The Rise and Fall

The Dead Sea has long been declining at the northern end, but it's also rising at the southern end – a worrying phenomenon.

By ZIV HELLMAN
February 1, 2012 11:58
A Dry Dead Sea

A Dry Dead Sea_311. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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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 artificial construction.

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 Ministry.

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 ground.

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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 even more.

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 world.

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.

That further 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 batteries.

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.

The agreement 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 north basin.

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.

“The relevant 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.”

The 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.”

Zicherman, 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.”

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