I remember from my school geography that the Dead Sea is one of the saltiest on earth. I never realised its implications until I felt the sea against my skin. It is so saline that it does not even feel like water—rather a concoction of oil and mud. My hosts had warned me to not shave for a couple of days before my visit. Even minor cuts can flare up in the brackish water. And most importantly, do not let the water get into your eyes. Updated with these instructions, I waded in carefully. The buoyancy felt odd in the beginning, but after half an hour or so, I began enjoying the bobbing. A while later, I saw two Indian tourists at the edge, one of whom gushed “kitna accha paani hai” (such beautiful water). She stooped down and before I could warn her, cupped her hands and splashed the sea on her face. The paroxysm of screaming that followed was ghastly. To calm her, her companion threw even more seawater into her eyes. Thankfully, someone managed to find a pipe of freshwater and hosed her down. As unfortunate as her was my friend who had a spicy meal the night before—victuals that burn you twice, at the entry and exit gates. And of course, it burns every time you enter the super-salty sea!
The Dead Sea is dying—the surface of the water body, landlocked by Jordan, West Bank and Israel, is falling by more than a metre a year. The region is water-starved and governments have diverted the rivers that feed it. I visited the Dead Sea Spa Resort, one of the scores of hotels along its shore in Jordan. As I walked down from the resort to its private beach, I spy a sign: “The Dead Sea level receded quickly, the water was here in 2000.” Ahead are signs from 2005 and 2010. It takes almost 10 minutes to amble to the banks. However the resort was one of the luckier ones—at Ein Gedi in Israel, the shoreline retreated a couple of km inwards, leaving behind cavernous sinkholes that have swallowed roads and parking lots. The region might soon have the distinction of being a place where you can float on water but sink in land. To revive the lake, Jordan and Israel plan to fetch water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, a good 180 km apart. The plan, however, has been stagnating for years. It’s not all gloom and doom though—the Dead Sea will never completely disappear. As the salinity increases due to evaporation, the rate of water loss will ultimately reduce to a minimum, though by then, the sea will lose a significant portion of its expanse.
Jordan is a small country, but is geographical diversity rivals big nations. In a few hours, you can cruise from the snowy hills of Amman to the lowest point on land—the Dead Sea, 400 m below sea level. Due to the low altitude, the air pressure and concentration of oxygen are much higher and ultraviolet radiation lower. This surfeit of oxygen reputedly has therapeutic benefits for the heart and lungs, and makes physical exertion easier. Today’s scientific journals and ancient diva Cleopatra were equally enthused about its healing power. Perhaps the blame lies with my Delhi-stained lungs, but the enriched air did not help me much, as I realised on a cycling tour from Amman to the Dead Sea. While the largely downhill route was a breeze—and breezy too—it was punctuated with short uphill stretches. Despite the oxygen serenading my alveoli and the lovely weather, I could not pedal on the steep inclines and had to hop off my bike. I was one of the last to reach the finish line, trailed only by the teenagers from USA who took selfies at every Instagrammable location, which were plenty en route.
At the resorts, it is quite common to find tourists encrusted in clay scooped from the bed of the lake. The lowest place on earth also happens to be its largest natural spa. While the Dead Sea is touted as therapeutic for a variety of organs, it is skincare entrepreneurs that have made the most of it. Not only do people spend days here to heal psoriasis, eczema and acne, there is an entire industry devoted to selling cosmetics made from its mineral-rich deposits. In 2015, it was a $1.2 billion industry and is expected to grow to $3.4 billion by the end of 2024. Along the Dead Sea highway are plenty of stores peddling miraculous lotions and potions. I spent too little time in the sea to experience any tangible surge in wellbeing, but my friend swears the packaged salts worked wonders on her eczema.(He is an Assistant Editor, Outlook)