updated 5/25/2011 7:18:10 AM ET 2011-05-25T11:18:10

The Dead Sea has been drying up at a dramatic rate in recent decades as a result mostly of human demands for water. But instead of letting the historic body of water continue to disappear, some scientists are getting increasingly serious about trying to save it.

In the most ambitious and detailed proposal yet, officials are considering a massive engineering project that would pump water into the Dead Sea from the Red Sea more than 110 miles to the south. Water pipes would follow the border between Israel and Jordan, earning the project a conciliatory nickname, "The Peace Conduit," for its potential to ease tensions between two extremely thirsty nations.

An international consortium of researchers has been weighing environmental and financial impacts of the multi-billion-dollar plan for a recent series of reports to the World Bank. As the conversation continues, its consequences stretch beyond the Middle East.

Water woes plague regions around the world. And water-related infrastructure projects span the globe, from the massive Three Gorges Dam in China, to a multitude of dams and irrigation diversions along the Colorado River.

In hindsight, the history of water projects offers a number of cautionary tales, said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an independent environmental research organization in Oakland, Calif.

"I would argue that every single project that has been built has had unforeseen consequences, from the littlest to the biggest," Gleick said. "The big engineering water projects of the 20th century were typically built with consideration given only to technological questions, not to environmental, political, social and economic questions."

"The Red Sea-Dead Sea project is an example of the extremes we're willing to consider when water resources are seriously constrained," he added. "In the Middle East, water is really short. Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians desperately need water. I completely understand how they got into this fix."

At more than 1,300 feet below sea level, the Dead Sea's shores are the lowest spots of dry land on Earth. Hot, dry and surrounded by dramatic rock structures, the area attracts visitors for its Biblical history, stunning archeological sites, and extremely buoyant waters.

Some ascribe healing powers to the muddy shores and mineral-rich salts.

The Dead Sea has also proven attractive to the potash industry. Two major companies, Dead Sea Works, Ltd., on the Israeli side and the Arab Potash Company on the Jordanian side, intentionally evaporate water from the Sea to extract millions of tons of mineral-filled salts for use as fertilizer and for other industrial applications.

Pressure on the Dead Sea also comes from two nations full of thirsty people, who remove large amounts of water from the Jordan River and other inflows to use for drinking and agriculture.

For thousands of years, the surface of Dead Sea fluctuated around a generally stable level of about 400 meters (1,300 feet) below sea level.

By 1950, though, human activities had started to make an impact. Then, the water level began to drop at a rate of 30 centimeters (about a foot) each year.

Since 2000, that rate has accelerated to about a meter (more than three feet) a year.

Overall, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped by more than 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) since the early 1930s.

"There is no doubt that human intervention in the water balance has caused the disruption," said geologist Jiwchar Ganor, an environmental geochemist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel. "There's no question. It's our fault."

Meanwhile, the region gets just 75 millimeters (three inches) of rain each year. That essentially means that the only way to replace the water that people take from the Dead Sea would be to manually put water back in.

"We need new interventions," Ganor added. "But we need to make sure they will not induce new and undesired processes."

It's far from clear what the perfect solution will be for saving the Dead Sea, or whether there is a good solution at all.

Doing nothing has already had profound impacts. As the sea shrinks, underground layers of salt have dissolved, leading to the sudden formation of sinkholes, which damage roads and bridges and threaten lives.

More than 2,500 sinkholes now line the shores of the Dead Sea. Most have appeared since 2000.

Scientists are also concerned about losing recently discovered and yet-to-be discovered microorganisms with unique metabolisms and unexplored genetics.

Microscopic residents of such a specialized and sensitive ecosystem could harbor insights that might lead researchers to new ways of helping crops grow better in stressful situations. That could eventually help improve food security for the millions of people that live in dry and salty places around the world.

While the idea for pumping water into the Dead Sea is not new, the discussion has taken on a new urgency recently as global water shortages rapidly become crises. And while it's a discussion worth having, Gleick said, conversations will need to dig more deeply to truly solve any of the world's water issues.

"In the 21st century, we have to look beyond purely engineering solutions toward more comprehensive and sustainable answers," he said, such as finding ways to use water more efficiently in the first place.

"We have a leaky bucket," he added, "and before we can put more expensive water in, it may make sense to plug the leaks."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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