This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) and is reprinted with permission.
The sight of floodwaters covering Tel Aviv highways and Modi’in shopping malls
from this week’s rains was jarring and unexpected. Israel is, in most minds, an
arid land bereft of water, not cursed with its superabundance. But a look at
geography and history suggests differently, pointing to both the accomplishments
of Zionist technology and their fragility.
Where today there are hi-tech
industries, tourists and millions of Israelis, once there were hippopotami.
During most of the past 10,000 years, Israel’s Coastal Plain was swamp. Bones
recovered from excavations there suggest that hippos may have been present even
into Hellenistic times, along with an astonishing array of other
Nahal Taninim, which empties into the sea near Kibbutz Ma’agan
Michael, translates as “Crocodile River,” describing another long-extinct
denizen. Today’s landscape is not only modern – Tel Aviv skyscrapers, the Ayalon
Freeway, apartment buildings as far as the eye can see – but deceptive. It hints
at the existence of nature in ways that New York and Los Angeles rarely do, but
implies that nature has been overcome. It has not.
ISRAEL’S COASTAL Plain
stretches from Gaza to Haifa.
Bordering the Mediterranean are sand dunes
and rocky cliffs, cut by rivers from the east and pummeled by waves and storms
from the west. The waves breach the dunes and cliffs and deposit sand in the
river mouths, which flood to form swamps. Through time, settlements were either
located to the east along the foothills, like Antipatris, or, like Jaffa and
Caesaria, perched on fossilized dunes or rocky outcrops closer to the sea, with
the spaces in between occupied by fish, fowl and mammals.
From the Bronze
Age onward, engineers strove to keep the river mouths open, but silt from the
highlands and sand from the sea inevitably closed them off. The immense Bronze
Age and Iron Age fortifications at Tel Akko were partly created out of sand
dredged from a now-disappeared estuary. Then, in the middle of the first
millennium BCE, the Phoenicians started over, some two kilometers to the west,
and founded the Akko – or Acre – that persists today on a rocky outcrop jutting
precariously into the sea. Such settlement histories are typical.
swamps and hidden recesses of the Coastal Plain held abundant resources – and
abundant bandits and thieves. As early as the Late Bronze Age, the Hittite king
Burnaburiash wrote angrily to the Egyptian king Akhenaten accusing one of
Akhenaten’s Canaanite princelings of plundering a caravan. Graves of these
merchants have been excavated where they appear to have been hastily buried,
just north of Acre.
Through the Crusader period, kings and villagers kept
the coast under control, maintaining waterworks and harbors and fighting the
battle between too much water and too little. But from the medieval Mamluk
period onward, sand, silt and insecurity gradually made the Coastal Plain a
malarial marsh. On the eve of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the coastal
interior was occupied by Beduin who raided Coastal Plain settlements and whose
animals destroyed the fragile vegetation that held sand dunes in
Thereafter, dunes progressed inland at a rate of dozens of feet
per year, burying agricultural lands. By the 19th century, the Coastal Plain,
along with much of the country, had fallen into disrepair. Before the British
mandate, malaria infected a majority of residents; even in Jerusalem, far from
the coast, a 1912 survey showed that between 40 and 80 percent of schoolchildren
CHANGE CAME quickly. In the 19th century, global interest
in Palestine, including superpower competition and tourism, began to lift the
coast from dereliction.
Beginning in the 1870s, Zionists purchased tracts
on the coast and in the Jezreel Valley and Hula Basin, largely unwanted swamps
of the Coastal Plain, and set about making them habitable.
agricultural settlement – Petah Tikvah, along the banks of the Yarkon River –
was quickly abandoned because of malaria. But its settlers’ successors dug
canals and planted eucalyptus for drainage and suppressed
Bypassing traditional subsistence farming methods, they
introduced modern agricultural techniques and multiplied yields. Prosperity and
labor needs helped ignite mass Arab migration to the area, especially from
Egypt, as well as the purchase by absentee Arab landlords of previously
Along with the drained swamps, the most successful symbol
of the Zionist mastery of nature was Tel Aviv itself, founded in 1909 on a sand
dune north of Jaffa.
Yet an increasing population on the coast meant, at
first, more grazing animals and cutting of forests for fuel; both increased soil
erosion, clogging streams with silt.
Complex ecosystems with varied plant
and animal species were flattened, reduced to mono-crop orange groves feeding
the European market. Many of Palestine’s remaining forests fell victim to the
building of Turkish railroads and World War I. Thereafter, the British
introduced regulations – later continued by Israel – for agriculture, land use,
town planning and architecture, rules largely honored in the breach.
COASTAL Plain is Israel’s agricultural, industrial and residential heartland.
The new state’s need for housing, food and industry was overwhelming and, in
turn, overwhelmed sensible planning. By the 1950s, water diverted for all these
competing purposes began to reduce the coast’s streams and rivers, and
discharged waste turned them into toxic trickles.
The imperatives of
growth led to the 1964 construction of the National Water Carrier, which routed
water from the Sea of Galilee south through pipes and culverts, thereby
dramatically reducing the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea. By
1967, almost all the streams south of the Galilee were being used for sewage, a
problem addressed by treatment plants only in the next decades. Despite enormous
progress in public health and water efficiency, there remains enormous
competition among these sectors – and between Israel and the Palestinians – for
Today, Israel has over 1,000 square kilometers of
manmade “impervious surface area” – buildings, roads, parking lots; this measure
places it within the world’s top 100 countries.
Coastal aquifers have
been severely depleted and contaminated by seawater and industrial pollutants.
An increasing part of the rain that falls on Judean and Samarian hills slides
down paved streets, highways, sewers and riverbeds to the sea, failing to
recharge the aquifers. The automobile has been especially destructive. In 1960
there were 70,000 cars in Israel; today there are 2.5 million. The construction
of a modern highway system has constricted the ability of the landscape to drain
and recycle water.
Technological societies like Israel and the United
States have manipulated environments with determination but little understanding
of the long-term impacts. Lining riverbeds with concrete, as with the Ayalon and
throughout Los Angeles, gives the illusion of mastering nature. In average
years, the consequences are mostly invisible; the absence of thriving ecosystems
is apparent, but not the failure of the aquifers to be recharged. Then, the
inevitable flooding causes surprise.
WHEN IT comes to environmental
issues, liberal democratic societies have been partially self-correcting. They
periodically take steps, like dismantling dams in the Pacific Northwest and
reflooding parts of the Hula Basin, to ameliorate and undo negative conditions.
Arguably, however, Israel’s environmental progress is slipping, a victim of both
politics and economics.
Still, if Israel and the United States have been
environmentally overconfident and insensitive, other countries have been
The Communist legacy of environmental destruction
in Russia, Eastern Europe and China is nearly beyond description. Soviet
engineers reversed the flow of entire rivers and nearly emptied the entire Aral
Sea, leaving a chemical-laden dustbowl. Communist politics demanded that
technology master and subjugate nature to demonstrate the wisdom and superiority
of the Party.
Zionists were never so absolute; they were and, one hopes,
still are capable of learning to work with nature.
The flooding in Israel
and elsewhere shows that nature will not be mastered. The response to the
hundred-year storm or, worse, the earthquake and tsunami, can be planned up to a
point – after which matters are in God’s hands. Humans push the limits,
ignoring, minimizing, or rationalizing risks as only they can. But flooded
highways are gentle reminders that nature has its own reclamation project, which
will triumph over ours.