The strange tale of a toxic effluent channel hailed as a great, ‘secret’ river

Following TV visit to Dead Sea gorge carved out by briny waste from Dead Sea factories, call is issued for works there to stop, site to be opened to public

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

  • Salt formation along the Dead Sea channel 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
    Salt formation along the Dead Sea channel 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
  • Israel's 'answer to the Grand Canyon.' The 'secret river' by the Dead Sea 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
    Israel's 'answer to the Grand Canyon.' The 'secret river' by the Dead Sea 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
  • Aerial view of the gorge and the 'secret river' by the Dead Sea  'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
    Aerial view of the gorge and the 'secret river' by the Dead Sea 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
  • The 'secret river' by the Dead Sea, 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
    The 'secret river' by the Dead Sea, 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
  • The gorge and 'secret river' by the Dead Sea, 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)
    The gorge and 'secret river' by the Dead Sea, 'discovered' by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)

There has been much ado on Israeli social media since the beginning of last week following two episodes of a bizarre television report claiming the discovery of an “unknown” canyon and “river” that is actually the toxic effluent channel of two mineral extraction companies known well to geologists and the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

On Monday and Tuesday, Kan news broadcast dramatic footage of waters swirling along the bed of a 20-meter (65-foot) -deep gorge in the desert close to the Dead Sea — the lowest point on earth — and the Israeli-Jordanian border.

Because the gorge drops down beneath the level of the flat land around it, it cannot be seen from the nearby road and — until Kan’s report — has evidently remained unknown to most tour guides.

Lior Enmar, described as a geologist and guide, led Kan’s reporter and others along a path strewn with deep pits and unexploded mines to the water’s edge. In and around the area, viewers were treated to extraordinary images of salt formations in different shapes and colors.

When everyone reached the gorge, they whooped in amazement. The reporter enthused that it was Israel’s answer to the Grand Canyon, while Enmar said it was one of the most beautiful “parks” in the world.

Geologist and tour guide Lior Enmar points the way to to the ‘secret river’ by the Dead Sea, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)

One person’s river is another person’s effluent carrier

The truth — clearly explained in the report but somewhat eclipsed by its eureka framing — is that the river actually carries salty sludge from the evaporation pools of the Dead Sea Works run by Israel Chemicals Ltd and the Ofer family and from the Jordanian Arab Potash Company, just next door.

Both factories pump water out of the northern section of the Dead Sea into evaporation pools in the southern section that are visible from the Ein Bokek hotels along the Israeli section of the Dead Sea shore.

The water evaporates, leaving potash, a potassium-rich salt, and halite for the factories’ use, while the remaining effluent — which is very dense and salty — is channeled back to the lake.

Half a century ago, the Dead Sea was one body of water and it was easy to direct the effluent back from the evaporation pools.

But since 1976, the lake’s surface area has almost halved and its elevation has dropped more than 40 meters (130 feet) — from 390 meters (1,280 feet) below sea level to minus 434 meters (minus 1,425 feet) today.

ICL Fertilizers' Dead Sea Works, the world's fourth largest producer and supplier of potash products (Photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israel Chemicals’ Dead Sea Works, the world’s fourth largest producer and supplier of potash products. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The reasons include diversion of freshwater from rivers that used to feed into it from the north, the pumping carried out by the mineral extraction factories and a reduction in rainfall, evidently due to climate change.

By the late 1970s, the Dead Sea had lost so much water that it split into two and a tract of land that had previously been under water became exposed.

That shrinking is continuing, with little hope of a solution in sight.

Geology on steroids

What so excited Enmar and his group was the way that the effluent, now having to cross exposed land to get to the northern section of the Dead Sea from the southern evaporation pools, has carved a canyon out of the mud over only 40 years.

The channel can be seen on this Google Earth image entering the northern section of the Dead Sea, at the top of the picture, where there is a promontory bordered by salt.

The gorge is secret in the sense that very few people have physically visited it and that a lot of them have never heard of it. Not only does it fall within land franchised to the Dead Sea Works; it is extremely dangerous and the public was warned several times during the broadcasts not to go anywhere near it.

The exposed mud is collapsing into 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. And old but still active mines are also strewn around — having been dispersed by seasonal floods.

An Environmental Protection Ministry statement said that it knew perfectly well about the site, although it couldn’t confirm whether any officials had actually visited, because the gorge is inaccessible and dangerous. Furthermore, it and other government ministries were updated about research and findings by the Geological Survey of Israel.

Aerial view of sinkholes which are helping to shape the ‘secret river’ by the Dead Sea ‘discovered’ by Kan TV, January 2020. (Kan TV screenshot)

One of the people who knows the site best is Prof. Nadav Lensky, head of the Dead Sea Observatory at the GSI. He introduced Enmar to the channel in the first place — on a raft.

The GSI is following the phenomenon and its researchers have published studies about it.

For scientists, says Lensky, the canyon is a “playground” and a “living laboratory” for “fast forward geology. Here, geological processes take place in a fraction of the time that they do in nature,” he said, and that made it a very important resource.

Nadav Lensky, Director of the Dead Sea Observatory at the Geological Survey of Israel. (Courtesy)

Ironically, the channel’s flow is most dramatic during the summer (when other natural rivers in Israel are mainly dry) because evaporation — and the volume of effluent — is at its height when the temperatures are scorching. The presence of freshwater from springs cited in the TV report was negligible, Lensky added.

“It’s a dead canyon. The water is so salty that nothing can grow there” he said, but it is beautiful nevertheless and should be safely opened up for public access.

Damaging works

Kan’s follow-up episode on the subject revealed that the canyon and the strange lunar landscape and salt formations around it are now under threat from construction.

Digging and tire marks have already damaged parts of the gorge walls.

Earthworks and rubble damage part of the gorge wall. (Kan TV screenshot)

Times of Israel inquiries uncovered that this is all connected to a long-term project approved by the National Planning Council several years ago to save the adjacent Dead Sea hotels from being flooded by the evaporation pools.

Salt collects at the bottom of the pools at the rate of 20 centimeters each year, and as the salt rises, so does the water level.

The Dead Sea Works has been told to scrape the salt out of the pools and Enmar and others fear that it will be dumped somewhere near the gorge.

Hotels along the shore of the Dead Sea (photo credit: Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)
Hotels at Ein Bokek along the shore of the Dead Sea. (Mendy Hechtman/Flash90)

The strangest thing — as first revealed by the Makor Rishon newspaper earlier this month — is that the contractors and workers involved in so-called initial research for this project are Jordanian citizens working on Israeli territory.

Why are Jordanian citizens digging on Israeli soil?

Makor Rishon quoted the Israeli Foreign Ministry as saying that the Jordanians were doing the work within the framework of a joint project with Dead Sea Works.

The National Planning Council referred the Times of Israel to the Defense Ministry, which said, “There’s a piece of land here where there’s difficulty marking the border. The place where works are being carried out is more accessible from the Jordanian side. The issue is being dealt with by the Defense Ministry together with the relevant bodies.”

A spokeswoman for the local Tamar Regional Council said, “The research work in progress is connected to the requirements of the [National Planning Council-approved] plan for the establishment of a salt conveyor belt, and does not exceed the permits obtained.”

The laying of the road was being carried out in accordance with permits from the local planning authorities, in coordination with all the relevant authorities, she went on, and the presence of Jordanian workers had been coordinated with the Israeli army. The research work was temporary and would end in a few months.

Tire marks have destroyed a section of the gorge wall. (Kan screenshot)

A statement from Israel Chemicals Ltd, the holding company for Dead Sea Works, said, “At the ‘river,’ which is nothing but brine from the Jordanians and the Dead Sea Works being channeled back to the Dead Sea along a channel of the [dry] Arava riverbed, infrastructure works sometimes take place by both sides.

“To the best of our knowledge, [the construction work is for] a temporary access road needed at a particular point to research stability from the Jordanian side. As regards the Dead Sea Works, all company works are carried out only in line with the law and in full coordination with the relevant authorities,” it added. “Regarding the salt scraping project, the company will operate as required in an agreement with the government, unless it [the government] decides otherwise.”

Kan charged that in an environmental survey submitted to the National Planning Council, the Dead Sea Works had played down the existence of the canyon and ‘river,’ referring only to a narrow channel and lots of mud.

The Environmental Protection Ministry said it “believes that it is appropriate to investigate and assess the environmental value of the area before issuing new building permits or approvals for new plans in the area, but should contact the National Planning Council on this issue.”

The head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel admitted during the broadcast that he had never heard of the ‘secret river’ and immediately announced a petition to stop any works from taking place.

Salt shapes at the ‘secret river’ by the Dead Sea, January 2020. (Kan screenshot)

Whose resource is it anyway?

Technically, the channel is not a river, because it would have to be — according to the Cambridge dictionary — “a natural wide flow of fresh water.”

But semantics apart, the story does raise interesting questions about the public’s right to access its land.

Lensky dreams of trails and viewing decks being built to enable visitors to enjoy the sights, not only of this channel but the entire stretch of the Jordan River from Beit She’an in northern Israel down to the Dead Sea. In his vision, parking lots will be built at regular intervals along the Route 90 highway, with bridges or tunnels to cross the road to the Jordan River and Dead Sea on the other side.

The Interior Ministry and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority have reacted positively to the idea, he said. But then obstacles such as insurance costs are raised. And at present, almost the entire stretch of the Jordan River forms part of a closed military area that is off-limits to the public anyway.

A Romanian Christian Orthodox priest baptizes a pilgrim in the muddy waters of the Jordan River on January 18, 2019 during the Epiphany celebrations at the Qasr al- Yahud baptismal site near the West Bank city of Jericho as a part of their Easter pilgrimage to the Holy Land. (GALI TIBBON / AFP)

Officials, he stressed, should visit New Zealand, where there are safe places from which to view geological wonders such as boiling mud, or Yosemite National Park in the US, which is also safely open to visitors.

“As Israel’s population grows, people will need more space for recreation,” he said.

Kan reporter Oren Aharoni responded to social media criticism that he had hyped up a story about a non-river that was not a secret. He explained that the canyon and “river” are so remarkable, and that the Dead Sea Works is so determined to keep it under wraps, that he wanted everyone, including the environmental organizations, to know about it so that it can be preserved and safely opened to the public for posterity.

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