The way to save hotels around the Dead Sea's southern end from flooding is to dredge salt from the seabed, and the one who should shoulder the bill is the Dead Sea Works company, two key ministers said yesterday.
The entire southern portion of the Dead Sea is essentially a gigantic evaporation pool operated by DSW, which is a subsidiary of Israel Chemicals. It brings in water from the north part of the sea by canal, evaporates it and harvests the water's rich mineral contents.
But the salty water leaves a salty precipitate, which is raising the level of the evaporation pool's seabed - and, accordingly, of the water. The snag is that a host of highly popular hotels sit on the pool's "beach," and will be engulfed by the rising water level unless something is done. The question is what to do and who should pay for it.
The company should, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov (Yisrael Beiteinu ) and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud ) agreed yesterday.
Dredging the salt from the seabed is considered the most expensive but also the most environmentally sustainable solution. The Finance Ministry prefers the cheapest solution, which is to raze and rebuild the hotels from scratch somewhere else.
Yesterday, Misezhnikov and Erdan also proposed establishing a NIS 750 million fund to develop the Dead Sea region and build more hotels. Industrial development in the region should be curbed, and the new evaporation pool DSW wants to build should be blocked, they said.
Speaking at a joint press conference in Tel Aviv yesterday, Misezhnikov and Erdan promised to formulate a comprehensive solution for the Dead Sea's myriad problems and present the plan within three weeks. DSW should cover the entire cost of dredging the salt, they added, because the company operates the evaporation ponds.
Israel Chemicals belongs to The Israel Corporation, which in turns belongs to the Ofer family.
How much will dredging cost? That is unclear, but Misezhnikov said it was in the NIS 4-6 billion range.
Finance Ministry officials estimate it would be cheaper in the long term to demolish and rebuild the hotels rather than remove huge amounts of salt every year. For years, the hotels have only been saved from flooding by the construction of giant earth berms around the pond.
A third alternative to dredging or moving the hotels is to build an artificial lake around the hotels, and then harvest the salt from that lake but nowhere else. The harvested salt dredged from the evaporation pool would be moved by conveyors to the northern Dead Sea, where the water level is falling.
DSW said the company supports the decision to harvest the salt to prevent flooding. The solution is sustainable, it said, and is thus the only way to continue developing industry and tourism alongside each other in the Dead Sea region while safeguarding the environment.
But the firm said it was willing to participate in only part of the costs of harvesting the salt. It is ready to begin "a serious dialogue with the government on the matter," DSW stated.
Erdan, however, said the rising water levels were the direct result of the company's operations and Israel Chemicals should thus pay for harvesting the salt.
The Prime Minister's Office said it would comment once it had received the complete recommendations of the relevant ministries.
The Finance Ministry said it has examined the alternatives for solving the flooding problem, and the cheapest alternative by far is moving the hotels. "The economic justification for the alternative of harvesting the salt, if any, stems from dividing the burden among all those involved, in addition to the state, and above all the Dead Sea Works, the regional council and the hotel owners," the ministry stated.
Rehabilitating the region brooks no delay, Misezhnikov said. "We will guarantee protection of the streams and the ecological system. I view Dead Sea Works as contributing to employment in the region, but I think they must pay the majority of the cost of harvesting [the salt] based on the principle that the polluter pays," he said.
One of the environmental problems is that the earth used to build up the berms is removed from nearby streambeds.
A team of experts recommended harvesting the salt, saying it's better for the environment and offers a long-term solution. Moving the hotels solves nothing, because in 10 to 20 years, flooding would again become a threat. By 2035, it will no longer be possible to build dams to keep the water at bay; the salt would then still have to be harvested to solve the problem.
The team, consisting of environmental planner Moti Kaplan and professors Alon Tal and Uri Mingelgrin, was asked to study the long- and short-term environmental implications of each alternative.
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam, Teva V'Din ) also support harvesting - as do the hotel owners.
Dead Sea Works operates under a concession granting it broad freedom of action in and around the Dead Sea until 2030. It is the world's fourth-largest producer and supplier of potash and other minerals, which it sells in over 60 countries.
Israel Chemicals shares fell 2.7% yesterday on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange.
The Dead Sea region is in the pits, neglected and forgotten, Misezhnikov said. There is nothing to do in the evening, the tourism minister complained: The coffee house closes at 9 P.M. and McDonald's at 10 P.M. He also called for the state to provide appropriate funding to develop tourism in the region.
But while neither he nor Erdan minced words in describing the Dead Sea region as run down, at least one person at the press conference was offended. Dov Litvinof, head of the Tamar Regional Council, which includes the hotels, said the remarks were inappropriate.
The area needs development for tourism, he said, but the popularity of the hotels shows the situation is much better than the ministers said.
Litvinof reminded listeners that for years, responsibility for developing the area was given to a government company controlled by the Tourism Ministry. The company was closed last year, after which the Tamar Council assumed responsibility.
The hotels pay NIS 27 million a year in local property taxes to the Tamar Council.