Australian water experts visit Israel: KKL-JNF expertise transcends borders

A delegation of five scientists from Australia visisted Israel on a ten-day, fact-finding mission sponsored by the JNF Environmental Scholarship Fund (JNFESF).

waterpeople (photo credit:)
(photo credit: )
"A wall cannot prevent ecological damage," said Amos Brandeis, Head Planner & Manager of the Alexander River Restoration Project. He was speaking to a delegation of five scientists from Australia, on a ten-day, fact-finding mission to Israel sponsored by the JNF Environmental Scholarship Fund (JNFESF) an initiative of the JNF Australia. JNFESF promotes exchange visits of eminent Australian and Israeli environmentalists, scientists, politicians and businessmen to investigate common environmental issues and potential solutions. The current group was composed of experts on water issues representing various interest groups. The group included Paul Sinclair of Environment Victoria - Healthy Rivers Sector; Raymond Ison of Melbourne University; Tony McLeod of the Commonwealth Ministry of Environment; Ben Fargher, CEO of the National Farmers' Federation; and Jewel Topsfield, a Fairfax-sponsored journalist from The Age. They spent an intensive ten days in Israel, touring the country from north to south. We joined them on their visit to KKL-JNF's international prize-winning Alexander River restoration project, and our first stop was at the separation fence between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It was here, next to the sewage purification pools and plants that Amos Brandeis explained about the politics and complexities of water management issues in Israel to the group, who listened with rapt attention. "Serious sewage problems began here in 1996, oddly enough, as the result of the Oslo initiative. Alexander River is fed by a stream running down from the Palestinian city of Shechem - Nablus - into which all of Nablus' sewage is dumped. Until 1996, a small dam stopped the sewage from crossing the Green Line. As a result of the optimism generated around the prospect of peace and the ensuing building boom around Nablus, the sewage flowing downstream caused the dam to collapse, severely aggravating the degree of the Alexander River's pollution. To this was added the sewage of Tulkarem, a Palestinian city you can see. "Nahum Itzkowitz, then head of the Emek Hefer Regional Council, contacted the mayor of Tulkarem, with the suggestion that both local authorities cooperate to solve the problem. With the help of international grants, a plan was conceived that addressed both problems of sewage-treatment and those of river restoration. With the accomplishment and partnership of KKL-JNF, in 2003, the Nahal Alexander restoration project won first prize in the Australian International River Festival Competition. "Some of the treated water runs into the Alexander River streambed, while a great deal of it is pumped five kilometers away, where it is stored in the Bahan Water Reservoir. This reservoir, built with the help of KKL-JNF worldwide, is one of the largest effluent reservoirs in the world. There is a large valley near the reservoir on the Palestinian side of the separation fence that is privately owned, and Israel could happily supply recycled water for agriculture. It is in the interests of all parties to jointly address environmental problems. As I said before, walls cannot prevent ecological damage. During the second intifada, when there was shooting here everyday, there was one day when both sides agreed to a ceasefire so that Israeli airplanes could spray the mosquitoes that were making life unbearable for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. We would like to see environmental concerns become a catalyst for bridge-building and cooperation." Amos took the group to one of the many beautiful parks planted by KKL-JNF along the banks of the restored river. We stood on a bridge as the sun began to set. In response to a question about KKL-JNF's current involvement in the Alexander River project and in river restoration in general, Amos said that KKL-JNF was heavily involved in financing, planning and envisioning the Alexander River's future: "We have implemented about fifty percent of the whole plan so far. We want to upgrade water quality even further, create parks all the way to the fence and, in fact, there is a plan to create a Peace Park on both sides of the fence. We want the Alexander River itself to be a bridge between the two peoples. KKL-JNF is also involved in other river restoration projects throughout the country that are dependent on cooperation of local authorities." One such project is the Yarkon River Project, largely funded by JNF Australia. The following day, the group met David Pargament, Director of the Yarkon River Authority. Although his time to speak with the group was cut short owing to a surprise visit by Gideon Ezra, Israel's Minister of the Environment, Pargament described restoration efforts in detail and answered questions about water quality, infrastructure, and the interface between the different interest groups on this project. Pargament told us of the esteem he has for friends of KKL-JNF in Australia. "I have great respect for the Australians and JNF Australia because of their readiness to back this project. They understood the importance of cleaning up the Yarkon much before the local authorities. Their commitment made it possible for me to approach relevant government agencies and say, 'The Australians, whose delegation to the 1997 Maccabia Games suffered 71 casualties - including four dead when the bridge collapsed and they fell into the heavily polluted Yarkon - want to contribute to the river's restoration. The least we can do is our own part.' The Yarkon River Authority includes eighteen public institutions. KKL-JNF is a full partner, and besides funding, it shares the expertise it has acquired in river restoration elsewhere with us." The visit concluded with a reception at the residence of the Honorable James Larsen, Australia's ambassador to Israel, who greeted the group by remarking that he not yet met a KKL-JNF mission that was not totally exhausted by the end of their visit! He spoke of the significance of the mission for both countries. "I believe that today, Israel is already dealing with problems that Australia will be facing in the not-too-distant future. This provides us with an opportunity to learn from Israel's experience while we still have time for long-term planning. Israel has a very dynamic, successful modern economy. Some incredible things are being accomplished, particularly in the Negev. I recently visited Beersheba, where KKL-JNF is cleaning up the terribly polluted Nahal Beersheba riverbed and creating a park around it. I can honestly say that Clean Up the World Day activities at the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev, was one of my favorite events." Tony McLeod of the Commonwealth Ministry of Environment told us that it had been fascinating for him to see what Israel has done about water usage. "We've learned a tremendous amount and there are different techniques we can learn from each other. Israel is great at taking advantage of every drop of water and using it for many different purposes and we have been explaining to KKL-JNF staff about the importance of letting water run in its natural channels for its own sake. We have had difficult droughts in parts of Australia, so will be able to put the information we learned here to good use. I can see Australia's future in Israel's present." Dr. Paul Sinclair of the Australian Conservation Foundation laughed and said that the delegation was basically a bunch of "water nerds." "We're interested in how water creates opportunities beyond politics and public relations. We discovered that the last thing that those involved with the Alexander and Yarkon Rivers wanted was publicity! When we visited the Kinneret Lake Authority up north, we were shocked to find out that they have only twelve employees - I mean, this is Israel's largest, most important water catchment! So I would say that this is also a human capacity issue. The Yarkon River Project is a beautiful example of how to bypass institutional bureaucracy and get things done." Ms. Jewel Topsfield, a journalist from Melbourne who specializes in water issues, was visiting Israel for the first time: "I found it amazing that Ben Gurion focused so keenly on developing the Negev when the country was young and threatened. We, of course, are particularly interested in how water issues are addressed. We understood that KKL-JNF is highly committed to promoting sustainability: the KKL-JNF workers we met, besides sharing their projects and findings with us, were very receptive and interested in listening to what we had to say. We all understand that water is an issue than transcends borders, and hope it will remain a source of future cooperation." For more information, please visit our website at or e-mail Sponsored content