A plan that may be worth its salt

The CEO of Israel Chemicals says desalination can save the Dead Sea - and promote peace in the bargain.

dead sea 298 (photo credit: )
dead sea 298
(photo credit: )
Mozes wants to bring life to the Dead Sea. That's Akiva Mozes, chief executive officer of Israel Chemicals Ltd., Israel's second-biggest publicly traded company, and prophet for desalination technology. The sea's surface has shrunk by a third since the 1960s, sundering the salty tract in two. The Jordan River, which once replenished the Dead Sea with water from the Sea of Galilee, is now little more than a sewage canal. Water is siphoned off upstream for drinking and agriculture, parching the river where Jesus Christ was baptized and the sea that marks Earth's lowest point. Mozes's company is currently part of the problem, says Gidon Bromberg, director in Israel of Friends of the Earth, the environmental nonprofit. Evaporation ponds built by Israel Chemicals to scoop out glistening white carnalite crystals of magnesium and potassium account for part of the annual water loss, he says. "Right now, they're contributing to the demise of the Dead Sea," says Bromberg, 43. The World Bank and the governments of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories are assessing a $5 billion plan to replenish the sea with marine water from the Red Sea by building a 180-kilometer-long (112 mile-long) link. While Mozes welcomes the study, he's worried that the introduction of marine water could upset the mineral composition of the Dead Sea that Israel Chemicals relies on. The Dead Sea's water is 10 times more saline than ocean water, according to the World Bank. "There are people who say it can damage the Dead Sea," he says. Mozes, 60, has a simpler plan: Build desalination plants on Israel's coast instead. "They should allow the river to flow and take the drinking water from desalination," Mozes says. "Then nature is back.'' Quenching the region's thirst may produce another precious commodity: peace. "Here, a lot of wars are around water," Mozes says. "With desalination, you can solve war in the Middle East.'' It would also mean profits for Israel Chemicals' IDE Technologies Ltd. unit, which builds desalination plants, and security for Israel Chemicals' Dead Sea operations. Friends of the Earth's Bromberg isn't objecting. "He has an economic interest in seeing the Jordan River flowing," Bromberg says. "We agree, so there is a convergence of opinions here.'' Desalination plants alone can't save the river and sea because their water is too expensive for agriculture, says Inger Andersen, a World Bank director involved in the Red-Dead study. "In today's world, you have people whose livelihood depends on the river," she says. "One cannot get back to the river's optimal level.'' Israel Chemicals' IDE unit led construction of a $240 million desalination plant at Ashkelon on Israel's Mediterranean coast. It produces 100 million cubic meters of water a year at NIS 2.6 (64 cents) per cubic meter. That adds up to $64 million a year - a bargain, Mozes says. "How much is an aircraft? How much is an F-16?'' he asks. An F-16 can cost $50 million, according to Fairfax, Virginia-based Teal Group. Bromberg says the Red-Dead project won't bring peace to Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian West Bank. "What will really contribute to peace is cross-border tourism, and that will be promoted by a healthy Jordan River," Bromberg says. If a CEO and an environmental activist can agree, perhaps miracles are possible in the Holy Land. - Bloomberg