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Authorities urged to act immediately to stabilize Dead Sea levels

In draft policy paper, Environment Ministry proposes limiting industrial pumping and charging for it, seeking regional deal to allow more water for Jordan River

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

View of salt formations on the Dead Sea shore, October 30, 2021.(Mila Aviv/Flash90)
View of salt formations on the Dead Sea shore, October 30, 2021.(Mila Aviv/Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry on Monday issued a draft policy document on the future of the Dead Sea for public consultation.

The document, available in Hebrew, calls on the government to act immediately to stabilize the saline lake’s falling water levels, although it doesn’t present a figure for the optimum level.

It recommends limiting the volume of water that can be pumped from the Dead Sea for the industrial extraction of minerals, saying that pumping should not exceed the average of the past two decades. It also calls for charging for such pumping.

The fees — to be formalized into a tax when the mining franchise is renewed in 2030 — would help to fund the document’s many recommendations, it says.

In October, the Justice Ministry controversially agreed to wipe a water debt of NIS 65 million, or $18.8 million, owed to the state by Dead Sea Works.

The document proposes resuscitating a version of the Red Sea Dead Sea Conveyance, which failed to get off the ground earlier in the millennium because the Israeli government never approved its part of the funding.

The project would have desalinated water from the Red Sea in southern Israel, piped the freshwater to Jordan, which desperately needs drinking water, and channeled the remaining salty water to the Dead Sea.

While emphasizing that it would be wrong in such an arid region to solve the Dead Sea’s problems entirely with freshwater, it calls for 100 million cubic meters of water to be released annually from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, via the Jordan River, as part of a regional agreement with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, recommending that a joint river authority be set up to manage and maintain the river system.

The Dead Sea has shrunk by around half since 1976 because the roughly 1,200 million cubic meters of freshwater that used to flow into it has been diverted for human needs by Israel, Jordan, and Syria, and because factories on the Israeli and Jordanian shores pump water out of it for the extraction of minerals without replacing it all.

The Dead Sea Works factory on February 2, 2018. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

The lake’s level declines by around 1.15 meters (four feet) each year in a trend that has caused the opening of thousands of sinkholes in the area and hydrological changes to streams and springs — phenomena that have hit tourism and agriculture hard.

Environmental Protection Ministry Director-General Galit Cohen. (Haim Zach / GPO)

Galit Cohen, director general of the Ministry of Environmental Protection, said the paper — a roadmap for “prudent management that balances conservation and development” — was aimed at enabling “a real and in-depth public discussion.”

The document predicts the condition of the Dead Sea and the area around it in 2070 under two extreme scenarios.

A sinkhole opened under what was once a road. Kibbutz Ein Gedi’s abandoned holiday village can be seen in the background, January 20, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

A business-as-usual approach on the part of authorities would see the lake’s surface level dropping by another 60 meters, or 196 feet (it is currently at 436 meters, or 1,430 feet, below sea level) and its surface area declining by another 15%, after losing 21 billion cubic meters of water. Infrastructure around the lake would continue to deteriorate under this scenario, and access to the water would be further compromised.

The Dead Sea used to reach up to this now stranded jetty on the Ein Gedi shore. (Nadav Lensky, Dead Sea Observatory, Geological Survey of Israel)

By contrast, the lake could be stabilized by ensuring an annual inflow of around 750 million cubic meters taken from various sources, including the Mediterranean and Red seas, the document suggests. The team examined various alternatives from an environmental, economic, and practicability of point view.

People enjoy the renovated Ein Bokek beach adjacent to a Dead Sea Works evaporation pool, south of the Dead Sea, on July 18, 2016. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Among other recommendations in the 119-page document are:

  • forcing Dead Sea Works to present a detailed plan with a binding timetable for the scraping of salt off the bottom of the large evaporation pool at Ein Bokek to ensure that rising water levels there don’t flood nearby hotels;
  • launching an inter-ministerial project to develop employment alternatives to reduce the region’s dependence for jobs on factories that rely on a disappearing natural resource;
  • developing public bathing beaches and hiking trails along the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea, some of which fall within Israel and others within the West Bank but under Israeli control. (At present, there are only three beaches along the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea, all of which are paid. The sea stops before the hotels at Ein Bokek, whose beach abuts a large evaporation pool).
  • protecting Route 90, which runs along the Dead Sea’s western shore linking the Lido and Arava junctions; and
  • building bridges along sections of the shore that are currently pockmarked by sinkholes and are inaccessible to the public, and lookouts, regulated parking sites and shuttles to existing and proposed beaches and tourist sites.
A salt dredger at Dead Sea Works. (Dror Sithakol)

“The continued withdrawal of water from the basin has significant implications for the future of the region, and the government must act resolutely and quickly to ensure that future generations will also enjoy this unique natural resource,” Cohen said.

Comments and suggestions (which can be made here) would be submitted to the minister for a decision on the final recommendations, she added.

ICL (formerly Israel Chemicals Ltd.), the parent company of Dead Sea Works, welcomed the document and applauded the work that went into it. But in a statement, it noted a “professional and substantive point regarding limiting the amount of pumping,” whose true consequences had “not been fully understood.”

In apparent reference to the fact that without Dead Sea Works, there would be no evaporation pool and hence no water to swim in at Ein Bokek, the company went on to warn that limiting pumping could have an impact “on the level of tourism in the tourist area” as well as on production capacity.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection — tasked with leading the formulation of a long-term policy for the Dead Sea Basin as part of an inter-ministerial effort to study all aspects of the Dead Sea’s decline under the leadership of the Prime Minister’s Office — produced the document in collaboration with the Geological Survey, the Dead Sea Drainage Authority, and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Studies.

The process took place within the framework of a broad inter-ministerial steering team that included representatives from government ministries, regional councils, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and environmental organizations.

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