09/14/2010 01:24

Committee chairman recommends full salt harvest as solution to southern area’s problems.

A multi-million dollar empire could come crashing down on the shores of the Dead Sea if Israel fails to act soon to solve the crisis caused by rising sea levels in the Ein Bokek area. But a Knesset hearing Monday revealed that the government was still weeks away from deciding which solution to offer to stave off the problem.

As Israel competes to have the Dead Sea officially recognized in 2011 as one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, the combined results of Israel’s booming Dead Sea Works in the southern part of the sea and the acute water shortage in the northern part may endanger Israel’s efforts to gain greater recognition for the shrinking natural wonder.

Although the deteriorating sea dominates the discourse regarding the northern or “natural” part of the mineral-rich body of water, the focus of the Knesset’s discussion Monday was the rising water levels in the southern part, due to massive accumulation of salt at the bottom of what is known as Lake Number Five.

Visitors to the Dead Sea region are familiar with the lake, which is part of a series of separate bodies of water created by the Dead Sea Industries, in the Neveh Zohar resort area. Although the northern part of the lake has remained uninterrupted, the southern part is diked into separate lakes to aid the Dead Sea Works in the production of potash, elemental bromine, caustic soda, and magnesium – materials instrumental for fertilizer production.

The dikes dividing up the southern basin of the lake form massive salt evaporation pans to produce potassium magnesium chloride, later processed into potassium chloride.

But when the minerals are extracted, sodium chloride – table salt – settles on the bottom of the lakes. Over the years, the layer of sodium chloride has risen, causing water levels to rise as the floor itself is pushed upwards by the salt accumulation.

It is this rising water level due to 20 centimeters of salt accumulation per year – a surprising contrast to the rapidly shrinking northern basin – that is threatening one of Israel’s best-known tourist attractions and the foundations of the hotels that serve as the backbone of Israel’s spa tourism industry.

Geological experts and consecutive State Comptroller’s reports have warned that the hotels are running on borrowed time, and that they have already passed the deadline for finding solutions. In the meantime, water is being pumped out of the basin as part of a stop-gap measure to keep the hotels standing.

A government team is expected to deliver its final decision regarding a solution to the crisis that pits two of the Negev’s key industries – tourism and minerals – against each other.

Three options are being considered in the final decision: destroying the hotels and rebuilding them further back from the shore; building a barrier that will create a maintainable lagoon abutting the coastline; or carrying out “full harvests” in which all of the accumulated salts are removed from the lakes’ floors.

Shai Wiener of the Tourism Ministry told the committee that his office will have all of the details necessary to reach a conclusion regarding the proper solution shortly after Succot, and that the final decision will be made by the government by the end of October.

The first option, hoteliers and environmental activists agree, will cause immeasurable damage to the tourism industry as well as to the unique ecosystem of the Dead Sea shores.

“Our time has run out and we must reach a decision,” said Tamar Regional Council chairman Dov Litvinoff.

Litvinoff emphasized that winning the Seven Wonders of the Natural World competition – set to be announced on November 11, 2011 – would bring an additional 1.5 million tourists and 20,000 jobs to the region, which largely subsists on tourism.

Litvinoff blasted the option of “copying” the hotels and called on the Knesset to rule out that option in its recommendations.

“Jordan is building thousands of new rooms on the Dead Sea coast, and we are debating how many of ours we should remove, or rebuild,” he scoffed.

He also blasted a government suggestion that his regional council shoulder 12 percent of the costs of any solution, arguing that “we are not a for-profit organization. No matter what, we have to live off of the same tax income.”

Removing the salt buildup, he said, should be considered part of the standard production process of the Dead Sea Works.

Grinding down some layers of the salt buildup is part of the company’s standard procedures.

The Dead Sea Works, said treasury officials, is expected to shoulder slightly over 39% of the expected cost of the project to stabilize the hotels. But representatives of the company, which was privatized in the 1990s, complained that the government knew full well what it was getting into when it allowed the hotels to build on the South Basin’s shores.

“We existed in the field before they started to build the hotels,” complained company representative Noam Goldstein. “Two separate state comptroller’s reports have concluded that the state sold the same land twice, so to speak.”

“The solution of harvesting the salt is the most logical solution and the best solution in terms of the environment, tourism, and employment,” said Economic Affairs Committee chairman MK Ophir Akunis (Likud), a position that was reinforced by representatives of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) as well as by Israel Hotel Association Dir.-Gen. Shmuel Tzuriel.

Menachem Zlotsky, of the Environmental Affairs Ministry, said that the salt harvest was the only truly long-term solution to stabilize the situation in the Southern Basin.

“Today, the Dead Sea is an ecological disaster area caused by a lack of stability and planning,” warned Shai Tahna’i, the Southern District coordinator for SPNI. “The government must pick an alternative that will stabilize the area and maintain as much as possible the exceptional natural value of the site on a national and international scale. We see the whole topic – the dropping level of the natural sea in the north and the lower part in the south – as interrelated.

And thus, in looking at it as one unit, there is only one solution that will cause stability to both sides, and that is a full salt harvest.”

Akunis’s committee expressed its hope that the government and specifically the Tourism Ministry would take into consideration the conclusion of the lengthy Knesset hearings on the subject, that salt harvesting was the best solution. But with government officials still awaiting what they said was “complete data” to make the final call, the fate of the Dead Sea – like the hotels on its coastline – remained on shaky ground.