Experts: Dredge all salt from Dead Sea southern basin

Inaction, they warn, would eventually lead to Ein Bokek hotels being flooded.

By
May 19, 2011 06:07
dead sea

dead sea 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post))

 
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The 20 million tons of salt that burden the southern portion of the Dead Sea and are likely to eventually cause flooding at the local hotels must be harvested and dumped in the northern portion of the sea, an expert panel of environmentalists said in a report released this week.

To maintain operational efficiency as it harvests minerals from its evaporation ponds, the Dead Sea Works is perpetually pumping in water to the southern portion of the sea, which has caused water levels in the area to rise at a rate of about 200 millimeters per year, explained Prof. Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research.

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Tal co-authored the study along with Agriculture Ministry researcher Prof. Uri Mingelgrin and planner Moti Kaplan.

Without adding this extra water, the southern part of the Dead Sea would all but disappear, Tal said. But with this increased amount of liquid, the company also must build an additional meter of embankment walls every five years to prevent overflow of the water into the hotels, he said.

“You have to mine a lot of raw materials to make a giant wall around the basin,” Tal told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, adding that a wall can also only be built so high. “Hotels at tourist area of Ein Bokek filed a legal petition with the High Court saying that in a few years’ time, ‘Our lobbies will be flooded.’” The Dead Sea Preservation Government Company, a branch of the Tourism Ministry, therefore commissioned Tal and his co-authors to determine the most environmentally safe method of addressing this problem.

Their choices: Build a lagoon for water drainage eastward to maintain the current water level, mine all of the salt out of the area, or flood the hotels and rebuild them on higher ground, Tal said.

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The most environmentally sound method, the team determined, was the second – using dredges to mine all the 20 million annual tons of salt out of the southern basin’s Pan. No. 5, grinding it up, and sending it along a conveyor belt to be buried in the northern Dead Sea, which isn’t lined with tourist attractions.

For the committee, the idea of destroying and rebuilding the hotels was out of the question, as this would require a huge amount of raw materials mined out of the Negev Desert.

“This would cause irreversible damage to the desert and its ecology,” Tal said.

Environmental groups agreed with this and touted the report in general.

“Harvesting salt is the preferred environmental solution and is the only way to maintain the equilibrium between the continued function of Dead Sea Works and the prevention of harm to hotel operations and nature in the region,” the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said in a statement.

“This option does not require wide-scale mining and excavation operations from Judean Desert streams, like the other option would, and therefore, from an environmental standpoint it is a significantly better option.”

Although the dredging technique is quite expensive – NIS 6.5 billion over the next 20 years – in terms of “meta-sustainability,” it actually saves time and money, according to the team.

“In 15 years’ time you’re going to have to do this dredging anyway,” Tal said. “You can’t build up the walls forever. You’re just buying time.”

But within the dredging, engineers would have to plan where exactly the conveyor belt with begin – across Nahal Tse’elim or along the southern tip of the basin, which Tal prefers.

“We don’t want to allow the Dead Sea Works to expand beyond its present area,” he said, explaining that since the southern basin is already “unnatural,” there’s no reason to target another area.

The team believes that Dead Sea Works should pay for 100 percent of the dredging costs.

“The Israel Corporation [owner of Dead Sea Works] and the Ofer brothers [who hold the largest stake in the company] have made a more than modest fortune on the recent sale of phosphate and other minerals from the Dead Sea Works. And that’s completely legitimate,” Tal said. “But under the ‘polluter pays’ principle, it certainly means that Dead Sea Works needs to take full responsibility for an environmentally sustainable solution to the present Dead Sea crisis.”

MK Dov Henin (Hadash), chairman of the Knesset’s Environmental and Health Committee, welcomed the report and also stressed that there is a pressing need to make sure that the production plants bear the expense of their harvests according to the “polluter pays” principle, Henin’s spokesman said.

“The report reinforces that which we already knew, that the harvesting of salt is the only sustainable solution that will take care of the Dead Sea in the long run,” said Gideon Bromberg, director of Friends of the Earth Middle East. “Only recently the Tourism Ministry received a significant budget to promote the Dead Sea in the New Seven Wonders of Nature competition; due to its consciousness of the resource’s significance, the tourism minister must prove that it is taking the responsibility for caring for the Dead Sea and adopt the obvious conclusions – beginning the harvest immediately and without superfluous delays, while charging the plants with the expenses.”

Amit Bracha, executive director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V’din), agreed, saying “It is well known that the industrial operations of Dead Sea Works will contribute not only to the rise in the level of the southern basin, but also in the drop in the level of the north,” and that “the tourism minister has an obligation to adopt the recommendations of the report.”

The company may have the rights to mine all the minerals from the area, “but this doesn’t mean that they can continue to wreak environmental havoc in order to maximize the profit,” Tal said.

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