Eulogy for the Dead Sea is a poetic photo series chronicling the disappearance of the Dead Sea. The Dead Sea borders Jordan, Palestine’s West Bank and Israel. It constitutes the lowest place on earth and is known for its therapeutic high sodium and mineral-rich waters. Despite its name, the Dead Sea basin is a host to many wildlife species and is superb for farming. Unfortunately, due to the diversion of water from the Jordan River and mass mineral extraction though evaporation pools, the Dead Sea’s water reduction currently measures at 1.3m annually. Through sites of existing and abandoned infrastructure, marking its current and former shores, the film seeks to unify international conflicts through the lens of ecology.
Polina Teif is a multidisciplinary artist, photographer and filmmaker. Her work largely stems from a photo-based and experimental video practice woven with attentiveness to political and ecological concerns.
Eulogy for the Dead Sea
by Polina Teif
“ Mixed-up times are over owing with both pain and joy—with vastly unjust patterns of pain and joy, with unnecessary killing of ongoingness but also with necessary resurgence. The task is to make kin in lines of inventive connection as a practice of learning to live and die well with each other in a thick present.” Donna Haraway (2016, 1)
Haraway’s quote speaks of a practice of acceptance of muddied reality that is often too complex to break down into simplistic binaries of good and bad, right and wrong. In Staying with the Trouble, Haraway advocates for sitting in the discomfort of the present reality and coming to see and accept life and its intricacies as they are, messy and cruel. The Dead Sea formed following a volcanic eruption casing a rift 6000 kilometres long, commonly referred to as the Great Syrian-African rift. It is also known as the Syro-African Depres- sion due to the lowly terrain it created through its formation making the Dead Sea the low- est accessible place on Earth residing at over 400m below sea level. Palestine Potash was the initial manufacturing enterprise established in the Northern part of the Dead Sea in 1930 alongside a small Jewish settlement by the name of Kalya. It housed and employed both Jewish workers, their families and Palestinians from neighbouring Jericho. In 1948, the northern factory was destroyed and was later rebuilt in Sodom near the Southern basin of the Dead Sea. This factory exists to this day and is known as the Dead Sea Works.
The 1948 Arab-Israeli War produced a new rift, creating further division between the local inhabitants of the region. The rift which has yet to be mended, is further complicated in light of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the Jordanian-Israeli war in 1968 and subse- quent Olso agreements in the early 90’s which brought about a temporary wave of optimism only to be shattered by the events which constitute the Second Intifada.
The Judaea and Moab mountains on the Israeli and Jordanian shores that oppose each other, hold the memory of their unity in the folds of their hills and crevices. They physically shift away from each other by 1cm annually. Politically, these shifts fluctuate on the precarious terrain of ongoing conflict. In 2003 Israeli Director of EcoPeace Middle East, Gidon Bromberg defined the Dead Sea as classic case of the Tragedy of the Commons and argued for the instating the Dead Sea basin as a single Biosphere Reserve through regional cooperation, stating that “the Dead Sea Basin is a single ecosystem. The fact that it crosses international borders does not make one particular area independent of the other in an ecological sense.” (2003)
The three primary factors that contribute to the rapid decline of the Dead Sea are the division of the Jordan River water for agricultural use, the mass water pumping of Dead Sea water to Southern evaporation pools for mineral excretion and the lack of cooperation between governments and regional water governing bodies. As Sharp (2008, 3) argues:
For years, Israeli and Arab governments have diverted for agricultural and industrial purposes up to 95% of the southward flow of the Jordan River, which naturally replen- ishes the Dead Sea. Israel diverts an estimated 60% of the river, while Syria and Jordan divert the rest. The Palestinian Authority has demanded that it receive a fair share of the river's flow. In the last 55 years, the Dead Sea has lost 33% of its surface area...scientists estimate that even though the evaporation of the Dead Sea may slow in the coming decades, it may lose another 33% of its surface area.
In a region that collectively experiences water-scarcity the fresh water flow of the Jor- dan River is diverted through a series of man-made dams. In a paper titled “A Palestinian Socio-Legal Perspective on Water Management in the Jordan River—Dead Sea Basin”, Fadia Daibes-Murad (2009) describes the specific water related issues that affect the Palestinian population, namely, an evident lack of access to Jordan River water as compared to their Is- raeli and Jordanian counterparts. Murad stresses that Palestinians lack access to shared Israeli- Palestinian underground aquifers and face ongoing contamination of natural water resources by sewage water from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Palestinian attempts at building new wells and sewage systems are immediately halted and destroyed by the Israeli authorities and this has, in turn, caused a spike in water-related diseases in the population. In a population that largely depends on agriculture, the lack of water access and confiscation of disputed lands furthers the rift.
The southern part of the Dead Sea has been developed into a series of shallow evapora- tion pools. The water from the Northern Basin is pumped into the Southern Basin through a tunnel into shallow segmented parts which begin with an array of hotels and spas developed for tourism and end with the Dead Sea Works in Sodom, the ancient hallmark city of sin in the old testament and the Koran which is home to the largest mineral extraction factory in Israel. The evaporation pools are shallow, about 2m deep and utilize solar energy for evaporation, a method commonly used for salt and mineral farming.
The Dead Sea Works, officially established in 1953, has since become the most prof- itable factory in Israel. Its sister factory, Arab Potash on the Jordanian side has risen to a com- parable status. According to Becker et al.: “the chemicals in the Dead Sea support both large mineral extraction industries, which supply fertilizer, agricultural and industrial processes, and a cosmetic and health aids industry.” (Becker et al. 2004, 11)
A tunnel with two pumping stations divides the Northern Sea and the Southern evapo- ration pools. The shallow evaporation pools measuring 1-2m deep on average are replenished through the mineral rich water of the Dead Sea, which continues to decline at an increasing rate of deterioration. Eighty percent of this decline has occurred since the 1970’s and Jordan- ian journalist Fathi Hewaymil predicts that the Southern Sea could disappear by 2050, leaving mud flats in a massive dust bowl. The Dead Sea’s fate is often compared to the tragic one of the Aral sea in Kazakstan and Uzbekistan that has been in rapid decline since the 1960’s and has shrunk to less than 10% of its original size by the 2000’s. Moreover, the receding shoreline has caused over 1000 sinkholes to form in the North Western and South Eastern sections of the Dead Sea, and many public beaches have shut down over the past three years due to collapsed infrastructure. The sinkholes can measure up to 20m deep and 3km wide. Becker and Katz (2004, 1) point out: “the most fundamental cause of degradation: poor governance structures, including a lack of communication and cooperation both within and between governments and a lack of a common forum for bringing together multiple stakeholder groups.”
The sinkhole problem began in the 1970’s and continues to escalate to this day. How- ever, “the optimism that accompanied the Arab-Israeli peace process of the early 1990s helped bring about a new canal proposal, one that linked the interests of Israel and Jordan.“ (Sharp 2008, 4), namely, the Peace Conduit, or Red-Sea Dead-Sea Canal (RSDS conduit). The Peace Conduit, which has been in various stages of assessment and pre-development since the 1980’s, is a joint project between Israel and Jordan which proposes to utilize the elevation drops in order to raise the water level through a desalination plant and provide energy and wa- ter to the region. In a detailed overview on the “Peace Canal”, Sharp (2008) outlines the pro- posed Red Sea-Dead Sea Conduit and its subsequent effects of this intervention on the unique and fragile ecology of the Dead Sea Basin. Sharp points to a “concern that without an Israeli- Palestinian settlement that addresses the Dead Sea border and water rights, Israel and Jordan, which concluded a bilateral peace treaty in 1994, will disproportionately benefit from the canal at the expense of the Palestinians.” (2) While desalinated water could provide energy and water to the region, it will be sold at a higher rate to Palestinians who have a legal right to a share of the Jordan River water.
Moreover, some of the ecological consequences of the RSDS conduit are related to the introduction of a different water to the unique ecology of the Dead Sea which may cause discolouration, a change in salinity and a reduction of mineral concentration. Lastly, the Dead Sea lies on a fault-line that is prone to earthquakes occurring as commonly as regional con- flicts (Hofstetter et al. 2014). Sharp concludes:
Some experts note that even if the canal is never built, it has already brought Israel and Jordan closer on issues related to water conservation and environmental restoration. Whether governments go even further in addressing regional water shortages and the deterioration of the Dead Sea depends on political will, external support, and the abili- ty to withstand political pressures emanating from the expected continuation of Israeli- Palestinian conflict. (Sharp, 6) Plans for the Peace Conduit have been put on hold after Israeli-Jordanian relations have been undermined due to a shooting of Jordanian civilians in Amman by Israeli armed guard Ziv Moyal in 2017.
Becker, Nir, David Katz, Violet Qumsieh, Munqeth Mehyar, Fida Hajeer, and Hagit Salinger. “An Economic Analysis of Different Water Uses Affecting the Dead Sea Basin.” Advancing Conservation and Sustainable Development of the Dead Sea Basin-Broadening the Debate on Economic and Management Issues, FoEME, 2004.
Bromberg, Gidon. "Views on Saving the Dead Sea." Proceedings of The Dead Sea – Between Life and Death Learning from Other Lakes Proceedings of Two Parallel Conferences: Ein Bokek, Israel and Amman, Jordan. 2003.
Daibes-Murad, Fadia, “A Palestinian Socio-Legal Perspective on Water Management in the Jordan River—Dead Sea Basin”, East Jerusalem: DanChurchAid-Palestine, Sheikh Jarrah, 2009.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.
Sharp, Jeremy M. The "Red-Dead" Canal: Israeli-Arab Efforts to Restore the Dead Sea. Unit- ed States Congressional Research Service, 2008.