In Jordan and Israel, a Fragile Ecosystem is Shrinking
German photographer, Moritz Küstner explores how human actions across the Middle East are contributing to the dwindling water levels of the Dead Sea.
To save the Dead Sea, Jordan and Israel are working on a massive infrastructure project to bring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea through the middle of the desert. It is an undertaking that involves a large investment of ten billion dollars and a huge degree of environmental risk. German photographer, Moritz Küstner explores the effects of this large-scale project in his series, The Dying Dead Sea, which, he says, is an awareness call to what seems to be an impending ecological disaster.
How did your interest in the Dead Sea arise?
I always had in mind a visit to Israel, because in my eyes it is a very fascinating and controversial country. Its culture is influenced by so many people with a lot of diverse backgrounds. Israel seems to be a country of contrasts between religion, cultures, and lifestyles. For instance, you can find vibrant gay clubs next to Ultraorthodox Jews celebrating Shabbat, Arabic mosques next to Christian monuments, and imposing mansions next to corrugated-iron huts.
This melting pot fascinated me, and so therefore, I searched for a story in this region. But what I ended up with was something very different to what I had expected: an ecological story. I found out that the unique ecosystem of the Dead Sea is in existential danger. Every year the water level falls around 1 metre. My interest grew when I realised how much the subject of the Dead Sea is connected to the conflicts in the region and how much humans are responsible for the falling water level.
The water in the Jordan River, which arrives from the Dead Sea only as a small brown trickle, is no longer sufficient to compensate for the falling water level. The Jordan river is stowed and provides Israel and Jordan with drinking water, but rapidly growing agriculture consumes vast amounts. The use of fertiliser plants on the Israeli and Jordanian sides are contributing to the problem as well. To solve these issues, Israel and its neighbouring countries should have partnered together long ago, yet due to the Middle East conflict, they never did. For me, the most interesting aspect of the story is that I can show an ecological issue that reflects political differences, which in the past, the mainstream media hasn't really focused on.
You've said that this area is rather difficult to live in due to climate conditions. When you are there working, where do you stay and for how long? How has it been gaining access in the field?
To get access to the Dead Sea is not difficult. Every tourist who comes to Israel visits the Dead Sea, so there is good infrastructure in place. In the beginning, I made day trips from Jerusalem - the distance is only about 30 kilometres. Then, I spent three days south of the Dead Sea and around one week following the Jordan river, which is the Dead Sea's main water source. Throughout the making of the series, I have stayed in different places like hostels, Airbnb-flats and random apartments while couch surfing. To date, I have been there only once, but my next trip to Israel is planned for November.
Have you encountered any obstacles while working there? How has your project been perceived by the locals, and even tourists themselves?
Directly, I didn’t feel there were any obstacles while working in the field. The only place I didn’t manage to get access to is the Dead Sea Works factory, which has a huge negative impact on the environment. I called and messaged them several times, but nobody was willing to give me any information or access to the plant’s facilities. I think they are already aware of their contribution to the shrinking water levels. Tourism, on the other hand, isn't having any detrimental effect - the Dead Sea is different than other rare ecosystems because it isn't surrounded by flora and fauna, which can be harmed by mass tourism.
Aside from tourism and the production of beauty products, what other industries can be found around this area?
There are two fertiliser factories: one on the Israeli side and the other on the Jordanian side. The water of the Dead Sea is rich in rare resources like bromine, magnesium and potash. During the extraction process, the companies let the water just evaporate in huge basins. Around 40% of the falling water level is caused by these two plants. The other main influencing factor on the decreasing water level, which is more indirect, is the rapidly growing agriculture. It consumes vast amounts of water and lets the Jordan river dry out. I hope that my project raises awareness about this ecological and political disaster.
By focusing on the Dead Sea you have been able to explore different issues around the region, yet The Dying Dead Sea is a project in progress. What sort of direction are you looking to take it in, and what are you hoping to achieve with it?
On my next journey to the Dead Sea I want to visit Jordan. In contrast to Israel, Jordan is a much poorer country with very different agriculture. I want to see the impact the ecological changes have on this side of the sea, and understand the Jordanian people’s opinion on this issue. As I did on the Israeli side, I want to take pictures of the landscapes as well as portraits of farmers and other people who are involved in the ecological story. On the Jordanian side, the Arab Potash Company has a plant. I keep trying to get access to it. Maybe I’ll have luck on this side. But until now, again, I haven't received any answers.
To stop this issue from developing, Israel and Jordan have planned a giant project. The idea is to build a channel that transports water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea through the middle of the desert. The project sounds impressive: hydropower could make enough energy to run a desalination facility, which provides Jordan with water, and the leftover salt water could fill the Dead Sea. The resulting water should protect Jordan from a water shortage, which is a big problem.
The World Bank, which conducts this transnational peace project, expects it to cost ten billion dollars. But environmentalists are critical of this plan because the consequences of such a significant intervention are not foreseen in the delicate ecological balance of both seas.
Moritz Küstner is a German documentary photographer based in Hannover, Germany.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the work of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers.