. But some environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth in the Middle East, warned "the brine should not be transferred into the Dead Sea because of detrimental impacts."
Supporters of the project say that since the Dead Sea will receive only 26 billion gallons of brine from the project a year, a fraction of what is needed to hold the Dead Sea at current levels, the benefits of the projects outweigh the risks.
Scientists say they will monitor the sea to look for impacts.
-- The Washington Post