Israel steps in to stop the Dead Sea from dying

Israel is looking to auction off the rights to mine the Dead Sea years earlier than scheduled in a bid to maintain one of the country's biggest businesses without worsening an environmental tragedy.

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL (REUTERS) - Israel is stepping in to try and stop the Dead Sea from dying.

The salt lake - popular with tourists and located at the lowest point on earth - has been shrinking at the rate of around 1m per year.

That has left behind deserted beaches and sinkholes in a slow-motion environmental disaster.

The main cause is the drying up of the Jordan River as communities upstream draw on it for farming and drinking.

But mineral extraction also makes the crisis worse - of the 700 to 800 million cubic metres of water lost each year, Israel estimates that 250 to 350 million are from mining the sea.

And that is where Israel is stepping in.

The country is looking to re-tender the concession to operate the biggest extractor, the Dead Sea Works, as early as 2022 - eight years ahead of schedule.

That concession is currently held until 2030 by Israel Chemicals, which harvests the Dead Sea's mineral-rich waters for ingredients for fertilisers, flame retardants and other products sold for billions of dollars worldwide.

The Environmental Protection Agency says it currently has no incentive to reduce the amount of water it pumps from the sea.

And the Israeli government is motivated not only by environmental concerns but also worries that Israel Chemicals will hold off new investments in the concession's final years.

It believes Israel Chemicals will agree to the early re-tender because the firm gets the first right of refusal, and also because it has got a good reason to scrap the current concession, as it contains an article that gives the government the rights to interfere in investments from 2020.

Without intervention, it is thought that the Dead Sea will keep losing water - though experts believe it may eventually reach equilibrium, albeit, at a much smaller size.