A Dry Dead Sea_311.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Peering out over the shoreline at Ein Bokek, the main Dead Sea hotel and resort
district, Udi Zicherman can spot many locations where the rising water level of
the renowned salt lake has taken an increasingly painful toll on local
businesses in recent years.
Earthen berms constructed to keep the waters
away from the hotels have proven unequal to the task. Staircases that were
originally intended to lead holiday-makers down to the shore are now
halfsubmerged, becoming themselves part of the lake. A brightly colored sun
umbrella that once provided a spot of shade on the beach now incongruously
sticks up straight out of the water.
“For years we tried all sorts of
temporary measures to fight off the encroaching waters,” says Zicherman, the
director general of the Dead Sea Hotel Association. “The environmental and
financial damage was extensive. The water seeped into infrastructural
installations and sewage systems. Public facilities, hotels and commercial areas
were all affected. It was a losing battle.”
This may sound like yet
another story of man against nature, of hubris-filled humans discovering how
puny their efforts can seem against powerful natural forces. But it is not. The
Dead Sea was a serious contender last year in a contest for being designated one
of the seven natural wonders of the world (it did not make the list), but the
truth is that its south basin, where hotels lure international tourists to bob
in mineral-rich water under a hot sun in winter or summer, is largely an
The south basin exists in its present state only
because it serves the interests of the chemical plants at its southernmost tip,
which extract potash, bromine and other minerals from the salty waters. And the
rising waters – which at their current rate will begin flooding the lobbies of
hotels by 2017 unless they are stopped – are a side effect of the industrial
activities of those same chemical plants.
Six years ago, the Dead Sea
Hotel Association came to the conclusion that to survive it had no choice but to
initiate legal action against Israel Chemicals Ltd. (ICL), the conglomerate that
owns the Dead Sea Works. That sparked a row that pitted the chemicals industry
against the hotel industry, split successive governments and led to the creation
of a Dead Sea Authority within the Environmental Protection
Commissions of experts were hired to study the problem while
various state bodies attempted to shift responsibility from one to another.
Environmental groups demanded that ICL undertake an expensive Dead Sea clean-up
operation, based on the principle that industrial concerns must be required to
bear responsibility for repairing environmental damage that they have caused.
Several alternative solutions were suggested by various groups, including a
proposal that all the hotels be dismantled and completely rebuilt on higher
The issue was finally resolved in late December, when Finance
Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Chemicals that if the company would not
agree to foot most of the bill for a southern Dead Sea clean-up, the ministry
would establish a committee with authority to recommend an increase in tax and
royalty payments on mineral extraction that could end up costing the corporation
ICL then signed an agreement committing it to financing 80
percent of a 3.8 billion shekel “salt harvesting” project that will remove the
salt deposits piling up on the bottom of the Dead Sea as a by-product of the
industrial mineral extraction.
The agreement, however, was not greeted as
an unadulterated victory by environmental groups and the Tourism and
Environmental Protection ministries, because they had hoped that increased
royalty levies on ICL would fund a long-term Dead Sea environmental protection
and rehabilitation effort.
Speaking to the press after a Knesset Finance
Committee session on January 10, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan
accused the Finance Ministry of “looking at everything through profit lenses.”
Quipped Erdan: “The Dead Sea is a not a bath full of minerals for the
maximization of profits.”
At this point, some readers may be scratching
their heads in confusion. For years, headlines have been proclaiming that the
Dead Sea is near death, drying up for lack of water. Sad and forlorn pictures of
a receding shoreline, uncovering a landscape pockmarked with treacherous
sinkhole craters that look like they belong on the moon more than at the lowest
spot on earth have been a staple of articles on the lake, which has one of the
highest salt concentration of any natural of body of water in the
Last September, photographer Spencer Tunick persuaded more than
1,000 Israelis to strip off at the Dead Sea for a mass nude photography
installation intended to draw attention to the plight of the shrinking sea. Now
billions are being spent to prevent overflowing waters from swallowing entire
hotel districts whole? Is the Dead Sea water level falling or rising? The answer
is both. The Dead Sea is divided into a north basin and south basin, which are
at different elevations. For millennia, water flowing from the Sea of Galilee
through the Jordan River to the Dead Sea filled both basins. As a growing
population tapped into the Sea of Galilee for its water needs, the flow of the
Jordan River slowed to a trickle: where once the river carried a flux of 1.3
billion cubic meters of water a year, today only about 200 million cubic meters
spill annually from the Jordan River into the Dead Sea.
By the 1960s, the
south basin was drying at such a rapid rate that the livelihood of the chemical
companies was threatened. They reacted to this by obtaining approval to dig a 10
mile canal that enables them to pump water from the north basin to the south
basin, essentially turning the southern end into a series of artificial
evaporation pools for the purpose of mineral extraction.
accelerated the loss of water in the north, where the water level is falling at
a frighteningly rapid rate of 4 feet per year, hence the famous photographs of
once submerged areas now exposed to the atmosphere.
The rejuvenated south
basin, meanwhile, spawned a successful hotel industry along its shores, where
4,000 hotel rooms now draw 200,000 international tourists annually, and over
600,000 Israelis seeking a local holiday get-away. The Dead Sea hotel industry
draws revenues totaling over $300 million a year.
The southern tip of the
Dead Sea is also where the ICL's industrial plants, jumbles of smokestacks and
pipes among artificial hills of recently extracted potash and salt, are located.
The ICL is today the world's sixth largest producer of potash, which is mostly
used in fertilizers. In 2010 the company extracted 4.25 million tons of potash
from the Dead Sea, selling it for revenues of $2.14 billion dollars from which
it saw net profits of $600 million. The company also extracts bromides,
magnesium chloride, industrial salts and other minerals. The minerals extracted
from the Dead Sea are used in everything from cosmetics to fertilizers and car
But the success of the mineral extraction industry comes at a
price. The evaporation process used for the extraction leaves a residue of salt,
which accumulates at the bottom of the lake at such a rapid rate that the water
level in the south basin is rising 8 inches a year, leading to the strange
situation in which guests in hotels originally constructed on the shore of the
north basin ride shuttles to get to the ever-receding shoreline there while the
southern hotels worry about flooding.
On the Dead Sea’s eastern edge,
Jordan's Arab Potash Company also makes use of evaporation pools, which are
physically separated from the Israeli pools. The Jordanian company has for
several years been required to harvest the salt by-product of its activities,
even though there are no hotels on the Jordanian side of the south basin. The
extracted salt is simply piled by the shoreline there.
between the Finance Ministry and ICL will now initiate a major, multi-year
harvesting project on the Israeli side involving high-tech machinery scraping
the salt at the bottom of the evaporation pools. ICL will plan and execute the
projecting at a cost of 3.04 billion shekels, with the state funding a further
760 million shekels.
The harvested salt, which has been deemed not
commercially usable, will be loaded on a conveyor belt to be deposited in the
As part of the agreement, royalties paid by ICL on potash
revenues will double from 5 percent to 10 percent on quantities above 1.5
million tons a year.
It is the royalties clause of the agreement that has
drawn the most criticism. “It was a mistake to connect the salt harvesting with
the royalties,” says Galit Cohen, deputy managing director of the Sustainable
Planning Division in the Environmental Protection Ministry. “A royalty rate of
only 10 percent is too small.
Regardless of the salt harvesting project,
a commission should have been convened to determine an appropriate royalty rate,
with the money placed into a permanent fund for rehabilitating the northern part
of the Dead Sea.”
Dana Tabachnik, who heads the Environmental Economics
division of the legal department of Adam, Teva VaDin, an Israeli environmental
organization, agrees. “It was a big mistake,” says Tabachnik. “The polluter
always has the responsibility to clean up industrial waste. Why should that be
connected to royalty rates? “There should be no distinction between the Dead Sea
and the Mediterranean Sea in terms of resource extraction. Last year heavy
royalty dues were imposed on gas companies drilling in the Mediterranean Sea.
The government concluded its agreement with ICL largely in secrecy, possibly
harming the public interest by not requiring the Dead Sea industries to pay in
full for the environmental damage they cause." In response, an official in the
ICL, who asked not to be identified tells The Jerusalem Report that ICL will be
paying no less than the gas explorers in the Mediterranean.
number is the total government take, from taxes and royalties combined,” says
the source. “The government take will be 50 to 60 percent from the gas
explorers. When you combine the 10 percent we will pay on revenues – not profits
– with our corporate taxes, licensing fees, and taxes on dividends, the
government take on potash extraction comes to the same or even more.”
source said ICL had raised a red flag when the first hotels started going up 40
years ago. “The issue of the rising water level has been known since hotel
construction in the area began in 1971,” continues the source. “We warned about
it then and were told that the government would take responsibility. Now,
with the rising water possibly threatening human life, ICL volunteered to pay
for salt harvesting, because we are a responsible company.”
for his part, says that the Dead Sea Hotel Association is pleased with the
agreement. “We welcome it,” Zicherman tells The Report. “Getting the Dead Sea
industries to harvest their salt deposits is the solution we have been seeking
for years. Now let's see how long it actually takes them to get to work
on it. I hope it is as soon as possible. Until then the water level will
just keep rising.”