Killing the Dead Sea: Ep. 17
Hosted by Carrie Keller-Lynn and Aliza Landes
Why has the Dead Sea shrunk more than 40% in the last 100 years? Can it be saved, or have we passed the point of no return? Why are companies still allowed to profit off of its mineral harvest? Where are the Israeli and Jordanian governments in this story?
Carrie and Aliza speak with Dr. Clive Lipchin, the Director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, about why the Dead Sea is drying up and, in order to save it, who has to start caring.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:00:06]
Hi, I’m Carrie
Aliza Landes [00:00:07]
And I’m Aliza, and you’re listening to Us Among the Israelis.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:00:11]
We are two friends who met over a decade ago and have stayed in Israel because we’ve fallen in love with parts of it, like the Dead Sea.
Aliza Landes [00:00:20]
Definitely going to be talking about the Dead Sea today. I don’t know if you remember when you were growing up, they used to sell these like little silver cutouts of the map of Israel. So they had the Sea of Galilee on the top. And then,
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:00:32]
Yeah, there were necklaces.
Aliza Landes [00:00:33]
Yeah, they were necklaces. The shape of the Dead Sea was sort of like a jellybean or like a little kidney bean. And that’s sort of in my mind what the Dead Sea looks like. And it has been over the past couple of years that I’ve realized that, that is no longer the way that it is shaped. The way it looks on maps is totally different now. It’s like the bottom third of the jellybean just got cut off and it’s gone.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:00:57]
Yeah, like totally truncated. And another really surprising thing about the Dead Sea is, you know, I drove down there twice in the last month, and as you’re driving on Route 90, all of a sudden you see these giant places where the earth has fallen into itself and there are sinkholes in the area. And I even have a friend who was in the search and rescue unit here, 669, who was called once to go fetch a motorist out of a sinkhole because as he was driving his car, land before time style, completely dropped into one. This is a bizarre ecological event. I might even call it a disaster. And although it is known, it’s like just not really being given the attention it deserves.
Aliza Landes [00:01:41]
Yeah, it’s just sort of being literally driven around because they keep rerouting Route 90 because of these sinkholes. So in order to help us understand what is the connection between these insane potholes that require search and rescue teams to lift motorists out of and the disappearance of the bottom half of the Dead Sea.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:02:03]
We’ve invited this week Clive Lipchin, who is the director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute, and he is an expert on the Red Sea and why it’s not-so-slowly shrinking. So without further ado, Clive.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:02:21]
Aliza Landes [00:02:23]
Clive Lipchin [00:02:24]
Hi, hi, hi.
Aliza Landes [00:02:24]
Thank you for joining us today. So just to jump in really quickly, can you give us like a 30 second overview of who you are and what you do?
Clive Lipchin [00:02:34]
Sure. So my name is Clive Lipchin and I serve as the director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which is a nonprofit, academic and research organization here in Israel.
Aliza Landes [00:02:46]
And that is not a mouthful at all.
Clive Lipchin [00:02:48]
I’ve said it so many times, I’ve pretty much gotten used to it.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:02:52]
So with that very impressive title, could you help us understand what is the connection between the Dead Sea and potholes?
Clive Lipchin [00:03:00]
Well, firstly, not potholes, sinkholes. I think that’s what you’re referring to, right?
Aliza Landes [00:03:03]
Yes. The sinkholes, the huge holes that mean suddenly I can’t drive where I used to be able to drive.
Clive Lipchin [00:03:08]
Yeah. So there’s a
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:03:09]
Or you were driving and you got sucked into the land before time.
Aliza Landes [00:03:11]
Clive Lipchin [00:03:12]
There’s a very strong connection. Sinkholes are really a manifestation of everything that’s wrong about the Dead Sea, and that is that the Dead Sea water levels are receding at worrying rates, more than a meter a year. And what that means is that as the water levels recede, it’s exposing under the ground sort of like salt blocks, right? So literally like blocks of salt that are under the surface. And as those salt blocks are exposed, in other words, as the water recedes and exposes those salt blocks, what happens is, is that fresh, less-saline water flowing into the Dead Sea as groundwater from aquifers dissolves those salt blocks. And as they dissolve those salt blocks, they just get larger and larger and larger. And then eventually they become so large, those cavities of the salt being dissolved at the above-ground simply just collapses inwards. And basically, we first noticed sinkholes going as far back as the 1970s, is a direct consequence of this very rapid decline of the Dead Sea water levels.
Aliza Landes [00:04:10]
But this decline of the Dead Sea levels has escalated in recent years. I mean, I remember the first time I saw the Dead Sea in the mid-90s when I was a kid, and it looked drastically different. And then again in the early 2000s when I visited, looked a lot fuller. And every time I go back now, I’m just struck by how much further out the water is.
Clive Lipchin [00:04:32]
Yeah, I mean, you can basically, as a way to visually think about that, so we have the road, right? The road that goes up to Jerusalem, Road 90. So try to imagine that in the nineteen, it’s about 30 years ago, in many places, the Dead Sea was at the road. Right. That was sort of like the level of where the Dead Sea was. And now if you’re driving along that road and you look eastwards, you know, you see the Dead Sea in the far distance. In some places it’s a kilometer even more, further from where the road once was. And so what we’re seeing is a very precipitous decline that definitely has increased, I would say, over the last 10, 15 years.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:05:07]
Yeah, I mean, I start coming to Israel, I think in 2006 was the first time. And even then you would notice that the walkways into the sea, the railings ended before this even started. And it’s 50 meters today. But Clive, to get to why this is happening, let’s, let’s start from the beginning. Like, how does the water system surrounding the Dead Sea work?
Clive Lipchin [00:05:27]
OK, so to understand the Dead Sea and what makes it so special and unique is that the Dead Sea is part of the Jordan River/Dead Sea basin. Right? There, another, like, big mouthful, right? But basically water that flows into the Dead Sea starts all the way in the North in the upper Jordan, which then flows into the Sea of Galilee, the Kinneret, and from the Kinneret all the way down to the Dead Sea via the lower Jordan River. So under natural conditions, what kept the Dead Sea stable was there was a constant flow of water entering into the Dead Sea and that offset where the water left the Dead Sea, which is via evaporation. What’s very unique about the Jordan River system is that it’s one of the few river systems actually doesn’t flow into a sea or an ocean. The waters flow into the Dead Sea and then that’s it, right. There isn’t any connection between the Dead Sea and the nearest body of ocean water, which in this case would be the Red Sea. So what happens is when that water enters the Dead Sea, it has to go somewhere. And where it goes, it evaporates. So the Dead Sea is so salty because you have a very high evaporation rate in a very, very hot environment. So you get very high temperatures and huge amounts of water every year evaporate. But what kept the Dead Sea stable was, however much water evaporated out of the Dead Sea, there was always a constant flow of water entering the Dead Sea that was slightly more than the evaporation rate. So in essence, you could say that the system was in equilibrium. There wasn’t this rapid decline that we see today. What we’re seeing today is that there is no more water entering the Dead Sea via the Jordan River, but the evaporation rate still continues. So basically, more water is leaving the Dead Sea than water that is entering the Dead Sea.
Aliza Landes [00:07:03]
When did they turn off the water from the Jordan? Why did that stop flowing? What changed?
Clive Lipchin [00:07:08]
Right. So what changed was, is we live in a water scarce environment and we need water. People, human beings. So ever since people began to come here and in large numbers, and specifically since the establishment of the state of Israel, Israel, it was established way back, as we all know, in 1948. But this is a very dry, arid region with very limited water resources. You cannot develop a country and you cannot develop an economy without water. How are you going to grow your food? How are you going to run your industries? How are you going to provide drinking water for people? The only viable source of water that was easily utilized back in the 50s and the 60s was the Kinneret, right, which is another water body in the system, but a freshwater body.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:07:50]
But back in the 50s, in the 60s, Israel didn’t have sole control over the Kinneret, right? So Syria had a piece in that game, too. I’m assuming Jordan might have had a piece in that game.
Clive Lipchin [00:08:00]
Right. And Lebanon as well.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:08:02]
What are the agreements surrounding taking water from the Kinneret? The Kinneret, by the way, being the Sea of Galilee.
Clive Lipchin [00:08:08]
Right. Right. Again, lots of names and long names. So there are two main issues here or two main challenges. One is we live in a water scarce region. We need water. Two, these waters are politically shared water bodies, what we call transboundary water resources, right. So back in the early 60s, Israel undertook what was back then one of its most significant national infrastructure projects, which was diverting water from the Sea of Galilee via what’s called the national water carrier to bring that water to the Negev for farming, for irrigation. And that project, which was completed in 1964, was the foundation of Israel moving from a water scarce country to a water secure country, which we are today. However, the impacts of that diversion was rapidly reducing the amount of water that would flow out of the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea, because when we were pumping water out of the Sea of Galilee, we basically converted the Sea of Galilee into a reservoir, right. It no longer functions as a natural lake. So the first major impact of lowering or declining water levels of the Dead Sea was the national water carrier, which was built by Israel in 1964. But as soon as Israel started to divert water, everybody wanted to divert water. So Syria was diverting water. The Jordanians were diverting water. So very quickly, by the time we reached the 1970s, the amount of water flowing to the Dead Sea dropped by 70, 80 percent. And it was then that we saw the impacts of that which we are facing today. Our greatest environmental dilemma in our region is that we are losing the Dead Sea. We are losing the Dead Sea because we’re utilizing the water to basically maintain our existence here in a water-scarce region.
Aliza Landes [00:09:50]
Clive, just so I understand, yes, in the 70s, we had this everybody is taking water situation and we’ve been repurposing that water for other things.
Clive Lipchin [00:09:58]
Aliza Landes [00:09:58]
But Israel has made massive and drastic technological improvements over the past several years in terms of desalination, in terms of wastewater treatment plants.
Clive Lipchin [00:10:08]
Aliza Landes [00:10:08]
In terms that, like we have one of the highest recycling rates of water anywhere in the world.
Clive Lipchin [00:10:13]
Aliza Landes [00:10:14]
And yet we’re still unable to allocate water to refill the Dead Sea, which is a national treasure?
Clive Lipchin [00:10:21]
Well, it’s not just a national treasure, I would argue it’s an international treasure, too. But let me let me put it this way. Firstly, you’re 100 percent correct. Israel today no longer needs the water of the Jordan River. Right, because most of our water is coming, as you correctly say, from desalination and we recycle wastewater for irrigation, but I understand that the water off the Kinneret or the Jordan River will always be the most preferable water source to utilize for two reasons. One, it’s very high quality, and two, it’s cheaper than desalination. So even though Israel theoretically no longer needs water from the Kinneret and theoretically could allow that water to flow down the Jordan, it will never do so because it’s always going to keep that reservoir as the reserve, as a buffer. For example, what happens if a desalination plant goes down, right? Yeah, that’s number one. Number two,.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:11:12]
Aliza Landes [00:11:13]
Yes, salty water.
Clive Lipchin [00:11:15]
Back to the previous point, it’s transboundary. So imagine if Israel decided to say, OK, we don’t need the water of the Kinneret, let it flow down the Jordan River.
Aliza Landes [00:11:25]
And then Jordan would take more.
Clive Lipchin [00:11:27]
Exactly. Jordan is going to say, if Israel doesn’t want it, we’re going to take it.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:11:32]
Right now, I’m eating this pie even though I’m full, because I don’t want my neighbor to have the pie instead.
Clive Lipchin [00:11:39]
No, no, it’s not it’s not that we don’t want Jordan to have the water. Firstly, we provide water to Jordan, according to the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:11:45]
Clive Lipchin [00:11:46]
From the Kinneret, we transfer water from the Kinneret. But this is a transboundary resource. So Israel can’t make this decision on its own. So if Israel says we don’t want the water and we’re just going to let it flow, they can’t do that anyway because they have to have an agreement with Jordan and theoretically with Syria as well. And let’s not forget, the Palestinians also have access to the Jordan River system. So you can’t make a unilateral decision here. And because, specifically for the Jordanians, which is the most water scarce country in our region, they will never let that water reach the Dead Sea because they are desperate for water. Just like I said earlier, if we don’t want it, well, OK, we’ll be very happy to pump it out and use it for our own purposes.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:12:28]
Got it. OK, so, Clive, what, I think you just described very well the first problem that the Dead Sea is facing. So the first problem is that we cut off the tap. We are not filling it anymore. But you also mentioned a second problem, which is that the Dead Sea is evaporating. And the Dead Sea isn’t just evaporating naturally. There are also companies who are down there speeding that up. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
Clive Lipchin [00:12:49]
That’s another very important issue to understand about the value of the Dead Sea, is that the Dead Sea is not just a very unique ecological system, but it’s a very unique economic system because it’s one of the world’s largest sources of potash. Now, what’s potash? Potash is a essential ingredient in fertilizers. It’s potassium chloride. Plants need that to grow. So what we have in the southern section of the Dead Sea is we have on the Israeli side the Dead Sea works and on the Jordanian side, the Arab potash company. And jointly they are actually causing the Dead Sea to evaporate even more so that they can precipitate out the potash and basically extract that to convert that into fertilizers, which is a very, very, very profitable industry for both countries. So you’re right that the, we have the natural evaporation rate and now we have an artificial evaporation rate, which has increased over time, the evaporation of the water,
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:13:45]
Which is more significant, by the way?
Clive Lipchin [00:13:47]
Well, the most significant is still the natural evaporation rate. So the contribution of the potash industries is about again, there’s some controversy here on the numbers, but I would say between 15 to 20 percent of the evaporation rate is due to the mineral extraction industries.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:14:04]
That’s pretty significant.
Aliza Landes [00:14:05]
Yeah, that’s pretty significant. And it sounds like things are just compounding right. So every year that we end up with a lower water rate, there’s more evaporation the following year. Things are like speeding up.
Clive Lipchin [00:14:17]
Well actually, not actually, no. Actually, actually in goes in the reverse. Let me explain.
Aliza Landes [00:14:22]
Oh, great. Alright, please explain!
Clive Lipchin [00:14:24]
But not in a good way. What’s, what happens is as the water evaporates, what is leaving the Dead Sea? H2O, right. That’s what evaporates. What is staying in the Dead Sea? Everything else.
Aliza Landes [00:14:37]
Clive Lipchin [00:14:38]
The salt. So what’s actually happening is as the water evaporates, the Dead Sea is actually getting saltier. Now, as it gets saltier, it also gets more dense, and as it gets more dense that actually slows the evaporation down, the evaporation rate down. So what we’re actually seeing is that the evaporation at the moment is very high, but over time it’s actually going to slow down. But by the time it slows down, what you will be left with is a very, very small, exceedingly salty puddle of water that will have no value.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:15:10]
Clive Lipchin [00:15:11]
Yeah. Which will have no value to anybody. The tourism industry will no longer be viable. There’ll be sinkholes everywhere and the mineral industry will have ceased to exist by that point.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:15:19]
OK, that makes me really sad. So I was down the Dead Sea twice in this last month and we were walking over the crest of that last hill in the Judean desert. And you look at over the Dead Sea and what do I see? I see evaporation pools. And you know you mentioned these companies and you said 15 to 20 percent. And that does seem like a lot to me. Why isn’t the Israeli government stepping in? And also, why isn’t the Jordanian government stepping in too and stopping these companies?
Clive Lipchin [00:15:44]
Why would they stop them yet? You know how much money they’re bringing into the countries economies? These are the most profitable industries for Jordan and Israel. Take Israel, for example. Israel, you know, is the high tech, blah, blah, blah startup nation propaganda, right?
Aliza Landes [00:15:56]
Clive Lipchin [00:15:57]
They’re making millions and millions and millions of dollars a year extracting minerals out of the Dead Sea. Why would the government ever stop them? They’ll never stop them.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:16:06]
But but but who who who’s profiting? The companies?
Clive Lipchin [00:16:09]
The government, of course!
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:16:11]
The government’s profiting?
Clive Lipchin [00:16:12]
Both. These are private industries, right. So if you’re familiar with the way things work in Israel, this is, the company that owns the Dead Sea, which is Israel Chemicals. Right. It’s a private company. But you know how much they’re paying in taxes to the Israeli government for leasing out the Dead Sea? The profits that are going into Israel’s GDP from mineral extraction is massive. And it’s probably just as great on the Jordanian side. Actually, those companies have a relative autonomy in how they operate at the Dead Sea granted by the government.
Aliza Landes [00:16:43]
OK, wait, before we get into that, the tourist industry also brings millions and millions of dollars and spreads them around local providers. The hotel industry, you have in Ein Bokek, you have Ein Gedi, you have all of these places that rely on the tourism coming, as well as on the Jordanian side. It’s a major tourist destination and they’re endangering it for potash.
Clive Lipchin [00:17:07]
Well actually, ironically, not exactly. Firstly, when you compare the economic value of the tourism industry to the mineral industry, it pales in significance. That’s number one. Number two, where are the hotels on the Israeli side? You mentioned Ein Bokek? They’re on the evaporation ponds. They’re in the south, so.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:17:25]
I was at Ein Bokek when I saw that, actually.
Clive Lipchin [00:17:26]
So when you were in Ein Bokek, and if you went swimming in the book, you are not swimming.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:17:31]
Which you could barely do anymore.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:17:32]
No, no, no, no. You can. Why? Because you’re swimming. What are you swimming in? In an evaporation pond. You’re not swimming in the Dead Sea. You’re swimming, you’re actually, this is the name, you’re swimming in evaporation ponds.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:17:42]
No, you mean not the stream. You mean the water in front of the Dead Sea.
Clive Lipchin [00:17:45]
I mean Ein Bokek, Ein Bokek where all the hotels are.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:17:48]
Not the actual maayan, not the actual stream.
Clive Lipchin [00:17:51]
I’m talking about, if you’re a tourist, whether you’re an Israeli tourist or a foreign tourist, you go to Ein Bokek to stay in a hotel. You are paying money in a hotel that is built on the shores of an evaporation pond that was built by the Dead Sea Works. So the tourism industry in Israel is directly related to the existence of evaporation ponds created by the industry. If the industry had not created those evaporation ponds, those hotels would not exist today.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:18:19]
Sorry, Clive, I don’t totally understand that because, you know, what’s interesting is when you go into the Dead Sea in front of those hotels, it’s not, there’s no mud you’re standing on salt. It’s salt rock.
Clive Lipchin [00:18:27]
Because it’s not the Dead Sea. It’s an evaporation pond.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:18:31]
Right, it’s an evaporation pond, you’re saying. So so had, oK, so on one hand to create
Aliza Landes [00:18:36]
It makes it makes great photographs.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:18:38]
Aliza Landes [00:18:39]
It’s Instagramable, right.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:18:41]
I Insta’d from there.
Clive Lipchin [00:18:42]
Yeah, but instead of saying if you’re going to, if you’re going to Instagram it, you’re not floating in the Dead Sea, you’re floating in an industrial pool. That’s what you’re floating in.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:18:50]
Industrial evaporation pond.
Clive Lipchin [00:18:52]
And you’re paying a lot of money to stay at a hotel to do that.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:18:55]
So when you go down to Ein Bokek, one of the reasons people go there now are there are these huge giant salt mushrooms that are in those evaporation ponds.
Clive Lipchin [00:19:03]
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:19:04]
Where did those come from?
Clive Lipchin [00:19:05]
It’s just evaporation. It’s just a natural phenomenon of how the salt, you know, how the salt forms when water evaporates.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:19:11]
Clive Lipchin [00:19:12]
I mean, look, it’s very beautiful, right? I mean, you know, from an artistic perspective, you know, even the sinkholes have their own beauty to them. No, they do!
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:19:21]
Even a forest fire glows!
Clive Lipchin [00:19:23]
You know what? That’s interesting. But so this is all very photogenic, right. But you need to understand is that back in the 1970s, when the Dead Sea Works began operations, they signed an agreement with the government to allow the hotels to build on an infrastructure that they own. That’s not owned by the government. It’s a private part of the industry. It’s part of their infrastructure.
Aliza Landes [00:19:46]
Wait, OK, so just, just so I understand, basically, we have a confluence of both interstate agreements that result in turning off the tap from the Jordan. You have these industries that have been allowed to just run wild and do whatever they want. And they have some sort of symbiosis with the tourism industry as well. That basically sounds to me like we’ve spelled disaster, and how much longer do you estimate that the Dead Sea is going to exist without not being like a sledge puddle if nothing drastic is done?
Clive Lipchin [00:20:17]
Firstly, you did a very good job of summarizing the issues and uh,.
Aliza Landes [00:20:20]
Clive Lipchin [00:20:22]
And look, to be perfectly honest, I’m very pessimistic about the future of the Dead Sea. So basically, if we, if we have what’s called business as usual. Right. If we don’t fix things as they are now. Right. Just as you very nicely summarized, the Dead Sea, the northern basin, which is really all that’s left of the Dead Sea, it’ll continue to decline, we estimate another 200 meters.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:20:43]
Clive Lipchin [00:20:43]
Today, I think the numbers about 420 meters below sea level. We will be at six hundred meters. And at that point,
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:20:51]
How deep is the Dead Sea? How much further can it go?
Clive Lipchin [00:20:54]
Well, the deepest point of the Dead Sea is about 70, 80 meters deep. So it’s not that deep, but that is a significant body of water. So at the end of the day, by the time we reach 600 meters below sea level, you’ll have a very, very, very small, and as I said earlier, salt puddle that’ll be no value to anybody. And of course, before you get to 600 meters, as the water levels recede, the rate of sinkholes occurring increases. So today we estimate there are 10,000 sinkholes around the Dead Sea, on the Israeli side and the Jordanian side. So before we get to 600 meters below sea level, there’ll be so many sinkholes in the area. For example, take kibbutz Ein Gedi. Kibbutz Ein Gedi, if you speak to the residents there, they already know that the next generation will no longer be able to live in Ein Gedi. They’ll have to evacuate. They’ll be the first environmental refugees in Israel.
Aliza Landes [00:21:41]
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:21:42]
OK, so Aliza’s face right now, Aliza for the last minute has looked like she’s witnessing a murder.
Aliza Landes [00:21:48]
I just, I just want to cry.
Clive Lipchin [00:21:50]
Yeah. I mean, that’s it. I mean, it’s very frustrating for someone like myself. So I’ve been working on these issues and trying to advocate for the Dead Sea. Lots of people are. But think about it like this. Where is the Dead Sea on the priority list of the government of Israel? Nowhere. How much of the Israeli public is aware about what’s going on? Very few people, but Israel cannot afford, we are a small country and here is one of our most, if not our most valuable and unique environmental asset. And we’re losing it. And it’s like nobody seems to care. It’s like, oh, well, you know what? That’s how it’s going to be.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:22:24]
Can we talk about that a little bit more? The no one seems to care, the no one’s doing anything about it, the no priority. You mentioned, there’s almost no domestic oversight over these potash companies. I think I understood from you there’s no international agreement about these potash companies.
Clive Lipchin [00:22:39]
No, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not true. There is.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:22:41]
Clive Lipchin [00:22:41]
The potash industry’s actually very much do cooperate. Why? Because they have to coordinate their pumping from the Dead Sea to the evaporation ponds. So actually, the Israeli and Jordanian potash industries actually have a very high level of cooperation. They manage those evaporation ponds jointly.
Aliza Landes [00:22:58]
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:22:59]
I don’t totally understand. So is this like a self-preservation thing, like they need to slowly bleed the animal so it doesn’t die? Or is this more of a fairness agreement?
Clive Lipchin [00:23:11]
Think about it from their perspective. What’s the most important thing for the industry?
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:23:16]
Continued existence of the Dead Sea.
Clive Lipchin [00:23:17]
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:23:19]
Clive Lipchin [00:23:19]
Right. So if they look at the Dead Sea now, actually they have no problem with the Dead Sea now, because their industries can continue to operate effectively, probably for the next 100 years. So you think they’re going to want to change anything now? Why would they invest anything? For now, even if the Dead Sea recedes another hundred meters, it’s not going to overly impact the mineral industry. Now, if you’re a CEO of a company, you’ll ask a CEO, what is your company going to be like in 100 years time? It’s like, what do I care? In so long as I’m making profits the next year, two, three, four, five years, I’m all good. And actually ironically, as the Dead Sea waters become more dense, it’s actually easier to precipitate out the potash. So they’re actually saving money as the Dead Sea itself is receding.
Aliza Landes [00:24:05]
So what is the timeline? If we stick with business as usual, where we’re at the point of no return, where there is no more recovery for the Dead Sea?
Clive Lipchin [00:24:14]
Again, I don’t know if we can answer that definitively, but I would say from my experience that we’re pretty close to that point of no return. Because again, what is signaled as the point of no return is not just the receding water, it’s the sinkholes. Think about it like this, OK? The Dead Sea area is very isolated. There’s only one road. If that road is compromised by sinkholes, let’s say Road 90 now collapses. There’s a sinkhole on the road 90. You can’t fix the road, and you can’t build another road. Where would you build the road? So if the sinkholes destroy Road 90, that’s the end of kibbutz Ein Gedi. Think about Masada. How would you get to Masada, which is one of the most important tourist sites in Israel for international tourists. It’s the second most visited site after Jerusalem. How would you get to Masada if the road is gone? You’d have to fly in by helicopter.
Aliza Landes [00:25:03]
Well, then how are they going to get the potash out?
Clive Lipchin [00:25:07]
As I say, the potash is business as usual so far, is is for us the most favorable scenario.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:25:14]
If you had to just choose one thing that could be done on some sort of national or international level to save the Dead Sea, what would it be?
Clive Lipchin [00:25:24]
OK, so what you’re referring to now is, there are options to save the Dead Sea. And this is what has been talked about for years, which is the so-called Red Sea to Dead Sea project. Maybe that’s what you are referring to. If not, I’ll talk about that for a second. There is a solution. The solution is, is to take seawater from the Red Sea and pump it towards the Dead Sea and to use the Red Sea water to offset what used to come from the Jordan River. Now, theoretically on paper, that project actually could work. And what makes that project very attractive is there really are two elements to it. One is bringing water to the Dead Sea from the Red Sea and second, desalinating that water and sending that fresh water to Jordan, which is desperate for water. So what makes the Red Sea/Dead Sea project very attractive, it’s a project that would actually solve the region’s biggest environmental problem, the Dead Sea, and solve Jordan’s water scarcity problem.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:26:20]
And why isn’t it happening?
Clive Lipchin [00:26:21]
Why isn’t it happening? Right. That’s the sixty-million-dollar question. Very simple: politics. In 2015, I think it was. Or 2013 I don’t remember exactly israel and Jordan signed an agreement to begin what they called phase one of Red Sea/Dead Sea. We are now 2021, we are six years or eight years from that agreement, nothing has happened because the Israeli and Jordanian governments are at political,.
Aliza Landes [00:26:46]
Clive Lipchin [00:26:47]
Yeah, exactly. I mean, the relationship between the countries are not good. And this has to be a regional project because it goes back to our earlier point, its a transboundary resource. So a Red/Dead project could help us avert a disaster to some degree. But unless there is a regional willingness to do so, it’s not going to happen. And again, there’s been agreement signed that go back now a decade. The World Bank did a study in 2008 that I actually participated in, on the feasibility of the Red Sea/Dead Sea. And it is feasible. Yes, there are problems, to everything there are problems, but it could work. So back in 2008, the World Bank said this is feasible. They were willing to raise money from different governments and whatnot to get the project started. And we are now at 15 or whatever years beyond that study and nothing is being done.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:27:39]
All right, so what’s the ultimate fate of the Dead Sea?
Clive Lipchin [00:27:41]
The fate of the Dead Sea is that the Dead Sea, ironically, is going to live up to its name. It’s dying. We’re losing it. We’re losing it, and I don’t see a way in which we’re going to be able to save it.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:27:51]
There’s no way to save it.
Clive Lipchin [00:27:52]
No. Short answer. Think about it like this. If we started to build the Red Sea that we project today, it will take five years minimum for it to start pumping water into the Dead Sea. It might then take another five years before you see any impact. So at least a decade will go by. Even if the Red/Dead were to be built. And within a decade, we’re still losing water and we’re still creating more sinkholes. So, you know, I need to be honest and be truthful and say, yeah, I don’t see a future for the Dead Sea. I really don’t. And that’s very tragic and very painful to say. But it’s the truth. I would be happy if somebody proved me wrong. I would be happy if somebody proved me wrong, but I don’t think that’s possible.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:28:34]
Well, thank you for for ruining my day. So Clive, just to wrap this up, on behalf of anyone who’s ever been through an Israeli duty-free store or ever met a young Israeli selling Dead Sea products out of a cart in a mall. Do we have to feel bad, or like 15 to 20 percent bad, about buying Dead Sea products?
Clive Lipchin [00:28:54]
No, not really. I mean, the impact of the so-called cosmetic industry, it doesn’t really do anything. The impact of the mud and the salts and all the whatnot is minimal. So no, go ahead, feel free. Don’t have any guilt. Buy as much as you want.
Aliza Landes [00:29:07]
I’m going to a spa.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:29:09]
What a fantastically trivial way to wrap an important, substantial subject.
Clive Lipchin [00:29:13]
It’s not going to save the Dead Sea, but, you know, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t buy it.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:29:19]
Clive, thank you so much for joining us.
Clive Lipchin [00:29:21]
My pleasure. Thank you.
Aliza Landes [00:29:22]
Yeah. This is so interesting and so important. Thank you so much.
Clive Lipchin [00:29:25]
Thank you for having me.
Aliza Landes [00:29:36]
So I think probably one of the most depressing things that I heard in that conversation with Clive is at the end where basically he’s saying that he does not hold out much hope for the future of the Dead Sea.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:29:51]
Oh, my God. Yeah.
Aliza Landes [00:29:51]
It’s not just a national, it’s an international treasure. It’s a one-of-a-kind body of water. There’s nothing else like it in the whole entire world. And yet, the interests are not aligned in order to preserve it. The interests of the environmentalist are not sufficient enough in order to overcome the entrenched interests of interstate relations as well as companies and the tourism industry.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:30:19]
I didn’t know what potash was until wespoke with Clive, and I didn’t realize both how much I need it and how much I’m resentful of it now. I had chills when Clive said that. What upset me the most out of that fact, because, you know, Clive basically said we’re heading to the point of no return. We’re not going to have this symbol of Israel that I grew up on, that I always assumed my kids and grandkids would be able to enjoy. I was literally at a yoga retreat this weekend, waking up, practicing yoga, looking out over the Dead Sea of thinking how incredible this is to be here. And it’s not going to be here. It’s not a secret. Everyone knows this is happening and it’s just not, it’s not a part of the national debate in a way you might expect it to be. The Sea of Galilee was part of the national debate for several years. The Dead Sea, nobody, everyone knows it’s dying, and no one is doing anything about it. And I think you hit the nail on the head as to why. But I think there’s a second piece of like a cultural apathy of it not being high enough on the list of priorities for anyone to change behavior.
Aliza Landes [00:31:28]
Yeah, I mean, look, I think if you ask anybody, they would say it’s important, but money where your mouth is. And on top of it, what’s I think even more difficult to grapple with is the fact that there’s a plan, there is a plan that could potentially succeed. There’s the Red/Dead project, and that is not being implemented. And it has been languishing since it was conceived in 2013. I dealt with this also when I was in COGAT, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, because they also manage part of the Northern Dead Sea and, you know, it basically sounds like it’s just been left to rot. And in the meantime, time is ticking. And even if they were to turn on the Dead Sea, or the Red Sea spigot tomorrow, you would still have years before we’d see real impact.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:32:25]
My most pessimistic self is saying right now, Aliza, they’ll do it eventually, just when it’s too late and some will spend a hundred million dollars for nothing.
Aliza Landes [00:32:33]
Well, I mean, if something isn’t done and isn’t done soon, we’re going to see a continuation of the decline of the Dead Sea at an alarming rate, which sort of brings us to our depressing number of the week. This is just all around not a fun episode, but an important one.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:32:51]
Depressing number of the week is 43 percent, which is the amount by which the Dead Sea has shrunk in the past 90 years alone. The Dead Sea is only 57 percent of what it was in 1930.
Aliza Landes [00:33:07]
That’s just mind blowing and for all the wrong reasons. OK.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:33:12]
Well, from us, the feeling salty. We’ll see you next time.
Aliza Landes [00:33:20]
Us Among the Israelis was created and written by us, Carrie Keller-Lynn and Aliza Landes.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:33:26]
Our awesome producer is Josh Kross, our sound editor is Paul Rueste. This is a production of the Joshua Network.
Aliza Landes [00:33:34]
If you want to keep making these episodes, please give us all of the stars on whatever platform you’re using to listen to your podcast.
Carrie Keller-Lynn [00:33:42]
From Us, Among the Israelis. This is Carrie Keller-Lynn and Aliza Landes.