That Sinking Feeling: A Receding Dead Sea Saps the Life Out of a Legendary Kibbutz

Ein Gedi may become Israel’s first settlement to succumb to environmental degradation. ‘I don’t know of any other community living under such threats,’ says one anxious resident

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A sinkhole that opened up on Ein Gedi grounds.
A sinkhole that opened up on Ein Gedi grounds.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Yoram Gabison
Yoram Gabison
Yoram Gabison
Yoram Gabison

“Stop the car,” Eli Raz commands. We stop. Raz, 71, a geologist and member of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, gets out, kneels and inspects the dirt. He looks worried. He’s been studying the sinkholes plaguing the Dead Sea region from the late 1990s and when he sees the telltale cracks in the ground and looks concerned, it does not bode well.

If he’s correct, this will be the 6,001st sinkhole in the northern Dead Sea area. Some 500 developed in the last year alone, but the budding one we’re staring at could bear special meaning for the kibbutz. It’s right by the path to the sulfuric Ein Gedi hot springs.

Once the shore of the Dead Sea had been a few dozen meters from the springs. As the sea level dropped, the distance grew to 1.3 kilometers. Wagons hitched to tractors drive tourists to the stony beach. The development of a sinkhole mere meters from the path that carries hundreds of tourists a day would lead the authorities to close the road. Then the kibbutz would have to either stop bringing tourists to the hot springs, diminishing its own attraction, or build a new road, which would cost millions of shekels and may never pay off, since the sinkholes are burying the tourism industry.

The gradual decline of tourism to the area is a body blow to Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which has become increasingly dependent on tourism as arable land and water vanish. If the hot springs are closed, they would join the slew of assets the kibbutz has lost – its iconic date palm and mango plantations, its beachfront campground, the tanning beach for guests suffering from psoriasis, a bridge between the hotel and kibbutz, a commercial center and gas station. All were vacated because they could disappear into a sinkhole without a second’s notice.

One morning in October 2003, Raz was documenting a sinkhole next to Hever Stream, five kilometers from Ein Gedi, when he suddenly found himself under nine meters of dirt, with no water, no cellphone reception and no way to call for help. He was rescued some 13 hours later.

These days, Kibbutz Ein Gedi has 200 members with an average age of 61. Almost half are retired. There are only 34 members and residents under 40 – and only five toddlers. The kibbutz is unable to accept new members because it failed to think ahead and seek land allocation to build homes.

But nobody in their right mind would come here, admits the kibbutz’s business manager, Yariv Kita. “There’s no employment, no water and no land to allocate, not for housing nor for business. I’ve been trying to find a new manager for the hotel for nine months,” he said. Even a recruiting company couldn’t help. Kita sums it up: “Today Ein Gedi is an accident waiting to happen.”

Down the hole

In March 1949, everything seemed full of hope. At the initiative of Shimria Guttman, a bored commander of a Palmach division and resident of Kibbutz Na’an, a unit of employees from the Dead Sea Works conquered an encampment from 13 surprised Bedouin and two camels – and that is how the Israeli flag came to fly on the peak of Maale Ein Gedi.

Ein Gedi was an isolated settlement five kilometers from the Jordanian border. It wasn’t connected to the national electricity grid and its remote location inspired its members to improvise, Raz recounts. They’d sit outside on the grass because it was stiflingly hot inside the huts. Even though there was a shortage of water, in 1962 they planted baobab trees, which would become the basis for one of the most beautiful desert botanical gardens.

Raz, who arrived in 1974, was hired to run the Ein Gedi school after the original manager, David Avrahami, died on the last day of the Yom Kippur War. Raz and his colleagues created the Ein Gedi rescue unit, later emulated by others, and a cosmetics manufacturing plant on the Dead Sea that would in time become Ahava (the kibbutz sold its last holding in the company in 2008).

The first to suffer were the date and mango orchards, planted north of the kibbutz. A 90-dunam area had to be abandoned after a kibbutz member fell into a sinkhole in 1997. The date plantation was reduced to 135 dunams, which was barely large enough to cover its costs. As compensation, Ein Gedi was given 430 dunams of land and assistance in creating a new date plantation at the mouth of Tze’elim Stream, south of the kibbutz; 210 dunams have been planted so far. The cost is likely to reach 38 million shekels ($10.5 milion), which would make the Ein Gedi dates the most expensive in the world.

One factor that drives up the cost is the extreme aridity. The plantation gets treated wastewater from a plant by the hotels 20 kilometers away. Expanding the enterprise will require the construction of a water reservoir holding 350,000 cubic meters – and a 20.6 million shekel price tag. Because the date palms will be so close to the runway of Bar-Yehuda Airfield the foot of Masada, the plantation’s water reservoir will have to be tightly sealed – at an additional cost of 5.5 million shekels – lest it attract birds that endanger the planes.

A year after the date plantation mishap, an employee at the Ein Gedi resort fell into a sinkhole, forcing the kibbutz to close the beachside campground and with it, one of the few public-access beaches along the Dead Sea.

In October 2002, moments after a tour bus passed the access road to the isolated Solarium Beach, where psoriasis patients from Denmark and Germany staying at the Ein Gedi hotel would sunbathe in the nude, a sinkhole opened up. The kibbutz decided not to put their faith in the heavens and set up an alternative solarium at the Ein Gedi springs. However, a travel advisory warning about the dangers of sinkholes was issued in Scandinavia and tourism from there significantly dwindled.

Though the campground was abandoned in 1998, the kibbutz continued to operate an inn in the north of the resort and also leased its gas station and convenience store to the Paz Oil Company. Then a 6-meter sinkhole opened up, causing the entire resort to shut down in 2015. A 4.5-million shekel investment went down the drain and with it, profits of about 2 million shekels a year.

The kibbutz suffered another hit when the Israel National Roads Company closed a bridge over Arugot Stream in January 2015 because sinkholes developed in the area. The bridge, which had cost 50 million shekels to build, replaced one that had washed away in a flood in 2001. The closure diverted traffic to a temporary bypass road close to the date plantation, costing the kibbutz additional arable land and leading to traffic jams, which were especially bad on holidays. Word of the congestion spread and many canceled hotel bookings, hurting 2015 revenues and shifting the kibbutz to a loss.

The bridge closure left the kibbutz accessible only by two low-water bridges, essentially cement-reinforced causeways that cross the streambed and become submerged when the water rises. In a flood, the kibbutz is cut off.

Kibbutz without water

After this series of disasters, the fragile Ein Gedi economy relies on two main sources. One is dividends from Jafofra, its partner in a mineral water plant that draws directly from the Ein Gedi spring based on the water quota which the kibbutz is entitled to. The partnership has paid 10 million shekels in dividends in the last two years. However, the company decided to invest 10 million shekels in new equipment in 2017, so the kibbutz’s profits will diminish.

It’s hard to miss the irony of a desert kibbutz that’s chronically short on water exporting water to the rest of Israel, which gets ten times the precipitation. Ein Gedi holds 34% of Israel’s market for mineral water. The kibbutz is not connected to the national water system and gets its own water from the natural springs. However, those are suffering from diminishing precipitation and well drilling by the Palestinian Authority. Water in the springs runs short, especially in summer, hampering any of the kibbutz’s future initiatives.

One idea had been to plant Arabian balsam trees in a small 2-dunam area. Scholars at Bar-Ilan University have identified the tree, also known as Mecca myrrh, with the Talmudic afarsimon plant, used to make perfume sold to rich Roman women at exorbitant prices, according to the historian Pliny the Elder. The kibbutz thought to make perfume for the heritage tourism market, but it didn’t have enough water to cultivate even such a small field. Though truth be told, the kibbutz isn’t coming to the water shortage discussion with completely clean hands: It pumps water for the mineral water plant from Arugot Stream.

Eli Raz.Credit: Alon Ron

The second revenue source for the kibbutz is tourism. Ein Gedi owns a 167-room hotel, which nets 3.5 million shekels in good years. In less good years, like 2015, it can lose 500,000 shekels. It also owns a kiosk at the entrance to the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve that nets a million shekels a year.

These sources must cover pensions for the 90 retirees, which comes to a million shekels a year; and to repay bank loans of 21 million shekels at a pace of 4 million shekels a year. “We have no reserve for business development, security incidents like Operation Protective Edge or unplanned problems like changing tax legislation, which will increase the kibbutz’s expenses by a million shekels a year,” says Kita.

Yariv Kita.Credit: Eyal Toueg

The mounting environmental pressures – the acute water crisis and the serial sinkholes – threatens the very survival of a system already devoid of human and economic reserves.

Dropping levels

The sinkholes cause damage of 100 million to 110 million shekels annually, according to BDO Ziv Haft, an accounting firm commissioned by the kibbutz. The opinion, which the firm delivered last week, is a precious asset to the kibbutz in its fight against the state, which rejects responsibility for the damage caused by its decisions over the years.

In that battle, Ein Gedi is fighting for its life. The ecological calamity at the Dead Sea is a rare cases in which the link between deeds of man – government decisions – and catastrophic consequences for the physical environment and lives of people throughout the region can be identified and quantified.

The math is simple. In the past, the Jordan River fed 1.5 billion cubic meters of water a year into the Dead Sea; about the same amount evaporated, keeping the water level stable. Government decisions that diverted the Yarmouk River to the King Abdullah Canal, closed the Degania Dam which had regulated flow into the Jordan in favor of streaming the water to the national water supply, and allowed water to pool in wadis instead of reaching the Dead Sea reduced water supply to the sea by 350 million cubic meters a year.

Natural evaporation amounts to about a billion cubic meters a year. Potash mining and production by Dead Sea Works in Israel and APC in Jordan consumes another 2.5 billion cubic meters annually. Each year, the dying Dead Sea is dropping by 1.2 meters due to decades of government decisions.

The accounting firm’s opinion could be helpful to Ein Gedi if it decides to sue the state. Then Israel would have to explain why it declines to accept its responsibility for the ecological disaster that it directly caused.

Saving Ein Gedi

Despite the prophecies of doom for Ein Gedi and the privatization process that began on the kibbutz in 2004 (which may have decreased the members’ sense of solidarity), Kita believes the kibbutz can be saved from an economic crash. But that will take urgent government help. He lists four areas and even though he keeps repeating, “I’m not asking for money in the bank,” clearly the sums involved will be enormous.

Ein Gedi needs help in infrastructure, says Kita. The government should fast-track a new urban master plan enabling the kibbutz to allocate lots for housing and employment, and increase the number of households from 150 to 500. Infrastructure will be expensive to build because of the area’s rocky mountainous character, and will require heavy subsidization. The kibbutz needs to be connected to the Mekorot water system. Tax benefits like those received by communities near the border with the Gaza Strip need to be put in place.

Finally, Ein Gedi’s current economic activity needs assistance. Kita suggests upgrading 80 hotel rooms and adding 40 more. The state should allocate 4,000 more dunams for agriculture, and the kibbutz needs wholly new activities, such as developing a 250-dunam solar energy field and a quota to sell electricity. He also wants Ein Gedi to receive permission to produce medical cannabis.

Kita and the kibbutz also demand that Inbal, the government insurance company, insure Ein Gedi, its guests and its residents, a duty the company is evading. A state comptroller report in 2009 wrote that an interministerial team hadn’t managed to formulate an opinion for seven years as to whether the sinkholes could be defined as a natural disaster.

It all adds up to more than 400 million shekels. Some of the money would come from ministerial budgets and some in the form of one-off special aid. It’s rare for a single town to get such massive aid, even rarer still when it’s a kibbutz inside the Green Line, 73% of whose members voted for the left-wing parties in the last election. In the past, economic growth overcame the political barrier when in 2006, Ariel Sharon’s government invested 48 million shekels, of which 19 million was a grant. Yet even then the government carefully avoided any mention of sinkholes, for fear that it would have to take responsibility for the calamity it caused.

Ein Gedi shouldn’t be optimistic about the precedent-setting decision from over a decade ago. Sharon, a farmer in origin, was a man with a commitment to communities in Israel that crossed political lines. Low participation in a tour of the sinkholes before Passover was a clear warning sign that the Netanyahu government doesn’t give much priority to the 3,000 residents in the area.

“I don’t know of any other community living under such threats. It’s catastrophe,” says Kita. “It isn’t us who caused this situation and we won’t settle for a Band-aid, a few million in aid to shut us up.” Towns in Israel have been evacuated under fire or as part of political deals, and their residents received large compensation packages. Ein Gedi could be the first case of an evacuation, or gradual loss of its residents, is the result of ecological disaster.

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