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Dead Sea Living

[Image by Intuitive Pictures] [Image by Intuitive Pictures]

Dead Sea Living, directed by German Gutierrez. Canada/France/Palestine, 2013.

Although the Dead Sea has no life, it provides living through the rich minerals extracted from it. Yet the flood of water into the Dead Sea is slowly receding. It has witnessed a ninety-foot drop in only thirty years on a lake that is just sixty-seven kilometers long and twenty kilometers wide. At this rate, the Dead Sea will bottom out as a small pond in about fifty years.

German Gutierrez’s film Dead Sea Living depicts the dying of the Dead Sea and its economic, environmental, social, and political implications. Gutrierrez is a Colombian film director currently based in Canada who has made other documentaries, including the Coca Cola Case (2009), Who Shot my Brother? (2009), and Societies Under the Influence (1999). The original idea for Dead Sea Living came from Palestinian film director George Khleifi and other colleagues in 2009. In a recent interview, Khleifi said: “we witnessed the changing reality around the Dead Sea. We used to sit three steps away from the water of the Dead Sea on the terrace at the Lido Beach. Now, the sea receded six hundred to seven hundred meters and you cannot walk in that area as it is full of sinkholes. These six hundred to seven hundred meters are actually what used to be the bottom of the Sea.” He added that living in the region makes you aware of the water crisis, since water is under Israeli control and there are constant water cuts in the summer.[1] Khleifi wrote and pitched the original project and received support mainly from the European television network Arte and Radio Canada.

The documentary crosses traditional lines to reach audiences interested in the link between socioeconomic and political conditions and environmental sustainability. It also crosses geographic lines between the Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian areas around the Dead Sea, shifting between photographing the main sites of the Dead Sea, Jordan River, and Sea of Galilee to interviewing officials, as well as, people whose daily lives are directly affected by the changes taking place.

The film portrays a stunning landscape of the Dead Sea and the surrounding areas. As the film’s photography employs panoramic and aerial imagery showing the rich ecological and historic context, it zooms into the political reality that is contributing to its obliteration. The film moves between narratives that invoke both biblical connotations as well as colonization and domination. It simultaneously contrasts life and death, the revival of the Dead Sea and its demise.

The dying of the Dead Sea is a result of the drying up of the Jordan River, which used to feed the Dead Sea from the Sea of Galilee. The Jordan River is believed to be the site of Jesus’ baptism. It attracts pilgrims from all over the world who come to both the Jordanian and the Israeli sides of the river to be baptized. But the Jordan River’s water, as Gidon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Israel puts it in the film, “is anything but holy.” The water bottles sold at the Israeli baptism site have a warning label indicating that they are “for religious use only, do not drink.” This water, adds Bromberg, is a polluted mixture of sewage, brine, and runoff from fish farms and agricultural operations.

[Image by Intuitive Pictures]

As countries in the region compete for fresh water, the Dead Sea has had the tap shut off from both ends.[2] In the north, Jordan, Syria, and Israel have cut off the Jordan River; in the south, two massive mineral extraction operations occupy the entire southern basin of the Dead Sea: the Arab Potash Company in Jordan and the Dead Sea Works in Israel. The Canada Potash Company is a shareholder in both. The film portrays how these mineral extraction industries are accelerating the rate of evaporation of the existing waters.

The Dead Sea is in fact one of the most profitable mines in the world. In addition, the resort and tourist businesses that have been recently established along its cost were created by the potash industry. The film ironically depicts how the tourism pools—where people come from all over the world to float in, and seek the health remedies of, the minerals of the Dead Sea—are nothing but a one-square-kilometer reservoir created by the nearby chemical plants.

The camera simultaneously shows naked women tanning in an Israeli Dead Sea resort alongside depictions of the plight of Palestinians who do not have enough water to survive, let alone enjoy the luxury of access to the Dead Sea.  Palestinian access to the area has been severely restricted since the early 1990s. According to the Oslo Accords, the Western aquifer in the West Bank is shared by Israel and the Palestinians, while the Eastern aquifer is exclusively Palestinian, though in fact it is totally controlled by Israel through the mechanisms of its occupation. Agriculture in the West Bank constitutes thirty to thirty-five percent of Palestinian GDP, and as a result, the Palestinian economy is much more vulnerable to a water shortage than Israel’s.[3] In comparison, the film portrays how sixty percent of Israel’s water goes to agriculture, for a revenue of two percent of its GDP, while Jordan uses seventy percent of its water for agriculture, for a revenue of approximately four percent of its GDP. Gidon Bromberg has noted in the film that it was “nonsensical” (and not sustainable) to grow bananas in the desert.

The film contrasts the conditions of the Palestinian farmers who are denied the right to dig wells with those in the Israeli settlements in the West Bank who are permitted to drill wells deep enough to tap the mountain aquifer. By blocking the Jordan River’s borders, Israel has also blocked the access to the river for Palestinian farmers from villages such as Bardala and Ein Al-Baida. Palestinians in the Jordan Valley villages must live on only fifty liters of water per day. That is about half of what the World Health Organization considers as the minimum for human sustainability. By contrast, Israelis on average have access to about 350 liters of water/day.[4]

[Image by Intuitive Pictures]

In the film, Palestinian farmer Abu Saqr, from Al-Hadidiyeh in the Jordan Valley, indicates that the sonic bombs of the Israeli military destroyed a well for collecting rain and that he is prevented from fixing it. The camera immediately moves between Abu Saqr’s land and the neighboring Israeli settlement, Moshav Ro’i, where settlers plant flowers for export to Europe. While the cost of the water, subsidized by the Israeli government, is three Israeli New Sheqels (INS) per cubic meter for agriculture and seven to eight INS for home use at the settlement, Abu Saqr has to wait for two weeks for water delivery and pays twenty-seven INS per cubic meter. Uri Shani, who previously served as the head of the Water Authority in Israel, says in an interview in the film that in Area C, according to the Oslo Agreements, Palestinians need permission to dig, as they are “unfortunately under occupation.” Shaddad Attili, Minister and Head of the Palestinian Water Authority, complains in a subsequent scene that he cannot lay a simple pipe in the West Bank without permission from Israel.

The film vividly portrays how the Palestinians are the weakest side in any of the negotiations surrounding access to the Dead Sea and control of the water flowing into it. According to Khleifi, “The Oslo Agreements are clearly biased towards Israel and a number of mistakes were made by the Palestinians in the negotiations in regard to control over water."[5] He described to me the severe water shortages in the Hebron and Bethlehem areas and the draconian restrictions imposed by the Israeli Civil (read military) Administration in regard to digging wells. “The technicalities of the Israeli occupation in delaying authorizations for Palestinians to dig wells could lead to months, if not years, of delays, as every request needs to go through at least ten departments.”[6]

Dead Sea Living links the shrinking and disappearance of the Dead Sea with the overall problem of fresh water for people in the region. The film  ends by showing how politics and environmental protection policies are contested when attempting to find a solution to the Dead Sea problem. Environmentalists suggest restoring the Jordan River instead of creating canals that will connect the Red and/or Mediterranean Sea to the Dead Sea. This could prevent the unpredictable side effects of these new canals, and lead to more conservation policies in Jordan, Syria, and Israel that could in turn revive the Jordan River. Yet, as long as both Israel and Jordan are growing food and flowers for the supermarkets of Europe while draining the aquifers to do it, and while the mineral companies are draining the Dead Sea for short-term profit-making endeavors, conservation efforts will remain limited. Most importantly, as long as the Israeli occupation and building of settlements are in place , and as long as wars in Iraq and Syria continue to bring more refugees into Jordan, conservation policies will remain subordinated to geopolitical concerns.  The film clearly shows that any proposed solution has to take into account sustainability, not just to the Dead Sea and the Jordan River, but to the dignity of all people living in the area.


[1] Skype interview by the author with George Khleifi, 7 October 2014.

[2] According to an interview in the film with Maysoon Zoubi, Secretary General of Water in Jordan, by 2025 Jordan would have exhausted all its reserves of ground water. Before 1948, Jordan had 3400 cubic meters per capita per year; now it is 145. Demand exceeds supply by two hundred percent.

[3] Background information for Dead Sea Living, 2013.

[4] Background information for Dead Sea Living, 2013.

[5] Skype interview by author with George Khleifi, October 7, 2014.

[6] In person interview by author with George Khleifi, July 27, 2014, Nazareth, Israel.

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