Opinion |

Israel's Last Opportunity to Save the Dead Sea?

Miki Rosenthal
The Dead Sea in January.
The Dead Sea in January.Credit: Emil Salman
Miki Rosenthal

For roughly 12,000 years, the Dead Sea existed in its original form. Now it’s approaching its end. Scientists debate the question of when the sea will turn into a puddle – in another few decades, or perhaps a few centuries – as if this were a decree of fate. But its destruction is the work of human hands.

The Jordan River, which once fed it, now provides water for us. And if that weren’t enough, the seawater is pumped into evacuation pools to produce potash, bromine and magnesium. This is a golden goose for the Ofer family, which owns Israel Chemicals. The family rakes in billions, and the sea is gradually dying.

With our own hands, we have destroyed one of the rarest and most beautiful natural sites in the world, the cradle of our heritage and culture, a rare touristic jewel as well as a national economic treasure that has been spent with no limits, no planning and a thuggish disregard for the environment. Eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow this ancient sea will die.

Instead of being a site that attracts residents, tourists and jobs, the sea is receding (its level drops by about 1.4 meters a year). Its area has shrunk by half over the last 90 years, from 1,015 square kilometers to 550. Its beaches are now inaccessible, and sinkholes are destroying what is left.

Why is there no national plan to save the Dead Sea? Because there are always more burning issues on the government’s agenda, because each government agency sees only a part of the problem and there’s nobody to integrate all the pieces, and above all, because rehabilitating the sea would cost a huge amount of money – tens of billions of shekels.

But here’s a surprise for you: The money to save the Dead Sea can be found on its own floor.

In 2030, Israel Chemicals’ license to extract the Dead Sea’s minerals expires. When that happens, new bids will be solicited. And the bidding will be won by… the Ofer family, because no international company will even bother. That’s because Israel Chemicals has a right of first refusal, meaning it can offer to match the terms of any better bid.

This legal and historical cloud, like dozens of other issues, isn’t being properly addressed. The state is dragging its feet, acting negligently and stupidly. It postpones decisions time after time, thereby giving the current licensee a clear advantage, since it’s the one likely to benefit from this abandonment.

The expiration of the license creates an opportunity. The best solution would be to change the prevailing conversation about the Dead Sea, which revolves mainly around money, royalties and control of the factories. The sea itself is our most important natural resource, and it is far more important than all the royalties and other payments the government wants to extract from it.

It’s inconceivable that we should mortgage and abandon the Dead Sea for the sake of day-to-day needs. We must change the terms of the bidding process so that the first and foremost criterion for winning will be stabilizing the sea’s level and rehabilitating its environs.

Moreover, the license is expected to be worth tens of millions of dollars. This money could fund the Dead Sea’s rescue, in part by desalinating massive amounts of seawater and piping it into the sea.

In the Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, the angels ordered Lot and his family not to look back at the destruction. But if we refuse to look at the future, the Dead Sea will also turn into a pillar of salt.

Miki Rosenthal chairs a panel appointed by the Knesset Finance Committee to explore solutions to the Dead Sea’s problems.

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