Last week, Israel’s national broadcaster KAN 11 aired a three-part documentary about what it dubbed a “secret river” in the Arava desert south of the Dead Sea.
The river and its banks remind one of the Grand Canyon and other desert rivers in the United States, but contrary to what KAN 11 suggested with its title, the existence of the river was only a secret to the bulk of the Israeli public.
The existence of the beautiful river in the canyon a few kilometers from Route 90 to Eilat was known to photographers, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and to scientists.
Oren Aroni, the maker of the documentary, explained on KAN’s website that he deliberately chose to call the river ‘secret’ because it is hidden from the public and from most of the Israeli authorities by the Dead Sea Works, which is a branch of Israel Chemicals Ltd.
Dead Sea cover-up
Israel Chemicals had a reason to hide the river, which gets its water from the Dead Sea, but not directly.
The water that is streaming in the river is actually brine, a residue of the water of the Dead Sea after Israel Chemicals extracts minerals from it.
Dead Sea Works apparently regards the area of the river, which is close to the Jordanian border, as a closed chemical zone, just like the Israeli army has many closed military zones.
Aroni showed how the Israeli company has caused extensive damage to the cliffs surrounding the river, and told the public that workers from Israel Chemicals intimidate visitors who dare to make the trip to the canyon, which is located in a very inhospitable corner of the Arava desert.
The Israeli authorities have no clue what Israel Chemicals is doing in the area of the river. This despite the fact that, according to Aroni, the government should be overseeing the operations there. The only ones who seem to know what’s going on are officials from the local Tamar municipality.
Another problem is the conduct of the Jordanian authorities, who use unauthorized contractors to work the area, doing extensive damage to the environment on both sides of the border.
Dead Sea Works
A threat to this natural wonder
Walking into a minefield, literally
A second possible reason for the stunning fact that the Israeli public was unaware of the existence of the river could be that the authorities didn’t want hikers to visit an area that is full of sinkholes and landmines.
The mines were planted by the Hagana pre-state militia.
Israelis have a habit of racing to every disaster and danger zone, rather than turning the other direction like virtually every other society in the world. Couple that with the fact that Israelis have a passion for hiking in any and every nature reserve they can find, and one can understand the concern of the authorities.
Every year, rescue teams are dispatched to save the lives of hikers who take irresponsible risks. Just two years ago, during a winter storm, a group of teens that was hiking in a canyon not far from the ‘new’ river was caught off guard by a flash-flood that killed 10 of them.
The Israel Ministry of Defense now warns the public not to search for the river, or make a visit to the area because of the enormous dangers involved. “Don’t approach the lost river,” the Ministry statement read.
A natural wonder. But for how long?
The Dead Sea is one of the world’s natural wonders, and was nominated for the new list of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Israel Chemicals Ltd., however, is doing its best to destroy the unique salt sea.
Over the past 50 years, the level of the Dead Sea has fallen a staggering 25 meters, and this is in large part due to the mining of minerals by the Dead Sea Works. Experts say that 40 percent of the sea’s depletion is due to the activities of the Israeli potash industry and its Jordanian counterpart.
Another reason the Dead Sea is rapidly disappearing is the extensive pumping of water from the Sea of Galilee (Kinnereth in Hebrew), which until recently was used to meet the water needs of both Israel and Jordan.
Due to this dangerous dependence on rainwater and the Sea of Galilee, a number of desalination plants have been built along the Mediterranean coast, and soon Israel will no longer need the lake’s water for consumption. Jordan will continue to receive a limited supply of the Kinnereth’s waters, as per the Israel-Jordanian peace treaty.
On shaky ground
The rapid depletion of the Dead Sea causes additional problems such as the creation of sinkholes.
The phenomenon is 30-years-old, but the real problems started in the year 1998, when the first sinkholes appeared near the Ein Gedi camping site, which was a major attraction for Israeli hikers. When a member of the maintenance crew fell into a 10-foot-deep hole with her cleaning cart, the site was closed down and fenced off with barbed wire.
Ever since, the problem has only increased and sometimes affects traffic on the highway that skirts the Dead Sea.
When the sea recedes, sweet groundwater seeps into the hole and dissolves the salt subsurface layer, after which a vacuum is created that causes the ground to collapse.
Former TV anchorwoman Micky Chaimovitz, who is now a lawmaker for the newly-formed political party “Blue and White,” demands that Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon look into the way Israel Chemicals obtained permission to drill in the area of the river. She and others want Kahlon to revoke the company’s concession to work at the site.
Israel Chemicals obtained the permissions needed for the drilling in the area of the river by lying to the National Planning Commission. The company told the Commission that there was only mud and a small ditch in the area.
Israel Chemicals Ltd. is one of the world’s largest producers of potash products, including the potassium chloride that is used in bath salts and de-icers.
The company’s license to mine the minerals of the Dead Sea will expire in 2030, but the Israeli government is contemplating expanding the mining operations by issuing tenders for non-Israeli actors.