The world's saltiest body of water has fallen from 390 metres to 417 metres below sea level. 

The drop has accelerated to a metre a year recently, erasing a third of its ancient 950 square km size.

Modern economics are to blame – particularly tributaries feeding the sea being diverted to Israeli farmland.

Potash-mining at the sea’s southern basin has also caused increased evaporation.

Economic consequences

But the shrinking sea has now become an economic liability.

Hotels and health spas built along the beach are now stranded a kilometre or more from the water's edge.
   
"It's over twice the distance out today. It's sad that another rare preserve of nature is vanishing," said one Swiss tourist. "If the sea keeps going down, will people like us keep coming?"
   
The number of foreign tourists in Israel had already dropped because of a three-year-old Palestinian Intifada. Tourism in Jordan has also suffered from the US-led invasion of Iraq and postwar turmoil.

Danger

The Dead Sea's retreat can also be extremely dangerous. More than 1000 "sinkholes" up to 20 metres deep and 25 metres across have been created so far.
   
Caused by a dissolution of salt strata in underground fresh water replacing departed salt water, sinkholes have swallowed up groves of date palms, shut down Ein Gedi's tourist campsite and a nearby army base and scuttled a 5000-room hotel project nearby.
   
"We closed the campsite after the earth trembled and the road to the site suddenly caved in right behind a passing bus full of Danish tourists," said Eli Rav, a regional geologist and environmental consultant, pointing at a crater in the asphalt.

"We fear that by 2050 there will be just a small spot of water that will be a disaster economically and ecologically"

Zafir Alim,
Jordan Valley Water Authority

A camp staffer and a worker at Ain Qadi's nearby palm plantation were sucked into collapsing sinkholes and injured.

Sinkholes appearing on the Jordanian shore have forced the evacuation of more than 3000 people. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of hotel-spa complexes in the planning could be at risk. 
   
Predictions

"We fear that by 2050 there will be just a small spot of water that will be a disaster economically and ecologically, if nothing is done," said Zafir Alim, secretary general of the Jordan Valley Water Authority.

"We are raising the red flag to the international community to help us save what is really a world heritage site, belonging not just to Jordan and Israel," he told journalists on Sunday. 

They have begun to consider a "Red-Dead" solution - a canal to pump water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. But huge costs, and the risk of damaging the Red's famed coral reefs and diluting the Dead's medicinal minerals, stand in the way.
   
At a World Economic Forum meeting held on the Jordanian Dead Sea in June, Israelis and Jordanians united at a packed session to voice enthusiasm for the project.
   
The World Bank has prepared a draft for a feasibility study. Once approved by each government, donor funding would be sought. 
   
Problems

Studies and construction could take a decade and cost several billion dollars, part of that for desalinisation plants that Jordan sees as a vital spin-off to relieve its severe shortage of drinking water, officials say.
   
"Our main concern is that drawing off water on a large scale from the Red Sea could alter its currents and threaten its coral reefs," said Valerie Brachnya of Israel's Environment Ministry.

The Red's riot of tropical reef fish is a big tourist draw.
   
Gidon Bromberg of the environmentalist Friends of the Earth group said that stretching a salt-water pipeline through an earthquake-prone region was another worry.
   
"If the pipeline leaked, it would contaminate fresh water aquifers. And Red Sea water could well destroy the medicinal value of the Dead Sea derived from its high salinity," he said.
   
"Furthermore, the Dead Sea could turn pink or white from the chemical change incurred in mixing two different kinds of water. That would be a real turn-off to visitors."
   
Environmentalists are pressing Israel and Jordan to have UNESCO declare the Dead Sea a World Heritage Site or Biosphere Reserve, which would curb commercial development they say has been hastening its demise.