Against the backdrop of neglected spa resorts, octogenarian tourists in white bath robes trek over a crackly, dried-out white beach, past foreboding signs that read “Danger, Pits Ahead.” They are here to float on the surface of this uber-saline lake nestled between Israel and Jordan—while it’s still here.
Clive Lipchin, the director of the Arava Institute Center for Transboundary Water Management in southern Israel, says that those tourists, “who are woefully unaware of the realities” are actually swimming in evaporation ponds, made as an impromptu solution of the area’s environmental catastrophe.
The Dead Sea, a lake located on the lowest spot on earth, is dying. Thousands of sinkholes have appeared in past years, shuttering all but one public beach. Dead Sea water levels are falling at an alarming five to eight feet every year.
But you’d wouldn’t know it from the multi-million dollar Dead Sea cosmetics industry gobbled up by tourists visiting this unique ecological spot. From the ads for mud masks, bath salts, and other healing products made from the area’s raw materials, it would seem the Dead Sea is the healthiest it’s ever been.
“Cosmetic companies, like the tourism industry and the government, are very quiet about the fact that we’re about to lose an international treasure,” Lipchin said, who argues that such companies, with governmental and economic influence, should be making a push to offset the Dead Sea’s ecological loss. “What they’re failing to reckon with is that once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.”
The Dead Sea has a saline concentration of more than 30 percent, making it uninhabitable for sea-life. Its rich reserve of potassium, magnesium, bromide and calcium chloride has made it a top spot for healing for travelers over the centuries seeking a cure from everything from arthritis to eczema to acne. But beyond the body of water, the Dead Sea supports a diverse ecosystem of flora, fauna, and a still unknown number of unique species.
Climate change has made it more difficult for the Dead Sea to receive water from other tributaries and industrial factories have also worked to pump the Dead Sea dry. For decades, the Israeli factory known as Dead Sea Works has turned the southern part of the lake into evaporation pumps from which to extract potash, magnesium chloride, and other raw materials. Moreover, as the plant life around the Dead Sea disappears, it threatens the migration of half a billion birds who use the route to refuel in their migration from Europe to Africa and back.
Alongside factories that are producing de-icers, industrial salts, and table salts, beauty companies play a smaller, but more public role in the Dead Sea’s extinction. Lipchin says that Ahava, one of the largest Dead Sea cosmetics company, has faced an existential crisis as the lake has dried up. In 2015, the company was sold to a Chinese conglomerate, leaving lingering questions over its strategy vis-a-vis its diminishing source.
But Ahava and its like are also, ironically, doing well in the time of peak “wellness,” a relatively new market that has in recent years become a trillion-dollar business worldwide. Dead Sea cosmetics companies rely heavily on exports and its products can be found easily across American malls, where young Israelis working minimum wages, and often without proper visas, aggressively hawk the products.
They are taking part in a trend fueled by origin myth-centered beauty solutions that have been cemented into mainstream culture by new-agey phenomena like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop.com. According to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit research organization analyzing the wellness industry, the global wellness market grew 10.6 percent to $3.72 trillion from 2013 to 2015, even as the global economy shrank 3.6 percent over the same period. The institute’s 2017 report found that “a collective, growing awareness among a subset of (more educated and affluent) consumers that their choices convey meaning, purpose, and impact beyond their own personal gratification.”
But while natural products may not be toxic to humans, humans have certainly proven toxic to nature.
The almond milk craze has left an intense ecological footprint, especially on the farms of drought-plagued California. Critics say that shampoos based on avocado oil are wasting valuable land resources as the world faces food shortages, and that high avocado prices have led to deforestation in Mexico. The mere volume of packaging for new beauty products (both natural and not) means that more plastic is littering beaches and seas, and consequently harming marine life. In Israel, Dead Sea mud masks, bath salts, and other healing products reflect a human-accelerated disaster on a site that less than ten years ago was being considered a candidate for the “New Seven Wonders of Nature.”
Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli Director of EcoPeace Middle East, an activist NGO that promotes environmental solutions across the region, says that industrialization of the Dead Sea has already killed a significant portion of the area’s famed healing products and continues to threaten a broader, diverse, but still-understudied, ecosystem. “We can’t even begin to know the value of what we are losing,” he says.
Environmentalists’ hopes were raised in 2013, when Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan announced that they would direct water from the Red Sea to replenish the Dead Sea’s sinking water levels. But four years later, the plan continues to be bogged down by funding, timing and political snags. In the meantime, Bromberg says, experts are trying their hardest to convince politicians and community leaders to act to save what is left of one of the world’s most dynamic environmental phenomena.
“If they saw the Dead Sea now, King Herod [who made the Dead Sea his spa resort] and Cleopatra [who credited the Dead Sea for her remarkable complexion and who made various attempts to purchase and acquire the sea for Egypt] and would be turning over in their graves,” he says.