Something good is happening to Israel's rivers. Slowly but surely they are again becoming delightfully green and clean. Life is coming back to them and vacationers are filling the picnic sites along their banks.
From Nahal Harod, Nahal Zippori and Nahal Kishon in the north, via Nahal Alexander - Italy Park in the central Israel and Nahal Habesor in the south. One can again sit in the shade, watch the water fowl and animal life, cast a hook and spend a day in the heart of nature.
The project for restoration and conservation of Israel's rivers is possible thanks to the support of Friends of KKL-JNF worldwide, among them those from Australia and Italy.
Nahal Harod, the Harod River, flows eastwards to the Jordan and offers inhabitants of the area and the many vacationers three new sites. The newest of them is the impressive Canyon Habazelet, concealed in the turns of the road connecting Beit Shean to the Sea of Galilee, right at the northern exit from Beit Shean. Near the raging water-fall among the basalt rocks and under the shade of eucalyptus trees, KKL-JNF has built a metal pedestrian bridge so that holiday-makers can watch the dramatic flow of the river in safety while being immersed in the sounds of the water.
The recreation area at the site has convenient access for the disabled and provides shady corners, which are surely essential in the hot summer months. Also there is a statue of a young man, looking heavenward with binoculars and reminding visitors that the site is located on the main migratory route of European birds to the warmth of Africa.
West of Beit Shean, close to the houses on the edge of the city, the Tel Zohara picnic site has been established and restored. This beautiful shaded corner lies on the banks of the Harod River, which flows under the Turkish bridge, one of the famous bridges of the "Valley Railway". It is a regular pleasure spot for the residents of Beit Shean and, prior to festivals, many "grab spots" the day before for the family to spend its time, thus guaranteeing a place for the extended families that flock to the site.
Another picnic site has been built right at the historical site of Kibbutz Tel-Chai, alongside the building used by the first settlers as a "secure house". To the west, along Nahal Tevet between Upper Afula and Balfouria, KKL-JNF has made a bicycle path and this has become a destination for week-end trips by the local inhabitants.
At Nahal Zippori, the Zippori River, the scenes and views are somewhat different. The river carries water in the winter only and its bed had, over the decades, become a sprawl of garbage and litter and, in several spots, even an environmental hazard. This is no longer so. Zippori River is now a collection of flowering and flourishing forest and woodland with convenient access roads, hiking paths both for good walkers as well as for those who are restricted in their movements and need wheel chairs. The riverbed has been cleaned up and large picnic sites have been established in the shade of pines and oak trees for those who wish to vacation in a landscape of natural woodland and planted forests.
South of Zippori River twists Nahal Kishon. Over the decades, it had become a source of pollution and a horrendous ecological hazard as the result of poisonous industrial waste and raw sewage having been allowed to flow into the bed of the river. Although the government and the competent authorities have not yet succeeded in stopping this deadly pollution, KKL-JNF decided to take action and to resuscitate at least the more eastern section of the river. The water in this area is polluted and unfit for human contact but the massive pollution has been reduced to the point where life is returning. Waterfowl are again coming to the banks of the river and fish have started to appear in the water. KKL-JNF is, meanwhile, the only national body that has resolved to invest in restoration of the river with the limited means at its disposal.
In the shade of vast eucalyptus trees and flourishing riverside vegetation, picnic areas have been set up and hiking and cycling trails installed, alongside the massive job of stabilization along the twists of the river.
In winters that are good for the Kishon the water flow is strong. One can discern traces of the vast flow in the piles of branches that are carried along and caught in the vegetation along the riverbanks. The restoration efforts of KKL-JNF along the Kishon are a clear signal to all the authorities of the State: Life has to be restored to the Kishon; the terrible pollution must be halted and this ancient river, known to every child from reading the Song of Deborah in the Bible, has to be preserved.
One of the prominent successes in the restoration project of the country's rivers in which KKL-JNF has been engaging in recent years is Nahal Alexander - Park Italy. Alexander River, which rises west of Shechem (Nablus), passes by Tul-Karem, crosses the Hefer Valley, flowing into the sea north of Netanya. Two main projects have contributed to the revival of Alexander River to the point where amateur fishermen sit on its banks and catch plump silurid (sheatfish). One of the projects is the emergency reservoir for purification of wastewater, established next to Kibbutz Yad Hanna, in the western approaches to Tul-Karem. The other is the project for restoration of the riverbanks.
Prior to construction of the reservoir, the wastewater flowed freely down the western slopes of the Samarian Hills into Alexander River - Italy Park, polluting the mountain aquifer and parts of the Taninim-Yarqon aquifer. The purification reservoir has halted the process, at least at the present critical stage, pending construction of a more massive purification system for the rapidly developing area. Part of the purified water from the Yad Hanna reservoir is taken for agricultural use and part is returned to Alexander River, now no longer a wastewater canal.
Evidence for this can be adduced by anyone walking along the river between Bat Hefer to the east and Kibbutz Ma'abarot and the river outlet into the Mediterranean Sea. Cleaning up the river bed, stabilizing the banks in vulnerable areas, extensive planting of variegated forest vegetation and the building of picnic sites along Alexander River - Italy Park, have restored it as an important recreational site in the center of the country.
Nutrias have returned to live in the river, alongside a large variety of waterfowl. The main attraction in the river is the soft-shelled turtle and the river turtle, which are again flourishing along the riverbanks. They can be observed from special observation points constructed by KKL-JNF. Incidentally, the turtles and many water fowl can even be seen nowadays in the purified water reservoir at Yad Hanna and this is testimony of the level of water treatment, allowing animals to exist in and alongside it. The rehabilitation work of Alexander River - Italy Park has won the prestigious international award.
Nahal Yarqon, the Yarqon River, in the western section of central Israel, is the second longest river in the country, after the Jordan. Its name is derived from the Hebrew word "yaroq" (green).
The degradation of the Yarqon River began in 1955, with diversion of its waters to the Negev via the National Water Carrier, for use in irrigation. As sewage replaced the natural flow of fresh water, habitats were destroyed and flora and fauna began to disappear. Recognition of the urgent need to restore the river culminated in the establishment of the Yarqon River Authority in 1988 - the first concerted effort in Israel to provide for river rehabilitation.
The Yarqon Park, Israel's largest urban park and Tel Aviv's main green area, is part of the KKL-JNF Yarqon River rehabilitation project with help of KKL-JNF Australia. This park, which extends over an area of 3,500 dunams (some 865 acres) along the river, offers a rare combination of green open spaces, sports and recreation grounds.
KKL-JNF, as one of the leading environmental organizations in Israel, has embraced the concept of sustainable park development, and is implementing this principle in many of its park projects. Bird's Head Park, within the Yarqon Park, is a wonderful example of how KKL-JNF is combining river rehabilitation with recreational development for the benefit of the residents of the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
This is just a partial listing of KKL-JNF projects which contribute both to the ecology of the State of Israel and to the welfare of its citizens who, in their daily lives, have an increasing need for a quiet breathing space from the pressures of daily life. It turns out that restored and developed sites such as these are a significant social undertaking. The Zippori Forest encourages direct encounters between Arab and Jewish citizens of the Galilee.
On the day we visited there, we found kindergarten children from the community of Shimshit, which was built close to the forest, on trails along the banks of Zippori River, walking at their ease and with total confidence on the paved pathways. Anyone who was born and grew up in such an environment is guaranteed to love the place for his/her whole lifetime.