More salt, less sea

The Dead Sea is disappearing but a solution requires regional cooperation and international funding.

If there is one issue over which Israel, Jordan and Syria should be indicted in international court, it is the Dead Sea. In less than 60 years, the three countries have devastated this unique place, and were already paying the price. It is therefore no wonder that a tour by President Moshe Katsav gave rise to a many-sided discussion, at theof which he announced that the country could not accept the current situation, and it must find effective ways to restore the Dead Sea, and prevent its disappearance. He also announced that he would propose to the next prime minister to set up aspecial ministerial committee find a solution to save the Dead Sea and prevent its destruction.At the same time, Katsav asked all government ministries and professional parties to formulate a plan to be submitted to the new government, immediately after the elections.

Katsavsshock at the condition of the Dead Sea was by no means exaggerated. Anyone visiting its shores will discover two contradictory phenomena. Whereas the northern basin is drying up, the southern basin, which has basically become an artificial evaporation pool for Dead Sea Works, and along which hotels have been built, is rising.

A report by Ministry of National Infrastructures chief scientist Prof. Michael Byeth says that, before the early 1960s, the negative water balance was due to a lack of rain and a drought in the Dead Seas drainage basin. Since the 1960s, with the operation ofIsraels National Water Carrier (which brings water from the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) to the rest of the country), the Degania dam on the Jordan River, Jordans Abdullah Canal, and Syrias dam on the Yarmukh River (the Jordan Rivers main tributary), the Dead Seas water level has been falling drastically. When the regions high rate of evaporation and the drying procedures by Israeli and Jordanian chemical extraction plants are added to the equation, it will realized that the destruction has only just begun.

Data presented during Katsavs discussionshow that the level of the Dead Sea has fallen 25 meters over 120 years, and is now 417 meters below sea level. In 2025, it will have fallen to minus 440 meters, and in 2050 to minus 465 meters. The result will be to sever the deep northern basin from the shallow southern basin, creating a dry peninsula.

The level of the Dead Sea is plummeting at the dizzying rate of one meter a year. This means the loss of 700 million cubic meters of water. Until humans took over the Jordan Rivers water, the river supplied the Dead Sea with 1.3 billion cubic meters of water a year; it now provides only 200 million.

The fall in the Dead Seas water level causes damage of many kinds: the drying up of the southern basin, the exposure of extensive mud flats thatrepresent anenvironmental and planning hazard, anddestruction of infrastructures along the shoreline. The most worrying phenomenon is the development of dangerous sinkholes that open up without warning, constituting a real safety hazard. The falling water level also increases erosion, which damages engineering infrastructures, lowers the level of the water table, and changes and disturbs the regions water pools and unique natural sites..

The southern basin suffers from the opposite problem. Huge quantities of salt accumulating on the sea bed are raising the water level by 20 centimeters a year. This rise threatens infrastructures and hotels. A special cabinet decision ordered the Ministry of Tourism to find a solution for the hotels before the expiration of the Dead Sea Works franchise in 2030.

Byeths report emphasizes that there are no current data or predictions for the Dead Sea Works life span beyond the franchise period. The report adds that the continued existencefor evaporation pools has material repercussions on the development of physical infrastructure conditions in the area of the pools andfor the entire southern basin, as well as for the continued existence of the hotels. The Israel Hotels Association claims that it should not bear responsibility for rectifying the situation, because the blame falls solely on the state.

Despite these prophecies of doom, experts say the Dead Sea is unlikely to disappear, even if nothing is done, and that within 200 years the water level will stabilize at 100-150 meters below its current level. At this level, the Dead Seas area will be about 450 sq.km., compared with its current 1,000 sq.km. Evaporation rates will decline, ameliorating the drop in water level.

Ministry of the Environment director general Dr. Miki Haran said this was not the first debate about the dismal fate of the worlds lowest body of water. In January 2003, a similar debate was held, which resulted in the ministers of the environment, regional cooperation, and national infrastructures being ordered to set up a professional committee to write a policy document on the future of the Dead Sea. The Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies (JIIS) also wrote a paper that focused on the northern basin.

At the end of their labor, the papers authors called on the government to implement their recommendations immediately, because even if this was done, the processes of destruction would continue for another 30-40 years. This conclusion was mainly based on at least a three-year planning period and seven-year implementation period for the plan. No solution, no matter how good, will be able to raise the level of the Dead Sea by more than half a meter a year, which means low water levels for decades to come.

The committee concluded that under these circumstances, additional land collapse was likely, due to a further drop in the Dead Seas water level, which would create more sinkholes. This land collapse will require immediate alternatives to buildings, roads, infrastructures and agricultural use in the affected areas. The report recommended locating alternative sites and vacating sites at risk, while setting up an economic and engineering team for carrying out this task.

This was not all. The report also recommended changing planning trends, and instead of planning buildings north-south along the shoreline, to plan them east-west, from the cliffs towards the beach. This axis would provide various tourism and settlement elements, storage areas, attractions, and access to the water.

The JIIS experts recommended that the Geophysical Institute of Israel should monitor and periodically update feasibility maps to take account of the development of sinkholes and other forms of land collapse. The JIIS believes this is of paramount importance given the dynamic nature of the area and its many risks.

The Hotels Association rejects this alternative, claiming it is illogical and cannot be implemented.

The JIIS recommends that planning committees, the Ministry of Tourism and other agencies prepare a new outline plan for the Dead Sea coast, and revise the existing plan for the area. A special item recommends that the government begin considering the matter of Dead Sea Works and other chemicals plants beyond 2030, when their franchises expire.

The committee recommends that the government promote the completion of a policy paper that will examine the repercussions of possible procedures for changing the Dead Seas negative water balance, and to mitigate emerging trends. The committees recommendations include building a canal from either the Red Sea or Mediterranean to the Dead Sea, or alternatively, improving most natural water flows, especially from the Jordan River and its tributary, the Yarmukh River. The committee believes that the government ought to formulate an independent position on the future of the Dead Sea, based primarily on Israels national interests.

These recommendations are not new. Over the years, various attempts have been made to save the situation. In March 2002, during the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) (Earth Summit) in Johannesburg, then-Minister of Regional Cooperation Roni Milo and Jordans Minister of Planning Dr. Bassam Awadallah presented a plan for a Red-Dead Sea Canal. The $2.5 billion project, to be financed by the World Bank, would build a 350-km. canal to deliver 1.5 billion cubic meters of seawater a year to the dying Dead Sea and to Jordanian desalination facilities - four times the carrying capacity of Israels National Water Carrier.

The planned called for Israel and Jordan to cooperate in establishing an international consortium, which would include desalination companies. The consortium would examine the project, and possibly build it. Europe, Japan, Jordanian King Abdullah II, and former US President Bill Clinton backed the Red-Dead Sea Canal. MK Shimon Peres announced at the time that he planned to convene an international conference for the project. Three years have passed, and nothing has happened.

In April 2004, Friends of the Earth Middle East (FoEME) organized a meeting of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians in an effort to discuss a sustainable solution, including economic and administrative aspects. Representatives of UNESCO, Canadas Ambassador to Jordan John Holmes, and senior Jordanian and Palestinian officials attended, but no official Israeli representative came, despite promises to do so. Figures presented at the meeting stated that 300 sinkholes had opened along the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea, 600 on the Israeli shore, and new sinkholes were opening daily.

Jordans representative, Jordan Valley Authority secretary general Zafer Alem, said that, because Jordan had no other sea, the Red Sea was the only solution to the countrys severe water shortage. However, he rejected renewing the flow of the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, because it was impossible to remove all the dams built along the southern stretch of the river, which he claimed were essential for Jordan and Israels agriculture.

Dr. Nir Beker of the University of Haifa presented research that tried to quantify the economic value of the Dead Sea. The study found that the Israeli public estimated the value of the Dead Sea at $154 million a year, but that the rest of the world estimated its value at $500 million a year. On the other hand, various industries along the Dead Sea make an estimated aggregate profit of $140 million a year.

Beker said the Israeli and Jordanian publics were unaware of the link between the blocking of the Jordan Rivers discharge into the Dead Sea and the immense damage caused to the Sea. He said economic studies of this kind had prevented the closing of parks around the world, and the studies role was not only to demonstrate the importance of preserving the environment and natural treasures, but also their economic importance.

Palestinian Water Authority deputy head engineer Fadel Kawash said he did not reject a Red-Dead Sea canal, and that Jordans government would support any solution involving cooperation between the parties. He claimed that any solution should take into account the fact that a third of the Dead Seas area was Palestinian territory. Israels Ministry of Environments representative, Gil Cohen, said the Israeli government had established a committee to study various proposals, and only afterwards would make a decision.

In November 2005, following a report by the Office of the State Comptroller and Ombudsman, Tamar Regional Council engineer Avi Rotem warned sewage systems along the Dead Sea were liable to collapse within two years. He said that, when this happened, there would be no more hotels. He made the prediction at a Knesset State Control Committee monitoring meeting in the wake of the State Comptrollers report, which revealed the governments neglect in protecting the Dead Sea hotels. Rotem criticized the government for wasting NIS 150 million on temporary solutions, which will cost another NIS 140 million, rather than investing in a permanent solution. He said each day that passed without a permanent solution raised its cost, and there was no chance of completing it before the end of 2008. Anyone who says otherwise is misleading the public.

At the same State Control Committee meeting, Ministry of the Interior director general Eli Cohen said the government had instructed the ministrys staff to deal with the issue. He said the ministry had hired experts to examine a temporary engineering solution, as well as alternatives for long-term defense. He said the experts were undecided on the solution, and promised to submit to the cabinet within a year alternatives for a three permanent solution for a decision.

Tamar Regional Council Head Dov Litvinoff said the idea of moving the Dead Sea hotels inland should be rejected. Dead Sea Hotel Association director general Udi Zicherman warned that the moment hotels were built on alternative sites, there would be no more tourism at the Dead Sea. The State Control Committee ultimately told the State Comptroller to examine the decision-making process, in order to decide who bore personal responsibility. The government was also called on to set up a Dead Sea administration that would have the authority to handle problems in a comprehensive manner, and decide on the correct solution against long-term flooding. Meanwhile, nothing is being done.

Now, once again, Katsav was shown all the known solutions: building a canal from either the Mediterranean or Red Sea, or reducing the pumping of water from the Jordan River. Haran claims that studies prove that there is a risk that combining seawater from either the Mediterranean or Red Sea with the water of the Dead Sea could cause a chemical reaction turning the latters water into calcium. Committee on principle planning matters chairman Shamay Assif reported on a plan by his office to make changes in existing outline plans for the area, and to formulate a planning concept suited for the expected dynamic conditions in both the short and long term. Other interim solutions for protecting the Dead Sea hotels until a permanent solution were also presented.

Katsav concluded the discussion by noting the differences between the agencies opinions on how to deal with the problem. This is nothing new.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes.co.il - on January 25, 2006

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