Back from the Dead?

How can the rapidly disappearing Dead Sea be salvaged?

dead sea dry 1 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
dead sea dry 1 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Dead Sea lures visitors from all over the world because of its healing properties and the ability to float on the water's surface. Yet, it is rapidly disappearing. The water level is now dropping by a meter a year and has dropped 30 meters in the last 80 years. If nothing is done, the sea will dwindle to a third of its current size and will drop another 130 meters in the next 50 years, architect Edna Lerman told environmentalists, employees of the Dead Sea Works, planners and researchers during a conference at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha last week. The sea is running away from the beaches and there is a widening land bridge between the northern part and the southern part, which is heavily mined for minerals. Sinkholes have opened up on the shores, making construction an iffy proposition and stifling continued development, she said. The government is aware of the problems surrounding development of the Dead Sea. Lerman's firm won the contract from the Interior Ministry to develop two planning documents. National Plan 13 will lay out the development vision for the Tamar Regional Council, which encompasses the Dead Sea, over the next 20 to 30 years. The second document will lay out policy directives for the Dead Sea region, taking into account the country's neighbors, for the next 50 years. Lerman's documents will deal with two possible scenarios: continued inaction and therefore a continued dwindling of the sea, or action to stabilize or increase the water levels. Concurrently, the World Bank is organizing a feasibility study of a conduit from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. However, the development plans that Lerman is overseeing will not provide direct solutions to the water level issue, as it is regional and not solely under Israel's jurisdiction. Politically, Lerman said, the area is also in flux. While the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan defined the border between the two states, there has been no agreement with the Palestinian Authority about its rights, if any, in the area. That political uncertainty undermines development in any direction, because investors are leery of putting money into a project which could potentially end up on the wrong side of a border one day. Lerman has spent the past 18 months surveying the area, and the conference was the beginning of a new phase. During that phase, the policy documents which will govern the competing concerns will be drawn up. As Interior Ministry planning branch head Shamai Assif put it, "Creating the Dead Sea Works was considered a wonderful vision 80 years ago - a real Zionist dream. Likewise, creating the hotels was also considered an Israeli vision. However, in retrospect, each vision was flawed in some way. Our job with this new vision is to balance all of the interests as best we can." The conflict lines emerged very quickly during a recent panel on developing the Dead Sea area. Five interests compete for prominence: industry, tourism, agriculture, settlement and ecological concerns. The panelists, each representing a concern, quickly tried to prove how essential they were both to the area and to the country. Industry The Dead Sea Works has a license to mine the southern part of the sea for minerals and has been doing so for 80 years. However, as a result of its activities, a growing layer of salt has been pushing up the level of the southern part or Pool 5. That has caused flooding in the foundations of the hotels. Moreover, it uses evaporation pools as part of the industrial process and has acknowledged that a certain amount of the dropping water level is a result of its actions. Danny Chen, the company's CEO, set that number at 9 percent, though others at the conference cited 15%, while environmentalists have said that if you measure the drop by volume rather than total quantity of water then it could be as much as 30%-40%. On the other hand, Chen said, the company employs 26,000 people and provides NIS 1.5 billion each year to government coffers in taxes and compensation. It represents 13% of business in the South, he added. Surrounding cities like Dimona also rely heavily on the Dead Sea Works and the business it brings to the region, he said. "We are aware of the problem we are causing and are acting to solve it. A government company has been set up to deal with the problem, and we will be part of the solution," Chen said. Lerman told The Jerusalem Post during a break that what is needed is to grind down the salt level, which was a very expensive process. "We're hoping to operate under the premise that those who are responsible for the problem fix it," she said. There are several other companies which mine the Dead Sea for minerals, but none as large as the Dead Sea Works. Tourism While Israel's neighbors have increased their incoming tourism by 150%-200% over the last decade, this country remains at almost exactly the same place it was in 1997: 2.1 million visitors per year, Eli Gonen, head of the Israel Hotels Association said. Dead Sea tourism employed 3,500 people and generated NIS 755.2 million a year in revenue, although only 7% is profit, he said. There are currently around 5,000 hotel rooms on the Israeli side of the sea, he added. If the status of the site is cleared up both in terms of the competing interests and politically, the tourism potential would go through the roof. The plan, he said, is to build at least another 18,000 hotel rooms over the next 50 years. However, that will only happen if the water level is stabilized or restored and if an arrangement with the industries in the area can be worked out. Settlement and agriculture The Tamar region and the Megilot region to the north of the Dead Sea each have fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. Both council heads urged the government to act immediately to save the sea to encourage settlement. Tamar Regional Council head Dov Litvinoff also urged increased allotments for agriculture. Environmental issues Prof. Marcelo Sternberg, of Tel Aviv University's Department of Plant Sciences, touched on one of the more intangible aspects of environmental preservation - environmental services. Environmental services are things like clean water, oxygen, timber and other resources that functioning ecosystems provide. While presented as economic services, scientists have yet to figure out how to quantify them in monetary terms. The dropping water levels, industrial, tourism and agricultural activities have all damaged a unique and fragile ecosystem, Sternberg said. Groundwater reservoirs and natural habitats are disappearing because of the lack of water. This is especially problematic because the Syrian-African Rift is home to a large variety of flora and fauna, he added. Sternberg also warned that there is an increasing likelihood of "nonlinear changes." In other words, more damage to the area could cause much more harm. "With nature, one plus one doesn't always equal two; it could equal four or five," he said. He suggested several concrete measures to minimize the impact and begin to restore the ecosystem, such increasing the flow down the Jordan River to replenish the Dead Sea. Right now, only sewage and effluent from fishponds run in the river's channel. Strict conservation efforts in the area are also needed, he said. He also recommended concentrating the human impacts - hotels and agriculture - in the already disturbed areas. Agriculture should not be expanded, sustainable support capabilities should be incorporated into the area and pollution sources should be reduced, he concluded. While Sternberg painted a bleak picture, he concluded on a note of optimism saying it is not too late to reverse the changes. In a sign of how little environmental concerns are understood, Tamar Regional Council head Litvinoff said what he understood from Sternberg's presentation was that he was recommending "that the Dead Sea be abandoned" (by human habitation and activities). His comment was greeted by a deadly silence from the audience. On a regional level, there are also considerations to take into account, Lerman said. The Jordanians are planning to build 33,000 hotel rooms on their side and population figures predicted a growth from 60,000 to 150,000-310,000 residents in the area over the next 50 years. Similarly, the Palestinian population near Jericho is expected to grow from 25,000 now to 110,000 in 50 years. By contrast, the settlements on the west side of the sea are only expected to reach around 15,000 altogether. Such factors had to be considered when developing a plan for the area, she said. Lerman told the Post that the plan needed to integrate all of the interests in the area and provide guidance on all of them simultaneously. "Right now, each element is dealt with separately and there are plans which contradict each other. We need a unified plan and we need a separate government agency to oversee the whole process," she declared.