State allows Dead Sea Works to pump more water, even as iconic lake recedes

Water Authority greenlights extraction of 445 million cubic meters in coming year, up from 439 million cubic meters last year, to disappointment of environmentalists

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

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

The Water Authority appears to have caved to the giant Israel Chemicals Ltd. (ICL) by issuing an annual license that allows its Dead Sea Works factory to extract more water than last year out of the iconic salt lake that is receding due to overpumping.

The authority will allow the Dead Sea Works to pump 445.8 million cubic meters during 2021, up from 439 million cubic meters last year — the first year during which pumping was determined by a government license.

Additional millions of cubic meters will be awarded to the company over the coming years — subject to information the Water Authority has requested — to compensate for losses of water for reasons such as seepage through the floors of its evaporation pools and increasing salinity of the Dead Sea, which itself is partly a result of the commercial pumping.

The Dead Sea is receding by around 1.2 meters (four feet) every year. The Jordan River, historically the main source of water for the Dead Sea, is diverted for agricultural and other uses by Israel, Jordan and Syria, all of which have growing populations.

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)

ICL, which extracts two-thirds of the commercially exploited water from the Dead Sea (the rest by a Jordanian factory), diverts it to evaporation pools for the production of minerals, mainly potash. The company has said that its activities cause nine percent of the Dead Sea’s shrinkage. The environmental advocacy organization Adam Teva V’Din puts the figure closer to 30%. Dead Sea Works returns about half of the water it pumps after use.

A view of the Dead Sea Works on February 2, 2018. The Dead Sea Works is an Israeli potash plant in Sdom, on the Dead Sea coast of Israel. (Issac Harari/Flash90)

Just under two years ago, after a long campaign, Adam Teva V’Din convinced the Haifa District Court to order the Water Authority to issue production licenses. The organization’s hope was that the licenses would be used to cut the quantities of water that may be pumped.

Up until that point, ICL had been pumping at will, without a license and had not paid at all for the water it was using, such that there was no economic incentive to save. (It still does not pay for the water.)

Until the court ruling, the Water Authority had stood by, trying only meekly, after the start of the legal action, to exert some authority via voluntary guidelines it signed with the company in 2016.

In August 2019, Haifa Judge Ron Sokol wrote that a license would allow proper governmental supervision of commercial operations at the Dead Sea and ensure that private activity did not harm the public interest.

“Water sources that are not freshwater are also of public importance, of importance to environmental conservation, to nature and to the country’s development,” he wrote in his judgment. “Preservation of the Dead Sea as a water source is of great public significance. If it is not preserved, there will be harm to the environment, to interests of tourism and industry, the land around it will be damaged, so will the ecological balance…”

Sinkholes along a stretch of the Dead Sea coast that used to be covered with saltwater. (Meir Abelson, Geological Survey of Israel)

Leehee Goldenberg, director of the Economy, Environment and Natural Resources Department at Adam Teva V’Din, said the quantities of water that the Dead Sea Works was being allowed to pump significantly set back its efforts.

“The ruling determined that the Water Law applies to the Dead Sea and that they require a license to continue their work. The disagreement is with the conditions. We think they should reduce pumping. It’s a disappointing decision.”

Leehee Goldenberg, director of the Economy, Environment and Natural Resources Department at Adam Teva V’Din. (Courtesy)

The Dead Sea’s retreat has exposed more than 300 square kilometers (115 square miles) of seabed over the past 50 years. Today that area is peppered with some 7,000 sinkholes — cavities that form when the saltwater between salty rock and freshwater recedes and the freshwater dissolves the rock, causing the land above to fall in.

Buildings, agricultural areas and beaches have been abandoned and development projects put on ice. On the Jordanian side, holes have reportedly opened in the evaporation pools used to commercially extract minerals.

The Dead Sea needs an additional 700-800 million cubic meters of water annually just to stay at its current level, and more than 1,000 million cubic meters to bring it back up to 410 meters (1,345 feet) below sea level, where it was in 1995.

The Dead Sea Works also owes considerable amounts of money to a sovereign wealth fund to be established to ensure that Israeli citizens — not only investors — reap benefits from Israel’s natural gas bonanza and from extraction of the country’s natural resources.

Prof Eytan Sheshinski addressing a Knesset committee on the sovereign wealth fund, Jerusalem, July 15, 2020. (Adina Velman/Knesset)

Last year, Prof. Eytan Sheshinski, who has headed government committees on taxing companies that exploit the country’s natural resources, said that ICL — which holds the franchise for the Dead Sea Works — should be forced to settle its debts with the state. This is estimated to run into hundreds of millions of shekels — or else be excluded from consideration when the franchise comes up for renewal in 2030.

ICL is controlled by the Ofer family’s Israel Corporation, the country’s largest holding company. It makes fertilizers, metals and other chemical products from bromine, phosphate, magnesium and potash taken from the Dead Sea or mined elsewhere in the Negev Desert.

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