European Commission Fifth RTD Framework Programme

A Future for The Dead Sea: Options for a More Sustainable Water Management

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           The Dead Sea and its Basin are suffering degradation processes induced mainly by anthropogenic unsustainable development actions.    In the last 30 years, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped more than 20 meters and its surface area has shrunk by 30%.  The reasons for this are well known.  Major water diversion projects of the waters of the Jordan River and of the Dead Sea side Wadis have reduced fresh water inputs from its pre-1985 annual average of 1,570 MCM to less than 560 MCM/yr of bad quality water (Average annual water inputs into the Dead Sea ranged between 419-559 MCM during the last 6 years).  The drop in the Dead Sea water level has led to the opening up of sinkholes.  32 sinkholes opened up in recent years alongside the western coast of the Dead Sea (AIES, 2003) and the rate is has been increasing recently.   The Dead Sea Basin is also living up to its name.  Groundwater table levels have been dropping in several well fields at an alarming rate.  The groundwater table in the Herodion Well Field is dropping at an alarming rate.  The observed drop in certain wells exceeded 60 meters in the last 20 years.  Groundwater quality is also degrading because of over abstraction and pollution.  More than 90% of the generated industrial and domestic wastewater in the Dead Sea Basin is openly discharged without any prior treatment.  Wadi Nar flows with more than 10 MCM/yr of untreated wastewater which has led to the degradation of the Wadi Bed ecosystem.  Human ever growing needs for freshwater has led the riparian countries to harvest surface water thus depriving nature from its legitimate use of water.  The Jordan River ecosystem suffered the most.  It had a flow of 1,250 MCM of good quality water in the year 1957.  Now it has a flow of less than 200 MCM/yr of Brackish and Wastewater.   The banks of the Jordan River supported woodlands and underground vegetation of the Populion Euphraticae and Tamaricetum Jordanis alliance.  The river banks were visited for their historic, cultural and religious values.  In addition, several Dead Sea side Wadis with rainwater storm runoff and/or with permanent water from springs lost significant volumes of water due to diversion of water resources for agricultural purposes.  Wadi Auja springs water was completely diverted for agricultural purposes.  Ein Gedi spring water is partially used for agriculture and for industrial purposes, 35 MCM of fresh water is tapped in the Wadi Mujib Dam.  The consequences of these actions were for some Wadis a striking loss of above ground green biomass and biodiversity.   On the other hand, overgrazing is a problem in certain areas of the Dead Sea basin.  Overgrazing has led to changes in vegetation structure in grazing areas.  Annuals are being replaced with dwarf spiny vegetation with the consequences of land degradation, soil erosion and desertification.

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            The figure below shows the analytical framework used by the Dead Sea project team to identify biodiversity important areas in the Dead Sea Basin, biodiversity corridors, to measure changes in above green biomass in the biodiversity important areas and to understand the drivers of these changes.  In areas where water diversions have contributed to changes in above green biomass, the minimum water requirements needed by nature to conserve key ecological process was as well determined.  

Figure 1:The analytical framework used by the Dead Sea project team

First: A literature review of all available Biodiversity databases were harmonized and integrated into a GIS and a biodiversity index map was derived. The Hebrew University Databases provided a useful source for understanding the distribution of recorded plant and animal species in the study area. ARIJ flora and Fauna database listed the IUCN classification of the species into threatened and endangered species and both Feinbrun’s 1991 Analytical Flora and Zohary’s Flora Palestina provided information on the abundance of the different plant species found in the Dead Sea.

Second: The biodiversity index map was used to delineate the biodiversity important areas and the corridors, located in valley floors, connecting the biodiversity important areas were as well delineated. Attention was made that the delineated biodiversity important areas contained most of the habitats where the endangered, threatened and rare species were recorded. Zoological and botanic information on the range of these species was also taken into consideration.

Third: Information on above ground green biomass changes from the year 1985 to the year 2004 was integrated into the Land cover maps. Natural areas showing a trend of biomass loss were identified as areas subject to land degradation processes.

Fourth: Evapotranspiration values for the study area were calculated. Evapotranspiration are two processes that cannot be separated over land areas. These are (1) evaporation which is defined as the change of water state from liquid to vapor. Sunlight aids this process as it raises the temperature of liquid water. The rate of evaporation is highly variable and depends of factors such as temperature, humidity of the air mass, wind speed and amount of solar radiation and (2) Transpiration which is a biological process whereby plants pull water from the soil and loose it through evaporation from their tissues through the stomata of the leaves. Rates of transpiration would be affected by, temperature, wind speed, humidity, plant type, amount of cover and the amount of water in the soil. Transpiration proceeds almost entirely by day under the influence of solar radiation. At night the pores or stomata of plants close up and very little moisture leaves the plant surfaces. Evaporation, on the other hand, continues as long as heat input is available (Wilson, E.M., 1990). The Penman-Montieth method was used for estimating reference evapotranspiration in the study area after modification by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations; The FAO modified the Penman Montieth method and developed the CROPWAT software to estimate the reference evapotranspiration. The Modified Penman- Montieth equation can be simplified as follows:

ET0 = [0.408 D (Rn - G) + g (900/ (T + 273)) U2 (ea - ed)] / D + g (1 + 0.34 U2)

ET0 : reference crop evapotranspiration (mm/day),
Rn : net radiation at crop surface (MJ /m2/ day),
G : soil heat flux (MJ /m2/ day),
T : average temperature (C°),
U2 : wind speed measured at 2m height (m/s),
(ea - ed) : vapor pressure deficit (Kpa),
D : Slope vapor pressure curve (Kpa/ C°),
g : Psychometric constant (Kpa/ C°) and
900 : conversion factor.

Fifth: In order to calculate the actual water requirements of natural plant species, the plant species coefficient should be determined. Different natural plants use varying amounts of water. Little research has been done to valuate the plant species coefficient (KC) in the Mediterranean Basin. Accordingly the water needs of plants per species could not be determined. However, few studies (e.g. Kite et al, 2000) has estimated the Kc values of Mediterranean plant categories. Ever green trees native to the Mediterranean climates have a Kc values between 0.4-0.6. Evergreen shrubs have Kc values range from 0.25-0.5 and native plants from arid zones Kc values average approximately 0.25. Soil characteristics as well as vegetation association types and plant abundance category were used to determine whether the lower or upper range of Kc should be used. The water needs were determined using the following equation:
Water Needs = ET0 * Kc


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Biodiversity Important Areas and Corridors

            An index of biodiversity important areas was derived.  Each record of endangered species (ES) was assigned a weight of 10, records of very rare species (VRS) was assigned a weight of 7, records of rare species (RS) was assigned a weight of 5, and records of other species (OS) was assigned a weight of 3.  The measured above ground green biomass was as well integrated in the calculation of the biodiversity index map.  The biodiversity index map was generated using the following equation:

                Biodiversity Index = 10*ES + 7*VRS + 5*RS + 3*OS + 0.05*Biomass


           This resulted in a map highlighting natural areas with high biomass and species records (Map 1).  The index map was used to delineate biodiversity hot spots and animal and plant corridors (Map 1).  The criterion used for delineating hotspots was the inclusion of 95% of endangered species, very rare species and rare species habitats.  No data was available for the Jordanian part of the study area, accordingly the declared natural reserves were observed for the purpose of this study as biodiversity hot spots and biodiversity corridors. 

Map 1: Biodiversity Index map, biodiversity hotspots and biodiversity corridors

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            Map 2 shows the changes in above ground green biomass between mid 1980s and mid 2000. It was apparent that the eastern slopes of the West Bank were most hit by degradation processes. This was mainly due to (1) urban expansion and (2) overgrazing as these areas are accessible to farmers’ herds. The eastern slopes closer to the Dead Sea either had no changes in Biomass or a low-moderate increase in above ground green biomass. This is mainly due to the fact that most of these areas are declared Israeli natural reserves or military closed areas inaccessible to farmers’ herds.

Map 2: Biomass change detection between an averaged biomass for the years 1985 and 1978 and an averaged biomass for the years 2000 and 2004. Areas with the most negative change are delineated in blue.

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          Of all the Biodiversity hot spots and biodiversity corridors; the lower Jordan valley was the most hit by degradation processes. This is mainly due to the continuous reduction of water flow through the Jordan River as more surface runoff is tapped behind dams and (2) the increased level of pollutants and salt concentrations in the Jordan River which degraded water quality. Other biodiversity important areas that require immediate attention and restoration are (1) Wadi Zarqa Main; (2) Wadi Wala; (3) Wadi Al-Karak; (4) Wadi David (Ein Gedi Area); (5) Al-Fashkha Springs and Wadi Nar. The latter receives 2.4 MCM/yr of surface runoff but also receives more than 10 MCM of domestic and industrial wastewater. It should be noted that the above ground green biomass increase on the Dead Sea shores cannot be attributed to improved ecological conditions. Indeed, the positive change in Biomass is due to the recession of the Dead Sea shores. These areas were covered by water and had an NDVI value of zero.

Minimum Water requirements

Jordan river

           In the Jordan River, salt concentrations prior to 1958 averaged 500 mg/l, in April 1959 salt concentrations reached 2,050 and in June 1960 salt concentrations reached 2,473 mg/l.   In 1958, the banks of the Jordan River and the tributaries pouring into the Jordan River and the Dead Sea were populated by Populion Euphraticae and Tamaricetum Jordanis alliances that formed dense and even impenetrable woods.  These plants utilized the lightly brackish water of the Jordan River and were tolerant to salt deposition on the Banks of the Jordan River in summer months.  However, Populion Euphraticae and Tamaricetum Jordanis distribution has been greatly reduced due to the diversion of water and to high increases in salt concentration by more than 500%.


           The volume of water evapotranspirating from Populion Euphraticae and Tamaricetum Jordanis alliances was estimated at 130 MCM/yr.  Evaporation from the Jordan River course was estimated at approximately 4.5-6.5 MCM/yr.  In the Jordan River Basin, the texture of the soil changes from north to south, from fine-textured soil to silt loam and sandy loams immediately north of the Dead Sea.  Water infiltration and percolation rates in saturated fine textured clay soils can be as low as 0.01 cm/hr and can increase to approximately 0.25 cm/hr in the saturated sandy loams.  Deep percolation of water through soil increases natural vegetation water needs as the water becomes inaccessible to vegetation.  Percolation rates in the southern part of the Jordan River are higher than percolation rates in the northern part of the Lower Jordan River Basin.  Infiltration and percolation from the water course was estimated at 41 MCM/yr.  Infiltration and percolation from the inundated banks was estimated at 45 MCM.  The water requirements for the natural vegetation of the lower Jordan River Basin were therefore estimated at approximately 222 MCM/yr of good quality water with a total salt concentration less than 600 mg/l.  Technical methods are needed to move water from the Jordan River bed to the Banks in order to provide natural vegetation with water.  Another option would be to restore the natural flow of the river of 1,250 MCM/yr that floods the river banks in the winter season.

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Dead Sea

            In 1947, the total evaporation from the surface of the Dead Sea was approximately 1,650 MCM/yr.  This was balanced by the discharge from the Jordan River (1,350 MCM/yr), by lateral discharges from several Wadis along the Dead Sea Shore (220 MCM/yr) and by underground lateral water and spring discharges (60-100 MCM/yr).  Major water diversion projects and abstraction of groundwater drastically reduced the total volume of water discharged into the Dead Sea.  This has led to dramatic changes in the Dead Sea water level and surface area.  Indeed, the level of the Dead Sea dropped by 19 m in the last 25 years and its surface area shrunk from 1031 square kilometers in 1947 to 634 square kilometers in 2004 (Table 1).

Table 1:  Changes in the surface area of the Dead Sea and evaporation ponds as observed from Satellite Images.


Surface Area Dead Sea

Surface Area Evaporation Ponds/Israel

Surface Area Evaporation Ponds/Jordan

Total Surface Evaporation Area















































           Average total yearly evaporation from the surface of the Dead Sea between the years 1998-2002 was estimated to range between 1,100 and 1,240 MCM/yr (Actual evaporation range between 1,250-1,380 mm/yr) of which approximately and approximately 311-351 MCM of water was pumped to the salting lakes for industrial and recreational purposes.  This resulted in an average drop in the water level of the Northern Basin of 1.06 cm/yr, the equivalent of 681 MCM of water per year.  Total water inputs from all sources into the Dead Sea ranged accordingly between 419-559 MCM/yr.   Accordingly, the minimum water requirements to conserve the Dead Sea water level is an increase in inputs by approximately 680 MCM/yr or by increasing water inputs by some 350 MCM/yr and drying up the evaporation ponds.

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Water marshes

            The marshes of Ein-Fashkha and Ghwair-Turba springs are occupied with the Suaedetea Deserti Class vegetation mainly formed of the Junco-Phragmition alliance, the Tamaricion Tetragynae alliance, Atriplico-Suaedion Palaestinae alliance and the Salsolion Villosae alliance (See Map 7 on page 23).  Ein-Fashkha was declared a natural reserve by the Israeli authorities.  Evapotranspiration from Ein-Fashkha was estimated at 8 MCM/yr and deep soil percolation was estimated at 10 MCM/yr.  The historic discharge from Ein-Fashkha averaged 34 MCM/yr.  However, two problems face the long term sustainability of Ein-Fashkha; these are the continuously declining water discharge due to over abstraction from groundwater in the Herodion well field and due to the retreating Dead Sea shores.  Analysis of satellite images from 1985 – 2004 has shown that the vegetation of Ein-Fashkha is being slowly moving eastwards as the Dead Sea shores are retreating and the vegetation of the Western boundary of Ein-Fashkha is degrading.  Ghwair and Turba marshes are facing similar problems.  Again, it appears that vegetation is being displaced to the east and the Western Vegetation boundary is degrading.  Historic water discharges from Ghwair and Turba springs combined averaged approximately 26 MCM/yr.  Water discharge volumes are being also reduced due to over abstraction of ground water.  The minimum water requirements to sustain the vegetation of Ghwair-Turba marshes were estimated at 15 MCM/yr.

Al-Auja Wadi

            Of all Wadis in the study area, Wadi Auja suffered the highest rate of above ground green biomass loss between the years of 1985 and 2004.  This is a loss of natural biomass mostly from Anabasidetum and Zygophylletum alliances.  The water required by vegetation to conserve the natural vegetation in the Wadi bed and banks was estimated at 4.1 MCM/yr.  Deep percolation beyond the root zone was estimated at 3.8 MCM/yr.  The total water requirement by vegetation is 7.9 MCM/yr.  The discharge from the Auja spring averaged 10 MCM/yr and surface water runoff was estimated by CH2MHILL (2002) to be approximately 4.6 MCM/yr.  Recently, the entire volume of water from Al-Auja was diverted for agricultural uses.  This has dramatic impacts on the Anabasidetum alliance vegetation.  Overgrazing is another problem around Al-Auja Wadi bed which has severely degraded the Zygophylletum vegetation.    


           Surface water runoff in Wadi Nar is estimated at 2.4 MCM/yr.  An additional 10 MCM of domestic and industrial untreated wastewater are also discharged into Wadi Nar which has degraded water quality in Wadi Nar and polluted the runnel.  This has led to an overall observed degradation of the ecosystem and a loss in above green biomass.  Treatment of wastewater prior to its open discharge into the Wadi is important to reverse the degradation process.

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