The Dead Sea is dying, with the world's saltiest water body threatened by a lack of fresh water and an increasingly tense political situation, environmentalists have warned.
The bare, sun-baked landscape around the Dead Sea -- the lowest point on earth which is bordered by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank -- has since Biblical times been fed by the Jordan river's fresh water.
But that has been systematically diverted for agricultural and hydroelectric projects, while an evaporation basin for farming world-famous Dead Sea minerals has lowered the water level by one metre (three feet) a year for the past two decades.
Now, warns Gideon Bromberg of Friends of the Earth Israel, the whole area is headed for ecological disaster unless serious measures are taken.
"The ecological situation is catastrophic," Bromberg told AFP. "In 50 years, the Dead Sea has lost a third of its surface area and its water level is continuing to drop rapidly."
"For the time being nothing concrete has been undertaken," he said, adding that the Dead Sea has lost 98 percent of the fresh water it previously had from the Jordan River which today has become "a drain".
The consequences are particularly serious on the western Israeli and West Bank shores, he said.
Every year new cracks appear in the seabed, draining more waters away. Lucrative thermal spas such as those at Ein Gedi in Israel have seen the salty waters retreat two kilometres (about one and a half miles).
"We have discovered 1,650 holes and crevasses, some of them dozens of metres deep," Eli Raz, a geologist specialising in the Dead Sea, told AFP.
The holes are mainly caused by rain water coming down from surrounding mountains and dissolving salt crystals that had previously plugged access to underground caverns.
Raz said the holes are mainly in inaccessible areas and are not yet threatening infrastructure such as buildings or the roads that bring thousands of tourists to the Dead Sea every year, as they have done for millennia, to enjoy the sparse beauty of the surroundings and the health benefits of the water.
The mineral-rich water combined with the higher atmospheric pressure of the world's lowest land depression and lack of hay fever causing pollens in the air have excellent benefits.
Last July, the World Bank approved a feasibility study for a plan to build a 200-kilometre (120-mile) canal to bring water from the Red Sea to the south.
The two-year study by Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians is to cost 15.5 million dollars and will be financed by foreign donors.
If the feasibility study give the go-ahead, the project will take around five years to complete.
Its second phase involves building power generation and water desalination plants to supply electricity and fresh water to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Experts say the Dead Sea needs some two billion cubic metres (528 billion gallons) of water annually from the Red Sea because 66 billion cubic metres (17.4 trillion gallons) have evaporated through industrial use.
But since the victory of Islamist militant movement Hamas in January's Palestinian elections, Israel has cut virtually all contacts with the Palestinian Authority, further complicating the delicate situation.
Moreover, some ecologists are concerned that the canal project will cause more damage than good, upsetting the Dead Sea's delicate equilibrium by bringing salt water in to replace the depleted supply of fresh water.
Some 50 kilometres (30 miles) long by 17 kilometres wide at its broadest point, the Dead Sea's water level is 412 metres below the Mediterranean Sea and is famed as the saltiest body of water in the world, around 10 times more saline than the oceans.
Both Israel and Jordan have set up nature reserves around the Dead Sea, home to ibexes, camels, foxes and the occasional leopard.
The area is also famous for having preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls in caves that served as libraries on the sea's northern shore for 2,000 years.