March 19, 2009 / 12:25 AM / 8 years ago

Shrinking Dead Sea may lose "natural wonders" bid

6 Min Read

<p>A tourist sits on a chair in the Dead Sea March 17, 2009.Darren Whiteside</p>

JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) - A red light flashes over the Dead Sea entry on a website inviting people to vote for the world's top natural wonders, warning: "this nominee is situated in more than one country."

There is no rule against that, but a chance the shrinking sea can win any votes in the election at www.new7wonders.com will vanish if all three countries involved do not each form an "Official Supporting Committee" by July 7.

Either due to bureaucracy or politics, two states are delaying -- which may jeopardize prospects for the famously buoyant lake, about the same size as Lake Geneva, whose level is dropping at nearly one meter a year.

To date, only Israel has a committee. Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have just over three months to make sure the Dead Sea is one of 77 second-round nominees selected, from which a shortlist of 21 finalists will be chosen.

"We're not sure why there's a delay," said Tia Viering, the communications chief for the contest, known as N7W. "The Dead Sea would have a very good chance if nominated, but we can't talk to a lake, and time is running out."

Jordan benefited handsomely from an election in 2007 of seven New Wonders of the World: visits to the ancient ruins of nearby Petra rose by more than 100 percent after it was chosen, said Suleiman Farajat of the Jordanian archaeological park.

Israeli organizer Seffi Hanegbi has no doubts about the reason for delay. "It's 100 percent politics," he said. "We have to have a meeting of the three official representatives. But if the Palestinians know there's a representative from Israel they won't come," he fears.

"It was a mistake to seek official approval at government level. Mayors or NGOs would have had it done by now," he said. It was also a mistake to involve an Israeli council located in the occupied West Bank, and covering Jewish settlements considered illegal by the Palestinians and the United Nations.

Appreciating the Dead Sea valley should be above politics, Hanegbi says.

It has had a place in human history for thousands of years. Some consider it the cradle of civilization -- where the Biblical cities Sodom and Gomorrah, on the faultline between two tectonic plates, were destroyed by God for their wickedness -- where Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt.

Potential Returns

Barely a half-hour's drive from the Old City of Jerusalem, downhill all the way to the lowest spot on earth, the traveler finds water 10 times more saline than the ocean. Sunset on the sandstone bluffs of the Jordan Rift Valley frames the sea between towering walls of shifting pastel color.

N7W expects one billion people to vote online in 2010-11 to chose the seven wonders of nature: "This is a low-involvement project for them that has great potential returns," Viering said. Letters to the Palestinians and Jordanians stressed that point and urged quick action.

But in the West Bank, the Palestinians said they were still awaiting clarification before the government could approve.

"In principle we do not have a problem," said Palestinian Authority Tourism Minister Khouloud Daibes. "We are waiting to hear the details and if they have conditions."

"Once we get that, the government should approve it ... I do not think there will be a problem. It's not a political issue."

<p>An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man floats in the Dead Sea, December 8, 2008.Gil Cohen Magen</p>

Viering believes the delays in Amman and Ramallah are purely bureaucratic and will not prove insurmountable.

"The Jordanians have been incredibly enthusiastic and supportive in the past so I expect it will go ahead," she said.

But Hanegbi says if the Palestinians balk for political reasons, Jordan too may fold its hands out of Arab solidarity.

A Much Tougher Project

Petra and the Dead Sea are a day's drive from each other, and both lie in easy reach of the Gulf of Aqaba's famed Red Sea beach resorts and crystal clear, coral-reef diving waters.

Israel's Hanegbi believes in the power of cross-border tourism to foster peace. In the 1990s he organized camel treks on ancient routes in the region.

Slideshow (9 Images)

Exploiting the business, environmental and tourist potential of such natural assets, and getting around man-made borders is "making peace instead of just talking peace," he says.

He is also striving to enter the Red Sea as a "wonders of nature" candidate: a task requiring endorsement from eight littoral states -- Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen and Djibouti.

Viering believes the delay in the Dead Sea's nomination is simply a bureaucratic glitch. But if not, it could be bad news for any broader rescue project that would require long-term commitment, investment and the approval of Red Sea states.

The real red light flashing for the Dead Sea is the fact it is slowly but surely drying up and could be gone in 50 years if no action is taken.

A sharp decrease in inflow from the Jordan and other rivers whose waters now irrigate fields is curbing its water supply: the level in mid-2007 had fallen to 420 meters below sea level from 394 meters in the 1960s, says the World Bank.

As a result, the water surface area has shrunk by one third.

Arresting the decline to avert environmental calamity, and slowly topping up the sea while supplying more water to this parched region are the main aims of an ambitious rescue project.

The "Red Sea-Dead Sea Water Conveyance Project," promoted by Jordan and Israel and endorsed by the Palestinians, would carry water over a 180 km (112 mile) tunnel-canal route probably visible from space.

First suggested 100 years ago, it is still in the "feasibility study" phase. Two additional studies are now about to begin, one assessing how the waters of the two seas would mix, a second looking at the ecological impact on the Red Sea.

The reports are due in 18 months. By then -- provided the Jordanian and Palestinian committees have formed in time -- the Dead Sea may have been chosen a natural wonder of the world.

(Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi)

Editing by Sara Ledwith

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