Back to the Salt Mines

Government ministers recently joined local environmentalists in demanding that the Dead Sea Works address the damage it has wrought in the area.

As you head down to the Dead Sea from Jerusalem, you see the water glistening in the distance. But every year you have to go further to see it: The water level is dropping sharply in the northern part of the sea, which is fast drying up, whereas in the southern part, the situation is the opposite: Water is being pumped in large amounts into the industrial pools there and the hotels in nearby Ein Bokek are in danger of being flooded.

Last month Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan announced that they will be asking the government to approve a plan to deal with this threat . Under their proposal, adopted from among several alternatives, the Dead Sea Works - the main commercial enterprise operating in the southern part of the sea - will be required to harvest all of the salt in evaporation pool No. 5, as it is called, at a cost of billions of shekels; it is the salt that is causing the water level to rise and threatening the hotels.

Dead Sea
Michal Fattal

Parallel to this plan for dealing with pool No. 5, the Dead Sea Works hopes to build a sixth pool on the southern end of the Dead Sea, measuring 16 square meters. However, environmentalists are concerned that digging such a pool will further damage the landscape and the ecological fabric of the area.

Over the years, industrial activity undertaken by Jordan and Israel has reshaped the landscape of the southern Dead Sea, which has gone from being an integral part of the lake to being a series of enormous pools that are cut off from the northern part by large expanses of dirt and salt. Furthermore, the fact that water is being pumped from the Jordan River for human consumption is also expediting the evaporation and recession of water in the sea's northern section, at the rate of about 1 meter per year. Besides the damage to the landscape, the declining water level causes the formation of sinkholes - giant pits in the dried-up ground that endanger people.

The pumping of water into the pools in the southern section is estimated to be responsible for some 20 percent of the drop in the water level in the sea's northern part. About a year ago the Dead Sea Works applied to the planning boards for permission to build pool No. 6 in a dried-up area of the lake, in order to increase the company's production capacity by some 10 percent. However, pumping water into the pool will likely lower the water level in the northern section by another 2.5 centimeters. For its part, the company insists that the pool will have a positive impact on the landscape, because it will fill the parched area with water.

The team of planners working on "Tama 13," as the national master plan for the Dead Sea is called, stated in a recent policy paper that building of the new pool would necessitate mining work on a large scale, which would further damage the precious desert landscape.

Additionally, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense argues that an additional pool should not be dug because of the major damage that the Dead Sea has already sustained. The nonprofit IUED has been calling for years for the Dead Sea Works to be required to pay the state compensation for the damage - in particular, the dropping water level - that its pools have caused in the northern part of the sea.

IUED activists stress that other ways of producing raw materials from the Dead Sea should be considered, in addition to the pools currently in operation. In their opinion, using other, more advanced technologies would reduce the need for pumping water from the northern Dead Sea. A few weeks ago, the tourism and environmental affairs ministers offered their support for the IUED's ideas. The two intend to push for more extensive planning in the Dead Sea basin, which will pose new demands to the parties operating in the area, first and foremost the Dead Sea Works. They mean to ask the interior minister soon to expedite discussion of Tama 13, which has ground almost to a halt in recent years.

Tama 13 was designed to replace the existing and outmoded master plan, and is being prepared, at the Interior Ministry's request, by a team led by architect Edna Lerman, and environmental consultants Amit Shapira and Dani Amir. In its policy statement the team proposed that the Ein Bokek hotels continue to be the focal point of tourism development in the region. To this end, the salt must be harvested from the nearby pool. The planners thereby rejected an alternative put forward by various parties to relocate the hotels to another area abutting the sea.

Under the evolving master plan, a broad area near the hotels would be designated a "preservation core," which would reach all the way to the Ein Fashkha nature reserve in the north. In this area there would be little development and no mining operations. Infrastructure work in the core would have to take the environment into consideration, which for example may put paid to the idea of building a new Dead Sea Works pumping station.

According to the master plan team, the Dead Sea Works is responsible for numerous instances of damage extending beyond the areas in which it carried out rehabilitative actions. Many roads were breached, earthworks were conducted on a large scale, and pipes were laid - all without addressing environmental and landscape-related considerations. The dirt and salt mounds around the pools, for example, were created without consideration for their visual impact.

"The accumulation of these factors has left a significant footprint of the Dead Sea Works on the landscape and the feeling of a 'backyard,'" the Tama 13 planners' document states. In view of this, they have recommended that any further development in the vicinity be conditioned upon dealing with existing impairment and rehabilitation of damaged areas.

The Dead Sea Works sees things differently: In a company report issued last year, it stated that corrective efforts in areas where there has been mining work, and renovation of company facilities are being undertaken today while dealing with "historic" damage. The company declared that the earth dug up around the pools has been mined in a strictly legal fashion, and that recovery work has already been carried out in a number of places that were affected in the past, such as Tze'elim and Admon streams.