Tradition Meets New Threats to Jordan’s Coastal Heritage

“We are dying,” he said, heavily invested in his 3-year-old son.

For years in northern Jordan, Buqali Kassab had built a sandcastle by the Dead Sea. Now the beauty of it and the marine environment could disappear as much as the Dead Sea itself.

The last few years, the Dead Sea has been shrinking. Temperatures in summer have risen and rivers below the lake are bursting their banks. About 3,000 cubic meters of earth a day are flowing into the Dead Sea, more than a quarter of the lake’s volume. The Dead Sea used to be about 120 feet deep, now it’s about 70 feet. Less water means less oxygen, which lowers the level of the waters.

Kassab took his family to the beach once. The glassy color of the water here often reminds him of underwater photography. Now, his children return to it alone, and perhaps in a few years, his children will go there alone, too. “This sea is disappearing,” he said.

Today, the marine environment around the Dead Sea is threatened more than ever, as seawater levels rise more than seven centimeters a year. The same changes are occurring around the entire Middle East, with climate change forcing migrations, shrinking resources and hot, dry climates that can kill the climate. “It’s very dangerous,” said Hassan Shimari, manager of research for Jordan’s local marine research station.

For Hashem Hammad, deputy information director for the Jordan Coast Guard, “Nobody can defend the sea.” Jordan has been “fighting the sea” for years to preserve its marine environment. The Jordan Coast Guard worked with the United Nations to examine the region’s geographic limits and created a management plan to keep their beaches open to protect and expand the marine ecosystem. “We protect what’s there,” said Hammad. “With the budget we have, that’s it.”

Jordanians have a way of saying “mother,” as in yes, the sun has set over the sea and yes, the shade still remains. Scenting the sea is a way to know it’s still there. Refilling boats for boat passengers is a way to say “Yes, the sea will protect me,” Hammad said.

Jordan’s foreign ministry has gone out of its way to get out information on the state of the ocean. One of its websites, which features a small, beige sea surrounded by an expanse of white, offers tips on the challenges facing the environment around the Dead Sea.

Just this week, Jordan established a five-member committee to advise on the development of the Jordan Valley Development Authority. The World Bank will oversee the new authority, Jordan’s foreign ministry said. The plans include the construction of a 12-kilometer (7.8-mile) canal in the Jordan Valley to carry water out of the Dead Sea for irrigation and urban development.

Kassab explained that only 3 percent of Jordan’s population live in the Jordan Valley. The water went to cities, he said, and the Dead Sea is now sending more to Jordan than Jordan is sending to the Dead Sea.

“We are living in dire need of what is here,” Kassab said.

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