05/25/2011 23:18

The Dead Sea will spring raucously to life with the kickstarting of a dispute about who must foot the bill for keeping it healthy.

The lowest point on earth promises to rise high on the controversy scale in coming months. The Dead Sea will spring raucously to life with the kickstarting of a dispute about who must foot the bill for keeping it healthy.

The tourism and environmental protection ministers announced last Monday that the Dead Sea Works (owned by the Israel Corporation, in which the Ofer brothers hold the largest stake) will have to pay for dredging the bottom of the lake to remove the chemical sludge regularly dumped there by the industrial complex that extracts phosphates and other minerals from the saltiest body of water on this planet.

What is colloquially called “salt harvesting” could cost as much as NIS 7 billion (and that’s if everything goes to plan). The Israel Corporation is already protesting and the entire kerfuffle is likely to end up in mediation.

Mediation processes aren’t renowned for speed but at stake is the future of the entire Ein Bokek hotel and health spa area on the Dead Sea’s southwestern coast.

These hotels are in immediate danger of being engulfed by overflow from the sea, which paradoxically is fast drying up.

How, it may be asked, can floods so potently threaten the resort area when the sea itself shrivels and shrinks?

The answer is that this is an entirely man-made predicament and hardly one that was unforeseen from the outset – over four decades back. Since the sea is steadily evaporating and contracting in size, it became necessary to channel water to facilitate the continued functioning of the plants. With the Dead Sea’s overall water level substantively reduced, that should have posed no problem. However, the lake bottom is being steadily raised by the salt mounds discarded by the plants (with Jordanian plants also responsible for some of the damage).

Swelling deposits of chemical sediments subsiding below the surface render the sea artificially shallow. Hence the piped water that is indispensable for the plants’ operation quickly fills the limited capacity left for it and overflows. This threatens to inundate and even submerge the hotels.

Thus the chemical and tourism industries, both large and intrinsically important to this country’s economy, are in effect working at cross purposes within a tiny geographical rubric. Yet the Dead Sea Works were, rightly, identified as the cause of the problem; hence the determination that they should pay to right to damage they have wrought.

This solution has been universally hailed – across all shades of political opinion and by all environmental campaigners. The rationale is compelling. While the hotels perhaps shouldn’t have been constructed precisely where they now stand, they aren’t the problem. Moreover, the industries on the Dead Sea’s shores cannot be allowed to continue clogging up the sea with residue. The crisis they trigger is ongoing and incremental.

Since the plants make handsome profits from the Dead Sea, they should set some of it aside to ensure they don’t entirely plug up the sea. Furthermore, if Israel doesn’t read the riot act to its own plants, it can hardly demand that the Jordanians impose responsibility and discretion on their plants.

So far there’s no disagreement anywhere with the above logic. All concur that the Dead Sea Works cannot avoid liability. At issue, though, is the bottom line. The last thing the government should countenance is throwing out the baby with the bathwater and undermining an industry that is one of Israel’s most important money-maker exporters.

Moreover, attention was drawn to the plants’ shoddy practices already from the early 1970s. Nothing was secret and unexpected. Yet successive governments chose to pay no heed. In other words, by their disregard they sanctioned the mess that requires cleaning up today. Inaction made officialdom an accessory.

The Israel Corporation has already announced that while it’s willing to assume some expense, it won’t pay for everything. Ahead is litigation, likely to culminate in mediation, which will probably yield a compromise.

But we have no time to squander. The faster a pragmatic agreement is reached, the better for all, and especially for the unique Dead Sea.