Early on a recent weekday morning, three busloads of ultra-Orthodox Jewish women from Jerusalem debarked at a private beach near this tiny Israeli settlement along the Dead Sea shore. They filed down a series of wooden walkways and steps — which are constantly being extended as the waters recede — that protect visitors from the slippery newly exposed mud. Finally, they lowered themselves into the strangely buoyant water with a gentle plop.
By evening, it was the turn of the ultra-Orthodox men, while an adjacent beach was full of young Palestinians from the West Bank.
The Dead Sea has long drawn visitors for its uniqueness — its surface is now about nearly 1,400 feet below sea level, making these beaches the lowest dry points on earth. The north part, in territory that Israel conquered in the 1967 Middle East war, is popular with Israelis, Christian pilgrims and tourists from Jerusalem. And in the year since Israel eased travel restrictions in the West Bank, removing some major roadblocks, Palestinians are also able to reach the northern shores.
In another point of convergence, the governments of Israel, Jordan, which lies across the water, and the Palestinian Authority have joined in a bid to promote the Dead Sea in an Internet competition to be voted one of the new seven natural wonders of the world.
With the water level now dropping by more than three feet a year, many here hope that the competition will focus attention on ways to restore the waters.
“We chase after the water with steps,” said Yusef Matari, a lifeguard at the private beach, Neve Midbar, or Desert Oasis. Mr. Matari has been working in the area for 20 years. “It changes every month,” he said. “There is no permanent shore.”
Some of the ultra-Orthodox women kept on long robes, adhering to strict religious codes of modesty, although Mr. Matari, perched in his lifeguard’s hut on a slope high above the current water line, was the only man in sight.
At nearby Kalia beach, the managers have been trying to encourage more young people to come down for parties by renovating the beach bar, and promoting it as the lowest watering hole in the world.
Dahani Utseh, 35, paddled in the salt-thickened water. She had come with her brother-in-law and her small daughter from Nablus, in the northern West Bank. It was her first time.
While the Palestinians claim about 25 miles of shoreline that lie in the West Bank as part of a future state, Aviv Cohen, a site manager who lives at the settlement, said the negotiations were not his business. The settlement, which is a small kibbutz, or communal farm, is investing heavily, with plans to build a restaurant and a visitors center, he said.
Khalil Tufakji, a Palestinian geographer, said the Palestinians also have more distant plans to build hotels and health spas.
But at this place, where heaven and earth are farthest apart, the challenges that pit people against nature are particularly stark.
The water level has been dropping steeply since the 1960s, mainly as a result of Israel, Jordan and Syria diverting almost all the waters of the Jordan River, which used to feed the Dead Sea, for domestic use and agriculture. Potash industries on both the Israeli and Jordanian sides of the lake also play a significant role in depleting the Dead Sea, since the extraction process relies heavily on evaporation ponds. The southern basin, where the industries and the Israeli hotel district are located, was always shallow. Now it would be completely dried out were it not for the industrial evaporation pools, whose water is artificially pumped in from the northern part.
One proposed solution is to construct a water conduit from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, which would generate hydroelectricity and provide desalinated water, primarily to Jordan, which is acutely short of water, and also help refill the Dead Sea. The governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority agreed to a World Bank-sponsored feasibility study that has begun.
Environmentalists are concerned, however, about the potential impact of the project, warning, among other things, that mixing the waters could result in an algae bloom that could give the Dead Sea a reddish hue. Alternatively, a coat of white gypsum could form on the top. They argue that the study is being rushed, with results due in 2011.
“It is our governments, our politicians, who want a quick decision,” said Gidon Bromberg, director of the Israeli branch of Friends of the Earth Middle East, a regional environmental group.
His group is calling instead for the rehabilitation of the Lower Jordan River through drastic changes in water management. But that may be difficult in a thirsty region where the agricultural lobbies are strong.
“They do not like to hear about water reform,” said Munqeth Mehyar, the director of Friends of the Earth Middle East’s Jordanian branch, speaking by telephone from Amman.
Contrary to popular wisdom, the Dead Sea will not entirely disappear. It could drop another 300 feet or so from its current maximum depth of 1,240 feet over the next hundred years, according to Ittai Gavrieli, director of the Geological Survey of Israel, a government body. Then, he said, evaporation would slow down as the surface area shrank, and the water level would stabilize.
In the meantime, at Kalia beach, a jetty that used to reach into the water sticks out in midair. Farther south, “Danger of Drowning” signs dot the desert, warning against unauthorized bathing when there is no water in sight. But the drying up of the Dead Sea has brought another hazard: sinkholes, some large enough to swallow a car, that suddenly open up in the sand.
Rina Roth, one of the ultra-Orthodox bathers, blamed the relatively harmless cosmetics industry that makes products from Dead Sea minerals and mud.
“God gave it to us as a present. It is for future generations,” she said of the lake. “They should stop with all the cosmetics and leave it as God made it.”