(photo credit: )
According to a new Hebrew University study, natural habitats by the coast face impending destruction. Thanks to agricultural and urban development, wetlands on the coast of Israel have been decreasing rapidly as people take water from marshes and ponds for use in their homes and businesses.
The recently published study in Landscape and Urban Planning, entitled Decline of wetland ecosystems in the coastal plain of Israel during the 20th century, discusses the harmful impact of humans on the country's wetlands over the past century. It makes use of satellite images, aerial photographs and historical maps to chart the history of the country's dramatic wetland decline. According to the report, "Out of 192 swamps and rain pools recorded in historical sources, only 18 percent  still exist today."
The study attributed the decline, which was also found to have taken its toll on local plants and animals, to an "increase in population, farming and built-up areas."
According to Prof. Noam Levin, the study's author, several species had "disappeared from Israel." One of those species was a rare amphibian unique to Israel, he said. "The only place in the world it existed was in Israel. They drained the lakes and swamps and it wasn't found anywhere again," Levin told The Jerusalem Post.
Wetland decline is occurring all over the world, and amphibians, which are very sensitive to environmental changes, tend to suffer most. This means their decline could foreshadow the extinction of other plant and animal species, said Levin, adding that 22 plant species had already gone extinct in Israel. Levin warned that if the damage continued, "more plants, amphibians and bird species might go extinct."
He also pointed out that the decline of wetlands would also negatively affect humans.
On a commercial level, Israel depended heavily on tourism, and many naturalists would likely be excited at the prospect of surveying Israel's unique flora and fauna, he said. Hula Lake, for example, is a tremendously commercially successful restored wetland. Many professionals come to Israel to see the lake, which is famous for its scenes of bird migration; birds from Asia, Africa and Europe pass through it on their annual journeys. Levin considers it one of the "best places in the world" to view this sort of biological variety.
According to Levin, other wetlands in Israel had equal commercial potential, but were being drained to exhaustion. "This is the kind of tourist attraction that is not fully utilized in our country," he said. Marshes, ponds and other ecosystems by the coast also served as outdoor classrooms, helping people learn about ecology, he noted.
Levin believes that the reason so many wetlands have been drained is that people were "just not aware" of the problem. While the scientific community has known about wetland decline for a long time, only recently had articles been published on the subject, he said..
"It was known that wetlands have decreased in numbers and area, but no one has tried to make a quantitative assessment - [a] past day compared to a present day survey of the wetlands," said Levin, adding that his study was the first on the subject.
Wetlands, though they may only take up small areas, are veritable metropolises of biodiversity, he said. "We would like people to be able to experience this type of landscape and the flora and fauna associated with [them]," said Levin. "[Wetlands are] a part of the landscape of Israel."