Experts at a water conference in Jordan yesterday warned the Dead Sea may disappear in 50 years if current conditions are maintained, prompting Jordanian and Israeli officials to appeal for international assistance to save the much-revered body of water.

The sea – the saltiest water in the world and the lowest point on earth – has been dropping 3.3 feet per year for at least the past 20 years, mostly because of river diversion projects by Syria and Israel, according to experts.

“We appeal to water experts attending this conference to help us explain the crisis of the Dead Sea at international forums,” Jordanian Water and Irrigation Minister Hazem al-Nasser said yesterday, news agencies reported.

Al-Nasser was speaking at a five-day symposium on water held at the Dead Sea resort of Southern Shuneh, which drew some 1,500 water experts from 30 countries.

“The Dead Sea is a unique international treasure, and it’s the world’s responsibility to take decisive action immediately to save this treasure,” al-Nasser said.

A solution proposed by Israel at the conference entails drawing water from the Red Sea through a canal to be built along the border between Israel and Jordan. The Red Sea is located at the end of the same valley that contains the Dead Sea. Altitude differences – the Red Sea is over 1,500 feet higher – would be used to flow water downward to raise the level of the Dead Sea.

Jordan has tentatively agreed to the plan, priced at more than $1 billion, and together with Israel will appeal to the World Bank and several countries for funding.

Referred to in the Old Testament as the “Salt Sea,” the Dead Sea makes for a unique natural setting. No life forms, except for bacteria, are able to live in its waters. Anyone can float without treading. Bathers from around the world visit resorts at the Dead Sea to cover their bodies with mineral-rich “black mud,” which is shipped internationally by various cosmetics companies.

The Bible links King David, King Herod, John the Baptist and Jesus with the Dead Sea and its surroundings. The Prophets write the sea became salty during the infamous Sodom and Gomorrah story. And after the Egyptian conquest, Queen Cleopatra is said to have obtained exclusive rights to build cosmetic and pharmaceutical factories in the area.

Water, a precious commodity in any desert region, has also played an important role in Mideast politics. An Arab blockade and the bombing of pipelines in 1948 precipitated a major water crisis for the Jewish residents of Jerusalem during the months leading to Israel’s War of Independence.

Yasser Arafat’s bombing of water plants in the 1960s increased tensions between Israel and Syria. The Six Day War began after Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, a major trading and shipping route for Israel.

Water was even a sticking point at Clinton’s Camp David peace summit in 2000, with both parties vying for control of major water routes. The subject continues to be a sore subject between Israel and Jordan, who share water management responsibilities.

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