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A danger of drowning sign on the way to the Dead Sea Works from where the sea has long since receded, January 20, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
Main image: A "Danger of Drowning" sign on the way to the Dead Sea Works from where the sea has long since receded, January 20, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
ToI investigates

Israel has a chance to slow the Dead Sea’s demise. Will big business get in the way?

With regional politics holding back release of any more water from Sea of Galilee, green groups hope that a revamped mining concession will protect the lake’s future

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

Main image: A "Danger of Drowning" sign on the way to the Dead Sea Works from where the sea has long since receded, January 20, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

Meirav Ayalon has strong memories of growing up on Kibbutz Ein Gedi in the 1960s and 70s and crossing Route 90 to go for a dip in the Dead Sea. The journey, she remembers, was not a long one.

“In those days, you could access the sea from almost everywhere,” she recalled.

Today, as the saltiest body of water at the lowest point on Earth shrinks to its smallest size in memory, Ein Gedi has no beach at all.

Instead, reaching the water from Ein Gedi means traversing a roughly 4.5-kilometer (2.8 mile) stretch pockmarked by cavities where the ground has fallen in.

To the south, the receding water — coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic — forced the Ein Gedi Spa resort to close in March 2020. By then, the water was a 4-kilometer (2.5 mile) shuttle ride away.

To deal with the sinkhole issue, the government has for years had a risk map meant to ensure that roads or other structures are not placed on land in danger of collapse. As for the receding waterline, ideas to prop up the level have come and gone, but no large-scale plan has ever been implemented.

Members of Kibbutz Ein Gedi by the Dead Sea in the 1960s. (Courtesy: Yoram Tsuri/ Kibbutz Ein Gedi archive)
Meirav Ayalon of Kibbutz Ein Gedi stands near the spot where children were pictured in the 1960s on the Dead Sea’s shores. Today, there is no water to be seen. (Courtesy: Anat Spanier)

The Dead Sea’s issues have been exacerbated by mineral mining operations that pump its water into massive evaporation pools to its south. The mining lease has been enshrined in law for nearly seven decades, but in the coming years the government will finally have a chance to reopen the contract, and possibly help slow the Dead Sea’s decline.

In the meantime, the Environmental Protection Ministry called this week for the government to set a target below which the level of the Dead Sea will not be allowed to fall. This was one of a slew of recommendations in a draft policy document issued for public comment.

It’s unclear whether such a target will win cabinet approval. But even if it does, serious questions remain regarding how, and if, Israel can keep the Dead Sea from dwindling further.

Don’t go chasing waterflows

The two reasons for the Dead Sea’s decline are well understood.

One is that not enough water is coming in from streams. (Israel has no gushing rivers). It is being diverted by Syria, Jordan, and Israel for human needs.

The other is that water is being pumped out by factories on the Israeli and Jordanian shores to extract valuable potash, bromine, and magnesium from the salty waters in massive evaporation pools. The factories only replace around half of the water that they remove.

Neither issue is easy to grapple with, and Israel currently has no approved plans on the table to deal with refilling the Dead Sea.

For a time, hopes were pinned on the Red Sea-Dead Sea canal project. The pricey scheme would have involved desalinating seawater near the Jordanian port city of Aqaba and then sending the drinking water to cities in the drought-stricken kingdom, while channeling the leftover salty brine — some 250 million cubic meters, or mcm, annually — to the Dead Sea, where it would help to replenish the shrinking lake.

Ruled feasible from an engineering point of view, the project — initially priced at $10 billion — was dogged by bureaucratic and financial hurdles and was recently killed by Jordan after years of Israel failing to approve the required funding.

However, hope for the possible resurrection of the plan came this week in the form of the above-mentioned Environmental Protection Ministry draft policy paper that recommended returning to a version of the plan at a total cost of just over NIS 300 million ($87 million), to be divided between Israel and donor countries. The first stage would bring 400 mcm of briny water to the Dead Sea.

If this mixing of briny and saline water is successful — previous studies warned that anything over 400 mcm per year could lead to the development of gypsum on the lake’s surface — a second stage would see 750 mcm entering the Dead Sea.

The document suggests that an annual inflow of around 750 million cubic meters taken from various sources, including the Mediterranean and Red seas, could stabilize the dying Dead Sea.

Up until the 1930s, around 1,200 mcm would flow south into the Jordan Valley each year from the Sea of Galilee — like the Dead Sea, it’s a lake — much of it reaching the Dead Sea and helping keep the water level steady. But that year, the southern end of the northern lake was dammed, turning it into a reservoir providing water for the Galilee’s growing population.

A sign in Tiberias showing the Sea of Galilee’s current level, at 208.9 meters below sea level, on May 9, 2020. The lake is considered low if the level drops below 208.8 meters. (Flash90)

Today, just 10 mcm flows out of the Sea of Galilee annually.

“The best solution would be to let the River Jordan flow again,” said Galit Cohen, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s top bureaucrat.

Israel is set to finish building a pipeline meant to bring desalinated water from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee early next year, which could feasibly free up more lake water to flow south, but there are no plans as yet to open the floodgates to save the Dead Sea.

From the state’s point of view, the Sea of Galilee’s waters are to be used (in ever-diminishing quantities, as more desalinated water comes on line) as the country’s emergency water reserve. And others have designs on the water as well, Cohen noted.

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

“The Jordanians have told us they don’t have water in their faucets and that they won’t allow that water to reach the Dead Sea even if that’s what Israel decides — not that there has been such a decision. It’s hypothetical.”

The ministry’s draft policy document proposes releasing 100 mcm of freshwater from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, but only as part of a deal with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

“It must all be within the framework of a regional agreement,” Cohen said.

Building more desalination plants is also a problematic solution. Israel’s Mediterranean coast is already crowded with desalination stations, and they use massive amounts of fossil fuel energy, creating an environmental catch-22.

Five plants are already operational, a further two are in the planning stages, and the Energy Ministry has not yet decided how Israel will implement its part of a United Arab Emirates-brokered deal with Jordan to supply the kingdom with desalinated water in return for solar energy.

A declaration of intent says that Israel will give Jordan 200 mcm of desalinated water, on top of the 100 mcm it already channels to the kingdom. At present, the combined output of Israel’s five desalination stations is 600 mcm per year.

Illustrative: A desalination plant in Hadera, May 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Exacerbating the problem is commercial pumping on both sides of the sea. Jordan’s Arab Potash Company and the Dead Sea Works in Israel, which is currently owned by the ICL Group, pump out around 600 mcm per annum of water from the sea and return just half that amount after evaporation and extraction of minerals.

“I hate to say it, but I see no hope for the Dead Sea,” said Clive Lipchin, director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel.

The sinking sea

The Dead Sea today is about half the size it was in 1976. Currently at 436 meters (1,430 feet) below sea level, it is dropping by 1.1–1.2 meters (45–48 inches) each year.

As it recedes, the sea has left behind a barren landscape atop a layer of salt rock. As freshwater from winter rains comes down the mountains and onto the previously flooded plain, it has dissolved the subterranean salt rock, opening up over 7,000 sinkholes beneath the thin crust that seem to cave in almost at random.

Hikers walk by sinkholes across a salt plain that was once beneath the Dead Sea some 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) south of Kibbutz Ein Gedi, January 15, 2021. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The first sinkholes were identified in the 1980s, but the scope of the problem has only recently become fully understood.

The first real sign of trouble at Ein Gedi came in 1998, when a young cleaning woman fell into a crater that suddenly opened up within the grounds of the kibbutz’s vacation village. Days later, a worker fell into a chasm that opened beneath his feet in a nearby date palm grove.

Neither were hurt, but both the resort and the date grove were closed down immediately.

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

Today, there are only three beaches left along the entire western shore of what remains of the Dead Sea, and all charge entrance fees. All three are in the West Bank, but controlled by Israel. (Only the lower third of the western shore is within Israeli territory, while the entire eastern shore is in Jordan).

Most visitors to the Dead Sea don’t actually go to the lake itself. The most popular beach area on the Israeli side is at Ein Bokek, a knot of resort hotels surrounding a large open beach along what appears to be an expanse of the lake. In actuality, Ein Bokek sits on the shore of a massive, 80-square-kilometer (30-square-mile) evaporation pond, located where the lake was once before it dried up.

ICL pumps water from the actual Dead Sea to the north into the ponds, where it evaporates, leaving behind salt and other minerals. The buildup of salt on the floor of the pool pushes the water level up in a process that, in the past,  threatened to flood some of the Ein Bokek hotels.

People enjoy what is actually a massive evaporation pond at the Ein Bokek beach at the Dead Sea, on July 18, 2016. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Aside from the sinkholes, other geologic changes are also taking place as the Dead Sea recedes.

The surrounding freshwater streams now dip underground as they empty into the lake, and the roots of the vegetation above can no longer reach down far enough to access the water and the plants are drying out.

Visitors at Einot Tzukim in October 2019. (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

It is also having a curious effect at the Enot Tsukim Nature Reserve (known also by its Arabic name, Ein Feshkha) in the West Bank. This oasis of freshwater pools at the northern end of the Dead Sea draws thousands of Israelis and Palestinians, particularly during the hot summer months.  The local ecosystem there is so fragile that parts of the reserve are fenced off to limit human intervention.

While the dropping Dead Sea levels have left the site miles from the shore — a sign in the parking lot lets visitors know they would have been underwater a few decades ago — it has also fueled hydrological changes that have forced the springs feeding the pools to shift further south, site manager Eldad Hazan said.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority staff are now working to transfer endemic fish to areas of the reserve with a stable water supply before some of the pools dry out.

An Ofer you can’t refuse

The Dead Sea Works, nationalized in 1951, grew out of a private potash factory established at the Dead Sea in 1930. In 1961, the Knesset granted the concern exclusive rights for the next 69 years to mine a large portion of the Dead Sea and to use much of the surrounding area for its operations.

In 2030, the 69-year lease will expire, and the mining concession will be reopened.

The franchise is currently held by ICL Group, formerly Israel Chemicals Ltd., a subsidiary of the Ofer family’s Israel Corporation, the country’s largest holding company. Much of ICL’s success has been thanks to the cash cow that is the Dead Sea Works, and ICL has made clear its desire to win the new concession.

A view of the Dead Sea Works factory on February 2, 2018. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

That cash cow is fed on potash, a potassium-rich ingredient used in most fertilizers; Israel is among the world’s top producers. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, supply shortages of potash have surged, sending prices sky-high.

ICL does not publish separate earnings figures for the Dead Sea Works, but its most recent quarterly earnings statement notes significant profits for potash.

In the first quarter of 2021, ICL received $257 per ton of potash on average. In 2022, that price jumped to $601 per ton, the company said recently.

ICL may have reason to be optimistic it can win the tender again. The nature of the business and terms of the existing concession give it a number of built-in advantages, according to a 2019 report by a governmental body formed to study the issue, headed by then chief Finance Ministry economist Yoel Naveh.

Those advantages extend to better industrial knowledge of the mineral extraction process and what opportunities exist, as well as ICL’s ownership of businesses that can convert the raw materials mined from the Dead Sea into end products. These head-starts could scare other companies away from even putting in a bid, the Naveh report noted.

“ICL, which is considered the largest company in the Negev, employing tens of thousands of employees, directly and indirectly, has accumulated decades of experience and deep knowledge, which gives it a significant additional advantage when it comes to the concession,” the company said in a statement.

By its count, ICL supports some 4,200 people directly, and around 19,000 indirectly, such as service providers, paying some of the highest salaries in a region of limited job opportunities. It regularly touts those employment numbers and has used the threat of layoffs to try and win support from politicians wary of being portrayed as people taking jobs from the Negev, though a different leaseholder would potentially provide the same employment opportunities.

Uri Shasha, senior deputy accountant general at the Finance Ministry, suggested last month that the government consider offering several different tenders rather than try and find a single company that can do it all.

“We want the tender to be practicable and for companies to bid for it,” he said.

However, the 1961 deal gives the existing franchisee the right of first refusal on a new concession “under terms no less favorable than those it intends to offer to any such other person,” and ICL’s global legal adviser, Lilach Geva Harel, told a Knesset committee meeting earlier this year that the company was continuing to invest in extraction “as if the Dead Sea will be ours forever.”

ICL calls itself “a professional, responsible company that strives to minimize the environmental impact of its operations,” and the conglomerate has attempted to position itself as the Dead Sea’s environmental custodian.

But there were no environmental safeguards in the original 1961 lease, and none were added in when the concession was renegotiated in the 1990s as the Dead Sea Works went private, even though awareness of environmental concerns had begun to enter the mainstream by then.

Critics accuse the company of causing vast damage to the earth by building dams and other infrastructure. Last month, Environmental Protection Ministry policy director Ohad Karni told a Knesset committee that the Dead Sea Works was pumping millions of tons of pollutants, most of them global warming gases, into the air annually.

He calculated the indirect cost of the emissions to public health and the environment at about NIS 240 million ($70 million) per year.

The Dead Sea Works factory at the southern end of the Dead Sea. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

In a statement, ICL said it “operates transparently and in full coordination with the authorities in everything related to environmental projects.” It touted plans for a 1,000 megawatt solar field and for transitioning a power plant in Sodom to green energy.

The company also noted that “the net amount of water pumping [from the Dead Sea] has not changed since the 1990s, and there is no intention to increase it.”

ICL has no interest, however, in refilling the Dead Sea with water, noting in its 2020 Annual Report, for example, that  with less water, the minerals are more concentrated.

A fight for every shekel

Naveh’s paper recommended that the government open the Dead Sea concession to bidding when the lease runs out, setting a minimum price for the extraction rights to ensure that the rights are not undersold, and preparing for the possibility of re-nationalizing the concern should that bottom line not be met.

The recommendations, considered likely to be adopted by the government, also call for the concession to lay out the franchisee’s environmental obligations and sanctions to be applied for violations.

A view of the Dead Sea Works on February 2, 2018. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

The contract, expected to shrink the concession area significantly from its current 160 square kilometers (61 square miles), is also expected to limit the amount of water that can be pumped out of the northern basin, and ensure that it is paid for, providing an incentive for the leaseholder to waste less.

It will also likely clarify tax obligations and what information the leaseholder must provide to state oversight authorities.

ICL has a reputation for fighting tooth and claw to avoid or delay certain payments to the state.

In 2011, for example, the company entered arbitration after an argument that began with the state in the early 2000s over whether it should pay royalties just on the raw materials it extracted (as per its view) or on the products made with those raw materials as well.

In 2014, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper (Hebrew), the arbitrators found that ICL had violated its obligation to pay royalties on its products as well, and to do so wherever those products were manufactured.

In 2019, the same arbitrators determined that ICL needed to add $300 million to the $1 billion in royalties it had paid the state from 2000 to 2017.

The company also lobbied furiously against a 2014 proposal to set royalties for Dead Sea mineral extraction at 5% and a graded tax of up to 42% on profits, threatening that it would be forced to lay off workers and halt its investing in Israel, and that international shareholders would sue the state.

Prof. Eytan Sheshinski, July 10, 2013. (Flash 90)

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for a compromise between ICL and the recommendations from Prof. Eytan Sheshinski, who also designed Israel’s code for natural gas profits, but that bid ultimately failed and the higher taxes were added into the economic arrangements bill which became law in 2015.

Moreover, according to the Calcalist news site (Hebrew), ICL has still not paid a dime into a sovereign wealth fund set up for the mineral and gas taxes. A Tax Authority spokesperson could give no comment, citing confidentiality rules and the fact that the case was still the subject of legal proceedings.

ICL said that the figure was “expected to run into tens of millions, and that is in addition to the royalties fixed by law that the company pays.”

Last year, the state backed down on collecting NIS 65 million ($19.5 million) it said ICL owed due to a 2017 reform requiring companies to pay for the use of natural saltwater, over fears that its claim would not stand up in court.

ICL had argued that the 1961 concession agreement superseded the 2017 law; left unchallenged, the company may avoid paying hundreds of millions of shekels for water use by 2030.

The Justice Ministry has refused to publish the full opinion it used to decide not to sue. The environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din will shortly  appeal for the opinion to become public and for the state to order ICL to pay for all of the water it uses.

ICL has already indicated a fight ahead over the Environmental Protection Ministry’s proposal, in this week’s draft policy document, that pumping be reduced.

While “welcoming” the document and applauding the work that went into it, the company said in a statement that there was 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.

A new lease on life for the Dead Sea

While most agree that the current concession is no longer sufficient to meet environmental and financial demands, there is a wide variety of opinions about how to ensure the new tender does a better job, while also keeping companies from squirming away from their obligations.

Naveh himself said on a podcast from the business daily Globes that the concession’s terms should not only be amended when they come up for renewal, but completely and tightly rewritten, quipping that private companies were often craftier than governments.

Meretz MK Mossi Raz, June 22, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lawmaker Mossi Raz, who chairs the Knesset committee that oversees the mineral extraction sovereign wealth fund, said in January that Israel should judge bidders based on how much beyond the existing tax requirements they are willing to pay for the mineral rights. Their environmental records should also be taken into account, he added.

The winning bid should have to commit to net-zero carbon emissions, and to shoulder the cost of rehabilitating any damage connected to the mining operation along the Dead Sea’s Israeli shore, Raz insisted.

“Any [lease] must be conditioned on every cubic meter of water that is used being replaced, as a matter of the franchise holder’s responsibility,” said Gideon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Ecopeace.

EcoPeace Israel Director Gidon Bromberg (screenshot)

Others think the government should consider using the opportunity to do away with the mining concession altogether`.

“We don’t think the concession should be renewed at all,” said Meirav Abady of Adam, Teva V’Din. “If it’s going to be renewed, a lot of work has to be done, starting from now. But it’s not, and we’re afraid everything will be left to the last minute.”

Lobby99, a crowdfunded political pressure organization, has proposed that a state-owned company take responsibility for setting policy on the Dead Sea’s use and pay a private concern to carry it out.

Meirav Abady of Adam Teva V’Din. (Courtesy)

Policymakers, stakeholders and others have eight years to work on these issues before the lease comes due, but Naveh’s report urged the government and ICL to agree on moving the process sooner, given how much time it is expected to take and the prolonged period of uncertainty for ICL and the state regarding the future of the leasehold.

Finance Ministry sources would only say that a team had been set up to begin to put together a work program.

Shasha, the treasury official, told a Knesset committee dealing with the sovereign wealth fund last month that officials were currently focused on the methodology for valuing Dead Sea Works’ assets at the end of the franchise, but pledged to submit a timetable to the committee for the tender-related work.

A canal that takes water pumped from the Dead Sea uphill to evaporation pools at the Dead Sea Works. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Dead Sea’

According to Prof. Nadav Lensky, head of the Dead Sea Observatory at the Geological Survey of Israel, the Dead Sea’s level will eventually stabilize once the salt concentration is so high that evaporation levels plummet and are balanced out by the little freshwater that still flows in from the Sea of Galilee and streams to the west and east. It will be several hundred years before that happens, even with the sea’s rapid decline.

To actually recover to its former levels, the Dead Sea would need more than a million cubic meters of water a year, roughly equivalent to what the entire agricultural sector uses in a year, according to 2019 figures. That would be a tall order anywhere, let alone one of the most politically sensitive and drought-stricken spots on Earth.

“There’s no magic solution,” said Galit Cohen. “You have to understand that the Dead Sea is a very complex story and that the solutions are also very complex.”

According to Cohen, saving the sea is not something Israel can do on its own.

“There has to be a geopolitical agreement,” Cohen said. “It can’t be what Israel decides alone. It must be together with the Jordanians.”

After nearly two decades of trying to rouse support, Ein Gedi’s Meirav Ayalon has concluded that the Dead Sea “doesn’t interest anybody.” A sinkhole fatality is only a matter of time, she maintained.

“I think that nature is telling us that we’ve gone too far, that it’s hitting back,” she said, gazing out at the pocked landscape.

“I’m not opposed to agriculture or industry or people making profits. There are no bad actors here; it’s about how the state divides its resources,” she said.

“But as a citizen, I say just don’t be greedy. When people are down, you don’t kick them. I say to the state, give us a little bit of water. And to the mining companies: make a profit, but use a little less. Let’s not harm nature. Let’s help it.”

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