(photo credit: )
"A person could live in Tel-Aviv their entire life and be almost oblivious to the existence of the Yarkon River," said Anat, our KKL-JNF tour guide. "This river is 27.5 kilometers long, running mostly through urban regions. Thanks to the support of friends of KKL-JNF Australia and America, the area around the river is being restored and is becoming a popular recreation spot for residents of Greater Tel-Aviv."
We had joined a walk along the riverbanks of the Yarkon River organized by KKL-JNF, which began at dusk and continued into the night. It was amazing to discover the huge park and forest right across the street from a Ramat Gan suburb. Yarkon River Park is planted on an area of 300,500 dunam - about 100 dunam larger than New York's Central Park! We began our walk at "Bird's Head Forest," planted by KKL-JNF at the intersection of Ayalon Stream and the Yarkon River, which, when seen from above, has the shape of a bird's head.
Anat, our KKL-JNF guide, told us that the original decision to transform the area around the river into Israel's largest park was made by Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion. KKL-JNF began planting trees in the 1950's, with eucalyptus trees as the preferred species. In 2002, KKL-JNF started the forest renewal project, planting local species of trees as it now does throughout Israel.
Unfortunately, it was also David Ben Gurion who decided that it was wasteful to have so much water flowing into the sea. As a result, pumping stations were built at the Yarkon's headwaters upstream, and until today, the water is channeled to the Negev. Less than 1% of the river's original amount of water was allowed to continue flowing in its channel, and as a result, much of the local flora and fauna died. In the 1950's, a river seemed the ideal solution for villages and even cities along its banks to dispose of their sewage, which could float serenely down to the Mediterranean. And to cap it all, pesticides and chemical fertilizer runoffs from agricultural fields on the riverbank were the final "nail in the coffin" of the river.
The first impetus to begin treating the sewage channeled into the Yarkon came from local residents, who could no longer stand the stench. Sewage purification plants were constructed along the river's course, and while the level of purification left much to be desired, a first step had been taken.
In 1997, an all-too-temporary bridge was built over the Yarkon for athletes participating in the Fifteenth Macabiah Games. When the Australian and Austrian delegations were crossing the bridge, it collapsed and the Australian delegation fell into the polluted Yarkon waters. Although the water was not deep enough for anyone to drown, the poisonous mixture of sewage and chemicals killed four people, and 67 were injured.
This terrible tragedy drew attention to the catastrophic condition of the river's waters, leading to the establishment of the Yarkon River Authority, of which KKL-JNF is a member. JNF Australia decided to adopt Yarkon River rehabilitation as an ongoing project, enabling KKL-JNF to put its expertise to good use in the fields of river restoration, urban forestry, recreation facilities and water recycling.
Walking along one of the many paths that now traverse the area around the river (which are fully accessible for wheelchairs) we could observe and enjoy the results of these efforts. We saw playground equipment, new saplings, and our ears rang with the incessant chirping of birds, a sound that hadn't been heard in the vicinity for twenty years! Bertha, a local resident participating in the walk, told us that when she was young, she would always play by the Yarkon: "There was a famous coffee shop here where we all used to hang out. In fact, my first kiss was by the banks of the Yarkon! Then it became so filthy and stinky that no one went near it! It is really exciting to see it coming back to life. I take of advantage of the new paths for my daily afternoon walk. On weekends, when my grandchildren come to visit, they bring their bikes and it's like paradise for them. It's amazing how easily people can ruin nature, but the human ability to bring things back to life is also impressive!"
Australian delegations visiting Israel, including the Australian Foreign Minister, have visited Yarkon Park and planted trees there. KKL-JNF has already restored a nine-kilometer section of the river, starting at the headwaters. The hope is to continue until the entire course of the river is purified, depending on the cooperation of local authorities and continued funding.
"The Yarkon River is the second largest river in Israel, after the Jordan. It used to support a huge variety of flora and fauna, including a sort of fish unique to the Yarkon. Many of these species died as a result of the pollution, but now efforts are being made to reintroduce them to those areas that are getting cleaned up," Anat told us. And indeed, one of the highlights of the hike was the sight of flocks of water birds swimming in the moonlight in the river, along with a few soft-backed turtles.
"This is the perfect place for us," said Dror Billet of Ramat Hasharon. "Nevo, my eleven-year old grandson comes to stay with us quite a bit, and our favorite pastime is going out to nature together. It is an activity we both enjoy, and reaching this forest and park is so simple. What we are all hoping for is that the rehabilitation efforts continue and that local authorities cooperate with green organizations like KKL-JNF."
Towards the end of our three-hour hike, Anat read us a section from a book written by Professor Shmuel Avitzur in 1945, "Journey to the Yarkon." His description of their adventure sounded more like an expedition to the Amazon, but it showed how the river used to be a wild natural wonderland. With the help of friends of KKL-JNF from Australia and America, and other green organizations, there is hope that one day the Yarkon River will become home to people, animals and plants that will again enjoy its beauty and unique eco-system.
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