Everyone laments the vanishing of the Dead Sea. Yet discussions, articles and forecasts of decades ago show that every stage of the sea’s demise was actually anticipated in advance.

The start of construction of the Dead Sea Works’ evaporation ponds, 1954.
The start of construction of the Dead Sea Works’ evaporation ponds, 1954. Credit: Benno Rothenberg /Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel / The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection

Nir Hasson Jan. 15, 2022

“Anyone who wants to enjoy a voyage across the entire Dead Sea… should hurry and carry out his wish,” Haaretz reporter Y. Terizi wrote. “And those who want to tour the exotic places along the Dead Sea on the way and also the place called the ‘tongue’ should also make haste, for the sooner it’s done, the better. If not, within a few years you may not have the opportunity to enjoy all that… It is actually very possible that the whole of the Dead Sea will come to look very different from its present appearance and from the way it looked hundreds of thousands and millions of years ago.”

That was written in 1934.

In the 88 years since, that prophecy of doom has been fulfilled. As of the end of 2021, all the Dead Sea beaches in Israel have been abandoned, and many have been totally wrecked by sinkholes. In fact, for most Israelis, the natural Dead Sea is no more than a sliver of blue on the horizon. There are still two places where one can enter the water in an organized way: via several beaches at the sea’s northern tip (legally, in the West Bank), and on the boardwalk at Neve Zohar, in the southern section, where the hotels were built at the edge of a huge evaporation pond created by the Dead Sea Works. Every other attempt to reach the sea’s natural shore is a mission for hardy hikers or owners of jeeps.

Terizi’s article might be assumed to be the first in the Hebrew press warning of an ecological and landscape disaster at the Dead Sea. But that would be an anachronistic, mistaken reading. Writing about a change in the appearance of the Dead Sea in the mid-1930s, Terizi wasn’t necessarily referring to a change for the worse. In fact, Terizi understood it as the very opposite: a positive change on the way to a better future. “Tractors are huffing mightily, leveling vast tracts of land, protective embankments are being erected, roads are being built, marshes are disappearing, the areas of the future pools are taking shape – and something tremendous is emerging such as never before seen in the country we are building,” he wrote. Like many others in that period and in the decades that followed, he saw the drying out of the Dead Sea not as a problem but as an opportunity.

“The Dead Sea was approached like a cow to be milked,” says curator and researcher Orit Engelberg-Baram, who studied the environmental history of the Dead Sea for her doctoral dissertation at the University of Haifa. Titled “A Death Foretold,” the dissertation was written under the supervision of Prof. Efraim Lev and Dr. Asaf Zeltser. It analyzes the attitude taken by the Zionist movement and the State of Israel toward the most important natural resource that was vouchsafed them. The Dead Sea’s metamorphosis from a singular global natural phenomenon into a vast plant for the production of potash is not a hitch or a mistake, Engelberg-Baram explains; it is the inevitable result of a series of decisions that were made over the past century. Her dissertation chronicles the bureaucracy behind an ecological disaster in the making.

Orit Engelberg-Baram.
Orit Engelberg-Baram.Credit: Ilan Assayag

“We strode into the abyss with open eyes, it was all predictable,” she says, and then adds a demurrer: “Almost everything. The one thing that came as a surprise was the sinkholes – no one foresaw that development.” Upon reflection, she adds, “Actually, the perception of an ecological disaster is due only to the sinkholes; without them, I’m not sure it would be seen as a disaster, without the sinkholes it’s not understood as an abyss at all.”

As an example, Engelberg-Baram singles out another item in the press, this one from 1946. Headlined “Exploiting Jordan waters for irrigation won’t harm Dead Sea,” the article states that utilizing the water of the Jordan would bring about a rapid fall in the sea’s level, and the dehydration of the sea’s southern basin. “How is it possible that the southern basin would dry up and the sea not be harmed?” Engelberg-Baram asks rhetorically. “Because what was of importance then in the Dead Sea were the minerals and not the landscape. The approach was that everything possible should be exploited without reference to the Dead Sea as a landscape that possesses inherent value.” The 1946 writer says reassuringly, “A drop of 10 meters will not affect the brine concentration,” meaning the minerals that could be extracted from the sea.

The genesis of this approach, Engelberg-Baram says, lies in the roots of Zionism and its attitude toward nature. Theodor Herzl anticipated the extraction of minerals from the Dead Sea, and an 1892 utopian novel by the writer and Zionist activist Elhanan Leib Lewinsky, “Journey to the Land of Israel in the Year 5800” – the Hebrew year corresponding to 2039-2040 – envisions a “city of salt” of 100,000 residents on the shores of the Dead Sea. “There is great hustle and bustle, there is much pounding and shrieking of machines, steam rises from the smokestacks and thousands of workers are employed there.”

Palestine Potash Ltd. – the historic forebear of today’s ICL Group, current owner of the Dead Sea Works – was the first to launch operations that refashioned the Dead Sea in order to mine minerals. The company was something of an odd bird in the pioneer-Zionist landscape of the time: It was not a cooperative or an industry belonging to the Histadrut labor federation, but a company of private entrepreneurs registered on the London Stock Exchange. This new concept did not sit well with the leadership of the socialist-oriented Yishuv – the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine. Engelberg-Baram hypothesizes that this is why the company’s founder, Moshe Novomeysky, a Siberian-born engineer, is a somewhat forgotten figure in Zionist historiography. Jerusalem is the only town with a street named for him, and even that is a rather small street, in the Ramat Sharett neighborhood. That state of affairs was somewhat rectified last month when ICL inaugurated the Moshe Novomeysky Visitors and Heritage center at the historical potash factory site at Sdom, on the Dead Sea.

In 1948, when Israel’s War of Independence erupted, Novomeysky’s international capitalist credentials provided him with an opportunity to try to save his life’s project. At the time, most of the industrial activity was being carried out in the northern part of the Dead Sea, in an area that under the United Nations partition plan was supposed to become part of the Arab state. Novomeysky reached an agreement with senior British and Jordanian officials to leave the factory intact in a kind of international enclave. On the day the state was declared, Novomeysky hurried to brief David Ben-Gurion about the agreement. The leader of the new state viewed the accord positively but was in a hurry to get to the proclamation ceremony and asked Novomeysky to come back later. When Novomeysky left the meeting, he was hit by a motorcycle and hospitalized. In his absence the agreement fell apart, and at the order of the Haganah – the pre-state army – the employees of the northern plant demolished the facility and fled in boats to Sdom before the site could be attacked by the Jordanians.

A Dead Sea Works pumping station. Israel’s and Jordan’s huge pumps lower the sea level about 20 centimeters a year.
A Dead Sea Works pumping station. Israel’s and Jordan’s huge pumps lower the sea level about 20 centimeters a year.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Efforts were subsequently made to renew potash production at Sdom. “The Dead Sea constitutes the most important of all the natural resources,” a 1949 government committee report stated. The report was drawn up as part of an effort “to bring about the full, rapid and most efficient possible exploitation of this basic resource.” It took until 1952, however, when the state nationalized the potash company, for these efforts to gain traction. Hefty investments were made in this period, but there were also numerous failures. “The joke at the time was that the only thing that drowns in the Dead Sea is money,” Engelbert-Baram says.

In 1949, Israel’s plan for the Dead Sea was “to bring about the full, rapid and most efficient possible exploitation of this basic resource.”

In 1955, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Mordechai Maklef was appointed director of the Dead Sea Works. He held the position for more than a decade and exercised a crucial influence on developments at the plant during that period. His biographer, Amos Goren, describes a meeting Makleff held with a candidate for the post of the company’s chief engineer, in which the director set forth his vision: “Large dams that will divide the southern [part of the] sea into evaporation ponds, pumping stations and factories for potash, bromine and magnesium products,” He told the engineer, “Treat the sea like a huge mine in which work has barely begun.”

Then, in 1961, came one of the most dramatic turning points in the history of the industrialization of the Dead Sea: the Knesset’s enactment of the Dead Sea Concession Law. It was an exceptional piece of legislation, formulated as an agreement between the state and the Dead Sea Works firm, which was then still a government company. The law grants the company extraordinary rights in vast areas, including, explicitly, the “right to demolish.”

The text of the law refers to “the exclusive right to extract by way of evaporation (solar or artificial), cooling, mining, quarrying, or in any other way, mineral salts and minerals and chemicals, whether in solution or in solid form, which are in and beneath the Dead Sea… the exclusive right to make, expand, modify, maintain and demolish, in and beneath the Dead Sea… including – but without derogating from the generality of the aforesaid – embankments, evaporation ponds, culverts, water barriers, pumping stations, canals, pipes, electricity lines and electricity cables, roads, anti-flood installations, wells and bores and other installations.”

The law was passed under heavy pressure from the World Bank, Engelbert-Baram notes. The World Bank, together with American banks, was supposed to underwrite the construction of the new facilities to process potash in the southern Dead Sea, and it wanted to ensure that the company would be given complete freedom of operation. At this juncture, too, there were some who warned about the consequences: “It seems to me that it will be difficult to defend to local and world public opinion the fact of the capitulation to the arbitrary demands of Mr. Black” – referring to Eugene Robert Black, president of the World Bank at the time – Mordechai Bentov, the minister of development, cautioned Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir.

Mordechai Maklef.
Mordechai Maklef.Credit: David Eldan / GPO

The left-wing parties saw the events, of course, as a colonialist, capitalist takeover of national resources, and assailed the law bitterly. “It was with extraordinary haste that the cabinet concluded the discussion about forfeiting the treasures of the Dead Sea to private owners of capital, and abolishing state ownership of one the largest and most important of our country’s basic industries,” Y. Tomer, from Kol Ha’am, the Communist Party newspaper, charged.

Despite such protests, construction of large-scale infrastructure began at the southern Dead Sea with a view to the establishment of modern plants to extract potash, under Maklef’s management. This period also saw the onset of what was to become one of the most serious environmental problems relating to the Dead Sea: the mining of the earth needed to build the embankments and infrastructure required by the Dead Sea Works. Here the full force of the law came into effect. “The Nature Reserves Authority asked Makleff not to mine in places of importance in terms of landscape and ecology. He replied, ‘There is a Concession Law and I will do as I wish,’” Engelberg-Baram says, “although in the end he agreed to listen and to move the area of the mining.”

Great geographical secret

It was during the 1960s that the first voices began to emerge suggesting that the Dead Sea was more than a gargantuan mine. In 1963, when construction of the Dead Sea Works’ modern facilities was at its height, the newspaper Davar – the mouthpiece of the ruling party, Mapai, forerunner of Labor – published an article that was ahead of its time. “First we transform Lake Hula into farmland. Then we turn Lake Kinneret into an irrigation pool… And now we are transforming the Dead Sea into a chemical factory,” the journalist Nahum Pundak wrote at the time. “It’s possible, because the level of the balance of payments is improving – but our landscape is doing the opposite… A large part of the Dead Sea that is now within our borders will become an extensive salt field. That is bound to happen within 60 to 70 years.”

An additional warning was issued in 1966 by Azaria Alon, a co-founder of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, who is considered the father of nature preservation in the country. “Ahead of us lie long and complicated legal and administrative processes; until their completion, it’s necessary to ensure that nothing irreparable will be done in the desert and the seashore. We need to remember that because of the climatic conditions, we cannot expect nature to fix what human beings spoil. If in the north water and plants heal ‘scars,’ that is not the case in the desert. Every place we scratch, even lightly, stays that way for dozens and hundreds of years. That is the advantage of the desert and also its shortcoming. If we want to preserve this unrivaled landscape for ourselves, we must first of all not harm it.”

Azaria Alon
Azaria Alon. Credit: Dan Hadani Collection, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, The National Library of Israel

In 1973, a scientific symposium about the Dead Sea was held, one of whose speakers, Prof. David Vofsi, addressed one of the gravest issues relating to the Dead Sea, one that would occupy the state and the Dead Sea Works for decades to come: the rise in the level of the sea’s ponds. In contrast to the northern basin, which suffers from rapid dehydration (the level is falling about 1.2 meters a year), the southern basin has the opposite problem. Since the basin dried out at the end of the 1970s, its territory has become the area of the company’s evaporation ponds: Every year the Dead Sea Works pumps water from the northern basin and floods the ponds. In the 1970s, when the first hotels began to be built on the shores of the largest evaporation pond, the rise in the level of the ponds still looked like a distant problem.

“The ponds are beginning to become clogged,” Vosfi, a chemist, warned, “and in 10 years’ time, say, the place where we are now sitting will look like a large salt field. That is something we need to take into account, because finally hotels are being built here, and an industry will get underway whose revenues will definitely not be negligible compared to the revenues from potash, and then we will be advised to make the dams higher, so that we can delay this judgment for a certain time… The whole process we are thinking about must take into account the problem of disposing of the salt.”

Vosfi was one of the first to speak of the need to remove the salt from the ponds. But it was not until decades later, when the ponds threatened to flood the hotels, that intensive discussions about the subject began. The question of harvesting the salt from the ponds became one of the acute economic and engineering problems the state had to cope with. Following lengthy discussions and the establishment of a dedicated government company (the Dead Sea Preservation Company), the state and ICL reached an agreement, and during the past year a huge barge began to remove the salt from the floor of the pond. The question now is what to do with the harvested salt – mountains of it that no one wants. ICL’s latest idea is to lay down a vast salt surface to the north of the pools and use it as a platform on which to build a solar farm.

In 1961, the Knesset’s enacted the Dead Sea Concession Law, which granted the Dead Sea Works extraordinary rights in vast areas, including, explicitly, the “right to demolish.”

The dramatic event that altered the natural map of the Land of Israel occurred in 1979: The southern basin of the Dead Sea dried up and was erased from the landscape. That drama made few waves. Engelbert-Baram found one article in the press, by Yisrael Tomer in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, that dealt with the subject. “You arrive at Masada, and slightly to its south, opposite the famous ‘tongue,’ the deep secret is revealed. You suddenly notice that something is missing. Something strange is happening here. ‘Just a minute,’ you ask yourself, ‘where is the sea?’… [This development] does not yet appear on any map of the Land of Israel. This has to be the biggest geographical secret that has occurred in our time,” Tomer wrote.

But at that stage, the development ethos still reigned. The Dead Sea Works was still something of a national symbol, and the ICL’s profitability and the amount of potash it produced received regular coverage in the papers. “Just as everyone followed the level of Lake Kinneret in the years afterward, people then kept track of how many tons of potash were produced each month” at the Dead Sea, Engelberg-Baram notes.

In her view, the turning point came only at the beginning of 1980s. The Israel Defense Forces’ withdrawal from Sinai in the wake of the peace treaty with Egypt gave rise to intense pressure to develop the Negev. In response, the feeling began to trickle in that it might, after all, be of value to preserve the desert’s open and desolate spaces. In 1982, the Society for the Protection of Nature held a historic conference at Moshav Hatzeva, in the Arava desert. At the event, whose subject was “The Zionist Dimension to Nature Preservation,” the writers Amos Oz, S. Yizhar and Amos Kenan reformulated the terms of love of the land and the conquest of the wilderness; the discourse about the desert, including the Dead Sea, began to change. “Perhaps we should have revised our approach to the concept of nature,” Kenan said at the time. “For me, nature encompasses all the memories of the soil and all the murmurs that the earth gives forth and all the stories that there are to be told.”

The new Dead Sea pumping station.
The new Dead Sea pumping station.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Engelberg-Baram detects the first changes in the Dead Sea Works’ environmental perception in 1986, when the conveyor was built that carries potash from the plant to Mishor Rotem, near Dimona. “They start to operate differently, not only according to the minimum to which the law obligates them,” she says. The company hired the services of the landscape architect Shlomo Aronson and bowed to his recommendations in regard to reducing the conveyor’s footprint on the landscape and to allowing the movement of animals from one side to the other.

Less than 10 years later, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wanted to amend the Concession Law ahead of the privatization of the Dead Sea Works, it was clear that the public and political discourse about the Dead Sea had changed; the environmental costs of the continued development of the sea were by now at the center of the discussion.

“It seems to me that this was the first time that the issue of environmental quality – this at least will be the reward for all our toil – has received a great deal of attention,” the minister of environmental protection at the time, Yossi Sarid, said. “Today matters of environmental quality are not a matter for bleeding hearts and are not ‘green’ matters. They are genuine economic issues.”

To which then-MK Tamar Gozansky (Hadash) added, “There is no hope for enterprises like these if they do not prove that they are investing all means possible in preserving quality of the environment, in preserving the landscape, in protecting all the values that are important to all of society.” Similar voices were heard even from the right side of the political map. MK Uzi Landau (Likud) said, “With all the respect I have for these industries and for their important contribution… it is impossible to accept this speed… The desire to privatize and the haste are from the devil… Building and paving this country with concrete from end to end is disrupting and seriously harming the quality of life and the quality of the environment, and the balance between humanity, nature and vegetation.”

At the end of 2021, another milestone was marked in the history of the development and exploitation of the Dead Sea: a huge new pumping station, called P-9, commenced operation. Located on a rig that rises a few meters above the sea, facing Masada, it is the most powerful pumping facility in Israel. It’s an immense structure of steel, pipes and pumps that is connected to the shore by a bridge. It was erected to replace the previous station, which like all its predecessors was abandoned due to the sea’s shrinkage. Each year, it will pump 450 million cubic meters of water enriched with minerals to a height of 50 meters in order to send it via an open canal southward into the Dead Sea Works’ evaporation ponds.

Contrary to the conventional viewpoint, the potash works are not responsible for the sea’s dehydration, though they are making a not-inconsiderable contribution to that process. The gigantic Israeli and Jordanian pumps deprive the sea of about 20 centimeters a year, an entire additional meter is lost because of the water’s evaporation and because Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinians are utilizing almost every drop of fresh water that is meant to flow into the Dead Sea. The combined result, as noted, is a recession of about 1.2 meters a year.

A few kilometers north of the rig lies the latest beach that has succumbed to the race after the receding shoreline: that of the Ein Gedi Hot Springs Resort, which shut down during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, two years ago. The vegetation at the entrance to the luxurious visitors center has already begun to dry up, and inside the building workers have stacked cartons to pack up the contents of the souvenir shop.

“When a far-seeing journalist recently asked [Prime Minister] Levi Eshkol, ‘And what will happen then?’” Nahum Pundak, who had anticipated the Dead Sea’s transformation into a “salt field,” wrote in 1963, “Eshkol told him, ‘Write down my phone number. Then we will be able to talk about the future.’”