Israel to pump nearly $120m into Dead Sea communities facing sinkholes
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Israel to pump nearly $120m into Dead Sea communities facing sinkholes

Grant, to be paid over four years, will be earmarked for tourism, transport, agriculture and research. 'No short- or medium-term engineering solutions,' says PMO

The ruins of the Kibbutz Ein Gedi beach on January 3, 2017. Sinkholes forced the closure of the beach in 2015. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)
The ruins of the Kibbutz Ein Gedi beach on January 3, 2017. Sinkholes forced the closure of the beach in 2015. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

The Prime Minister’s Office announced Sunday that it would be investing NIS 417 million shekels ($118.5 million) over the next four years to help Dead Sea area communities deal with the increasing problem of sinkholes and their negative impact on tourism.

The Dead Sea shoreline is receding by about one meter (three feet) per year thanks to natural evaporation, diversion of water from the Jordan River to the north for agricultural purposes, and the pumping out of water at the southern end by the Dead Sea Works for the extraction of salts and minerals.

As the shoreline is increasingly exposed, freshwater rushes in and dissolves what used to be underwater layers of salt, causing the surface earth above these layers to collapse inwards.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that conclusion of experts from the Geological Survey of Israel was that “there is no engineering or operational solution to the instability of the ground and the formation of sinkholes” in the short and medium term.

“In light of this, government policy is based on life continuing alongside the sinkholes,” the statement continued, with the provision of help with employment opportunities for the communities living in the area.

Above: Dead Sea resident Jaky Ben Zaken discusses his work in our 360-degree video. Click and drag on the screen, or move your phone, to look around.

Over the past year and in an attempt to understand the scope of the problem and possible solutions, a broad inter-ministerial team, under the PMO’s auspices, has been meeting with local council and community representatives as well as bodies such as the Nature and Parks Authority, the Society for the Protection of the Dead Sea, the Geological Survey, the Water Authority and the Israel Lands Authority.

The NIS 417 million shekel budget includes NIS 166 million ($47 million) for repairs to Route 90 between the Almog Junction and Ein Gedi Nature Reserve and improvements to public transport; NIS 108 million ($30.7 million) for tourism development; NIS 41 million ($11.6 million) for research and planning in the medium and long term, most of which will be channeled to the Geological Survey; and NIS 25 million ($7 million) to help local farmers acquire more agricultural land and locate additional water sources and to build affordable homes for first-time buyers through a Housing Ministry program.

Tourism projects include development of the Qasr al-Yahud site baptismal site north of the Dead Sea on the Jordan River (work that will include removing land mines), the creation of a hotel and spa at the Mitzpeh Shalem Kibbutz and of hotel facilities near Ein Gedi’s existing “Sea of Spa” and expansion of Ein Gedi’s existing guesthouse.

A sapper working to clear mines from the area around the Qasr al-Yahud Baptism site on the Jordan River, March 2018. (Defense Ministry)

Today, there are more than 6,000 sinkholes on the western side of the Dead Sea, with new ones showing up daily. Jordan also has sinkholes but suffers less because of a different geological configuration.

The sinkholes have destroyed the public beaches in the northern part of the sea, Mineral Beach and Ein Gedi beach, and responsible for the loss of nearly 40 places of employment they provided in the economically depressed area. Infrastructure impacted by the phenomenon include a $60 million bridge over the Arugot stream, a high-speed stretch of Route 90 south of the Ein Gedi nature reserve and the only gas station in the area for more than 60 km.

A pipeline transferring water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and a link between that and a desalination plant at Aqaba in Jordan hit the headlines every so often, but have not translated into practical action so far.

Melanie Lidman contributed this report.

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