The Battle Over the Salt of the Earth

For years now, an Israeli invention has been at work in the Dead Sea region with considerable success. A large pond, built for industrial purposes by the Dead Sea Works, has over time become a focal point for hotels in the area. Until recently, a balance between industrial and hotel use of the pond had been maintained, but as a result of harsh disputes among planning bodies and government ministries, the future of the pond is now uncertain. The argument concerns the question of how to maintain the privately owned industry that exploits the Dead Sea, along with the tourism that depends on the ponds created by this industry.

The pond under discussion - Pond no. 5 - covers an area half the size of Lake Kinneret. The level of this pond is steadily rising as a result of the sinking of salt due to industrial activity, and it is liable to flood the hotels. A special team appointed by the government to prepare a master plan for the entire Dead Sea region recently recommended harvesting the salt from the bottom of the pond, while preserving the pond as a tourist site.

On the other hand, the Dead Sea Works and the Tourism Ministry are demanding that the team refrain from interfering and leave the decision in the hands of a special company - the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company - also set up by the government. This company is formulating a plan for handling the pond separately, and is examining several alternatives. One of them, called "the lagoon alternative," suggests dividing the pond into two parts by means of a large landfill. One part will remain a lagoon next to the hotels, with salt harvested from it, while the other part will be protected by landfill only.

Following pressure from the Tourism Ministry and the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company, the Interior Ministry recently determined that the planning team will not make decisions concerning the future of the pond. Environmental organizations demanded this week, however, that that decision be reversed.

The dispute among the various parties involves huge financial interests. The Dead Sea Works, now owned by the Ofer family, currently earn hundreds of millions of dollars annually - a total of 1.3 percent of Israel's Gross Domestic Product. But the hotel industry also represents a financial asset and there are plans to add thousands of rooms to existing hotels.

The new team has intervened in the future of the pond as it relates to the future of tourism. "The existence of the ponds creates a tourist-friendly seascape and is an essential condition for the presence of tourist activity," architect Edna Lerman recently wrote to the director of the planning administration in the Interior Ministry, Shamai Assif. Regarding the lagoon alternative, she pointed out that "Significant changes between the hotels and the artificial beach that has been created will damage the functioning, the level of service and the image of the second most important tourist site in Israel."

Over the course of their discussions, members of the planning team pointed out that their support for harvesting the salt is based on professional assessments regarding its feasibility and effectiveness. This is an alternative which will prevent the need for constantly raising the dikes in order to deal with the danger of flooding; it's also a strategy already being used by plants on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.

Green backing

Environmental organizations support the position taken by this "master plan" team. "The goal of the plan is to find tools for protecting and preserving the Dead Sea region as a unique natural phenomenon," said attorney Naama Elad of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din) yesterday. "It must find a new and reasonable balance between exploiting natural resources for industry, tourism and the environment. It must pay attention to major issues such as the industrial ponds and the implications of the concession law, in whose context the industrial plants operate."

The Tourism Ministry finds itself responsible both for promoting the hotel industry and finding an engineering solution for the industrial pond. With the government deciding to make the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company subordinate to the Tourism Ministry, the ministry found itself with a large budget - which is supposed to provide a solution for an industrial problem - but as part of its mandate it is also supposed to protect the interests of the hotels.

The ministry explained yesterday that, in order to prevent contradictory recommendations on the subject of Pond no. 5 - for which the solutions are estimated to cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars - it was agreed that the team tasked with formulating a master plan would issue only a general declaration until the government company approves the recommended alternative, which is now being examined by professional teams. The ministry emphasized that, along with the great importance it attaches to the tourist industry, industrial activity in the region is important too.

According to the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company, this is a highly complex project and there is scarcely any knowledge about the alternatives being discussed - creating a lagoon or harvesting salt. But for the first time, the entire issue is concentrated in the hands of one group, relying on first-class professionals both in Israel and worldwide. The company claims that decisions made by the master plan team lack any professional infrastructure, and that we must wait until all the alternatives are examined. The company noted, among other things, that the harvesting of salt is also liable to be problematic for the environment, for example by affecting the composition of the water in the northern part of the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea Works, which operates under a special concession that grants them extensive rights to the coast and the sea, demanded that the team refrain from making any decisions about the pond. The company claims the team is turning the industry, which predates the hotels in the region by several decades, into a servant of tourism. "We have the impression that the objective of those preparing the master plan is a targeted and gradual prevention of industry in the Dead Sea region," one of the senior industry executives wrote several weeks ago to Lerman, the head of the planning team. But apparently the Tourism Ministry agrees with them too.

The Dead Sea Works said yesterday in response that we should wait for the alternatives to be examined: "The Dead Sea Works does not have priority in terms of the alternative that is selected. Every alternative has economic and environmental advantages and disadvantages." According to the industry, harvesting is an efficient but very expensive and complicated solution that requires clearing salt to the northern Dead Sea at a volume equal to the entire Hiriya mount, the now inactive waste dump near Ben-Gurion Airport. The lagoon alternative is cheaper, but it also has drawbacks, including the need to dig up large quantities of earth from the riverbeds in the region.

Environmental organizations claim that the Dead Sea Works is responsible for financing the solutions for preventing flooding in Pond no. 5. On the other hand, according to the industry, the company has a legal opinion stating that the cost should be borne by the Israeli government, but in effect they are financing 40 percent of the protective measures now being used; financing for the eventual solution will be decided with the assistance of the Finance Ministry.

Environmental organizations are also afraid of the Dead Sea Works plan to build another pond, no. 6, north of no. 5. The construction of a lagoon in Pond no. 5 and the new pond will require the construction of huge landfills; this earth will be dug from riverbeds in the region, which environmentalists claim will cause severe damage to the landscape and the environment. In addition, building the new pond will lead to an additional (albeit small-scale) acceleration in the drop in sea level, as water will be pumped into the pond from the northern part of the sea.

The Dead Sea Works admits that the construction of the new pond is designed to serve economic interests, such as increasing production by 10 percent. But they also claim that building the pond will help implement the plans for Pond no. 5; it will absorb some of the salt that is now transferred to the ponds and reduce the amount of harvesting in Pond no. 5. If the lagoon is the alternative chosen, the new pond will serve as a kind of emergency reservoir in case of leakage in the old pond. As far as the damage that will be caused to the desert as a result of the landfills, the Dead Sea Works claims this is earth that will be taken only from sites that have been approved, and that the pond will help to create a seascape that will encourage tourism.