Efforts to prevent the Dead Sea from receding any further must become a national priority, President Moshe Katsav said on Wednesday.
He was speaking to an interministerial and regional group convened by Shimon Hefetz, the president's military adjutant, to discuss the future of the important resource.
The receding level of the Dead Sea has had negative impacts on the environment, not the least of which is the erosion of the shoreline. The problem has been known for more than a century, but most notably since the 1960s.
Over the years, various ministries, regional councils, institutes for Israel studies, the water commissioner, the Geological Institute, the Israel Hotels Association and other bodies have attempted to solve the problem, but to no avail.
At the start of discussions at Beit Hanassi on Wednesday, Katsav stressed the urgency of consensus - "if not total at least by a large majority" - and said that he was not prepared to hear too many disagreements.
But the situation turned out to be symptomatic of the old adage that where there are two Jews, there are three opinions.
Katsav could not even get each of the approximately 30 participants to concur on the fact that the recession of the Dead Sea is a natural disaster.
Several solutions have been proposed in the past, most notably the construction of a canal for the transportation of water from either the Mediterranean Sea or the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. There has also been talk of importing water from Turkey.
The introduction of pipeline could enhance tourism, revitalize industry and agriculture and provide thousands of new jobs.
However no solution can be implemented without proper feasibility studies on how it would affect the color and quality of the water, and what impact the new water levels would have on geology and on the tourism industry.
All the local hotels were built after significant declines in water levels. If the water is replenished, albeit at a slow rate, hotel foundations will be weakened and hotel lobbies will eventually be flooded.
Suggestions that hotels be moved back from the shoreline have been rebuffed by hoteliers on two counts: the expense involved, and the fact that the attraction to tourists is the very fact that they can go directly from the hotel into the sea that has so many curative properties.
Among the dangers of maintaining the status quo is that as the Dead Sea continues to recede, fresh water can move through layers of the subsurface. Without the salt of the Dead Sea, the subsurface weakens and caves in. As a result, there are now several craters in the region, and there is an increasing likelihood of earthquakes.
Katsav said that he would recommend to the incoming prime minister that a special interministerial committee be appointed to deal in the most comprehensive fashion with the Dead Sea issue. Such a committee should be given both the authority and the resources to decide on and implement an agreed-upon solution, he said.
Meanwhile, he urged the various ministries and other bodies represented at the meeting to formulate a viable solution over the next three months. Whatever they come up with has to be so crystal-clear, he warned, "so that the government will find it easy to accept."
Whatever the nature of the solution, it will cost the taxpayer a great deal of money. Figures bandied about during the meeting were not in the millions but the billions of shekels.
Although Katsav has barely 18 months left in which to complete his term as president, he left no doubt that this was an issue that he will not allow to remain on the back burner.
"We can't accept this ongoing recession," he declared. "We cannot resign ourselves to the situation. We have to come up with creative and effective ideas that will be beneficial to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority."
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