Forty years of wandering from bad decisions to neglect have done terrible damage to the lowest place on earth.
By Shuki Sadeh

Short-term thinking. Unthinking optimism – “everything will work out.” Putting off hard decisions, selling national assets for peanuts, and first and foremost, of course, a lack of governance. These are the factors behind the ecological monster that is the Dead Sea, which is about to flood the hotels built in the Ein Bokek oasis.

After one High Court ruling, two biting reports by the state comptroller and any number of warnings about the gravity of the situation, the government is supposed to finally make decisions. It has to decide how to rescue one of Israel’s most important tourism destinations, the lowest place on earth. After 20 years of foot-dragging, it has to decide how best to stop the rising level of the sea’s southern half from swamping the hotels.
The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea

Last Thursday, hearing a petition by the Dead Sea Hotels Association, Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Rivlin voiced concern that the state had its own ideas about the pace of things. The state’s representative asked not to be forced to make a decision before May. “Madam said May but didn’t say which year,” gibed Justice Asher Grunis. In any case, the court gave the state until August to make some decisions.

Dr. Yaakov Nir, a geologist who has been monitoring the Dead Sea’s condition for years, finds the situation unacceptable. “Many absurd things have happened over the years, and sadly, the stupid ideas continue,” Nir says. “I don’t know if it’s corruption or something else, but I’m sure it isn’t wisdom. When experts come from abroad and see what we’ve done to the Dead Sea beaches, they ask why we did this to ourselves.”

On November 11 this year, the official declaration of the new seven wonders of nature will be made by the private organization New 7 Wonders. The Dead Sea is a contender, alongside the Grand Canyon and the Galapagos Islands. Winning would be more than a symbolic feather in Israel’s cap; it would translate into tourism. The hope is that winning the coveted award would spur the authorities into action to save the sea.

Israel’s ignoring of nature was the root of the evil behind the damaging of the Dead Sea. Israel built its main water conduit from north to south in the 1950s. At the time this was hailed as progress; only later came recognition of the tremendous damage it caused. Since the national conduit redirected water to central Israel, it all but eliminated the flow of natural water down the Jordan River south of Lake Kinneret. Israel’s neighbors Syria and Jordan diverted the course of the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers too. The upshot was that during the 20th century, the Dead Sea fell 25 meters.

Also to blame for the drop in sea level is the Dead Sea Works, owned by Israel Chemicals (ICL ), which in turn is owned by the Ofer family. DSW is responsible for 20% of the drop in sea level, according the Geological Institute. It siphons seawater into evaporation pans south of the sea, from which it extracts the potash it sells worldwide as fertilizer.

The drop in sea level has created other problems, one being sinkholes – yawning holes that suddenly appear, mainly in the northern part of the sea. The roads in the area also need maintenance.

Temporary forever

Until the national water conduit was built, a large spit of land jutted into the south part of the sea. But after the conduit came into being, the south part of the sea dried up completely.

In 1965, DSW – then still a government company (it was privatized in 1995 ) – built a giant salt evaporation pool 80 square kilometers large; 1.5 times the area of Tel Aviv. It pushes water from the north part of the sea – still a natural phenomenon – into that vast pool. And from that pool (and other smaller ones ), DSW takes advantage of the sun to evaporate the water to produce potash. But in this process, simple salt sinks to the bottom of the pool, builds up on the ground and raises the level of that south part of the sea.

Meanwhile, in the 1970s, the government got the idea to develop tourism next to the vast salt pool. It approved the construction of the first hotel in 1971, even though DSW warned of danger to the hotels in the future. “The sea level is gradually rising,” the company’s management wrote to Tourism Minister Moshe Kol and other ministries, warning that the beach and any hotels near it would be inundated.

A state comptroller report from 2003 on the Dead Sea mentions an October 1971 opinion at the Israel Lands Administration warning against building hotels within the future flooding range. Yet the government did not prevent the hotels from going up. During the 1980s, eight of them were built. Today there are 15, six on the waterline.

Their owners knew perfectly well about the problem. All but three have signed contracts with DSW stating as much. Nehemia Ben-Porat, chairman of the Dead Sea Hotels Association, says the hotels had relied on a dirt barrier wall and even paid to have it heightened as a temporary solution, even though this was a terrible nuisance. But they assumed that a permanent solution would be instated. “It didn’t occur to us that things would reach the state they have reached today,” Ben-Porat says.

The first time a physical effort was made to contend with the problem was in 1980, when DSW – at its own initiative – raised the height of the dirt levee around the giant salt pool. That temporary measure has become a permanent one. In the 1990s the government took charge – and increased the height of the wall some more. That enabled even more hotels to be built – yet no real solution was proffered, and the dirt barrier was built using land from the surrounding streams, causing even more environmental damage.

In the next 20 years the barrier was raised again and again, paid for by the state and DSW. In 2003 the state comptroller wrote that a permanent solution had to be found instead of just setting up committees that did nothing. He wrote the same thing again in 2005.

Ill-conceived privatization

While constantly piling more dirt on the levee, the state paved the way to privatize DSW in the 1990s. The first stage was floating its parent company, ICL, on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. In a 1992 prospectus the state wrote that it was withdrawing a NIS 90 million dividend to finance protection for the hotels.

The sum proved insufficient, and it wasn’t placed in a designated fund that would accrue interest. The money was used otherwise. Nor did the state think to require DSW’s future owner to assume responsibility for protecting the hotels from floods. It could have, considering that the buyer was receiving a unique and extremely valuable national asset.

The Eisenberg family bought DSW in 1995, including the right to exploit the Dead Sea’s mineral wealth until 2030, but bore no responsibility for environmental damage such as the dropping level of the north part of the sea or problems at the hotels. In 1999 the Ofer family bought the company from the Eisenbergs at the same terms.

Today the price of the omission is becoming clear. By 2017 the south pool waters are expected to engulf the hotel grounds. As the state was not spurred on by the state comptroller, in 2006 the hotels sued, saying the state wasn’t doing anything. In 2008 the government set up the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company, an arm of the Tourism Ministry. Its job: to come up with a permanent solution.

It came up with three suggestions. One: Harvest the salt building up on the floor of the pool to keep the water level steady. Two: Create a lagoon by splitting the salt pool into two parts. The water level of the part by the hotels would remain steady. Three: Raze the six hotels on the shore (and the adjacent shopping centers ) and rebuild them elsewhere.

The Tourism Ministry is deliberating between option one (harvest ) and three (move ), and is reportedly leaning toward the latter. The Finance Ministry (which doesn’t get to decide ) supports the last option, as the cheapest.

Holiday in adust storm

Everybody else, from environmental organizations to the hotels to the regional council, would prefer that the salt be harvested. DSW also thinks so, if the government would foot the bill. Another advantage is that the salt could be moved to the north part of the sea, raising the water level there. But the cost of digging up the salt from the south part would run at NIS 6.4 billion by 2035, while razing and rebuilding the hotels would cost NIS 3.5 billion.

The hotels are bitterly fighting the attempt to move them. They see two main dangers, one being that the infrastructure work to raze and rebuild six hotels plus two shopping centers would drag out for years, while ruining business at the other nine hotels. They also think that the eight years the Dead Sea Preservation Government Company has allocated for the work isn’t enough; the barrier would have to be raised more anyway, creating more infrastructure work and ruining the view further.

“The whole area will be a desolate field of dust and giant cranes,” moans Ben-Porat.

What tourist in his right mind would come to a site with giant trucks rumbling by, a view of scaffolding and – if they want to dip in the sea – a climb over a mountain of dirt? That’s what hotelier David Fattal asks, anyway.

The greens, not noted for being business-friendly, are allied with the hotels on this one. Moving the hotels is a bad idea; moving the salt is a good idea and ICL should shoulder the cost, they argue. ICL is a highly profitable company, in part thanks to national resources that should belong to everyone, and the accrual of salt at the bottom of the south sea is the company’s fault, argues Naama Heller, legal counsel of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense.

DSW doesn’t agree. Noam Goldstein, its infrastructure manager, sees no reason it should pay to evacuate the salt; the pool is designated for industrial purposes, not tourism, he argues. “Right, we are responsible for the rising sea level,” he says. “But without us [the pool] wouldn’t exist at all. The hotels sit there, enjoy our maintenance of the pool for free and then say we’re acting like an environmental contaminant? It isn’t as though I built a plant next to a beautiful lake with hotels. On the contrary, the hotels came to me.”

The state erred in selling the same asset twice, once as an industrial asset and then as a tourism asset, Goldstein says. “It’s the classic syndrome of ‘everything will work out’ with the syndrome of ‘not on my watch’ and a failure to bear responsibility.” His conclusion: DSW shouldn’t pay a penny to evacuate the salt. There’s a contract and the state sold it the franchise until 2030. It could have forced the buyer during the privatization to assume responsibility. It didn’t.

Afraid of the Ofers?

In any case, salt harvesting wouldn’t start before 2035, according to the preservation company’s plan, five years after the Ofer family’s concession expires. Coincidence, says the state, but the hoteliers claim that the spineless state is afraid to take on the Ofers, so it isn’t forcing ICL to foot the bill.

But the Ofers could keep the concession after 2030. They have the right of first refusal. Meaning, if the state decides to keep the Dead Sea treasures in the private market, it has to offer them to the Ofers first – but it could stipulate new terms.

Nobody in the tourism or finance ministries has a sensible answer for why salt harvesting shouldn’t start immediately, says Ben-Porat. “When we ask them why they don’t sit down with the franchisee and reach an agreement, they say, ‘Are you mad? What would people say about us? They’d claim illicit ties between business and government.’ Are they prepared to destroy nature and tourism for fear of what people would say?”

In fact, say insiders, treasury officials have been battling with the Ofers to iron out a deal, which would involve ICL shouldering cost – either of moving the hotels or harvesting salt. DSW denies that formal talks are taking place, just theoretical chats. It’s all about who pays how much, says an insider. It’s high noon at the Dead Sea and now the question is who will blink first.