GHOR HADITHA, Jordan - Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians are slowly pushing through the tangle of their disputes and suspicions in a race to save a biblical and ecological treasure, the Dead Sea.
The famously salty sea, which lies at Earth's lowest point, is shrinking. It has receded about three feet a year for the last 25 years, and Jordan and Israel warn that if the trend continues, it will vanish by 2050 along with its unique ecosystem, defeated by river diversions, mineral extraction and natural reasons, such as evaporation.
A crucial project to boost the water level by piping in water from the Red Sea has long been held up by disputes between Israel and its Palestinian and Jordanian neighbors.
But, said Mohammed Thafer al-Alem, Jordan's water minister, "the ball began to roll a few months ago because of the gravity of the situation and the dangers facing the Dead Sea, which is a unique heritage not only to the countries that border it but to the whole world."
The urgency is made clear by a dramatic side effect of the dwindling water: sinkholes.
These yawn open in a flash, leaving pits 100 feet deep or more in the sponge-like terrain. At Ghor Haditha, a Jordanian village of 6,000 people on the Dead Sea's southern tip, signs warn of the peril and huge holes dot the vegetable fields.
The sinkholes happen because underground aquifers shrink and salt left by the receding Dead Sea waters erodes the earth.
The Dead Sea, or Salt Sea, is mentioned in the Old Testament. The sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are said to have stood on its banks, and from nearby Mount Nebo, Moses reputedly first saw the Promised Land.
The sun-baked lake, surrounded by spectacular desert cliffs, has also become a tourist attraction for both Jordan and Israel, because of its curative waters and black mud. Five-star hotels are sprouting on its shores, creating pollution problems that pose a further threat.
The Dead Sea lies nearly 1,400 feet below sea level. It is 42 miles long, up to 11 miles wide and over 1,000 feet deep.