This Week in History: Swamps, birds, water wars

In November 1958, JNF completed a seven-year project, draining the vast Hula lake and swamps, marking a huge engineering feat; but disastrous ecological repercussions soon became apparent.

Lake Hula 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lake Hula 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On November 1, 1958, the Jewish National Fund completed a large-scale drainage project in the Hula Valley, marking a huge engineering achievement for the nation. It soon became clear, however, that the drainage had severe unintended ecological repercussions.
Until the 1950s, the Hula Lake and its adjacent swamps covered up to 60 square kilometers of the Hula Valley. The lake was 5.3 kilometers long and 4.4 kilometers wide, extending over 12-14 square kilometers. Tens of thousands of birds inhabited the area, along with many species or rare fish and plants, making for a unique composition of flora and fauna.
Several reasons have been given for the state's decision to give the green light to drain more than 65 square kilometers of the natural wetland area. The two most widely-cited objectives at the time were to increase the amount of arable land and to eradicate malaria. Another benefit the government hoped to gain was the peat that lay at the bottom of the marshland, which it hoped to use as a fertilizer and for the chemical industry. Additionally, it hoped to maximize on the water, which was evaporating from the huge areas of marshland and would otherwise flow straight to the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret. Lastly, the state hoped to build a major road through the large area, which was inaccessible to traffic at the time.
The project began in 1951, and due to a general lack of environmental awareness both in Israel and abroad at the time, there was little resistance. Indeed, the Israeli government brought to fruition an idea that had been mulled by several former rulers of the land under the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate. Projects to regulate the valley even stretch back to the Roman and Byzantine periods.
A few scientists and nature lovers, however waged a determined battle against the plans, and thus the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was born (SPNI) in 1953 under the leadership of Azariah Alon and Amotz Zahavi. Though the organization failed to halt the draining of the valley, it played an important role in the aftermath of the project.
Syria also opposed Israel's activities in the Hula Valley at the time, because the land stretched east to the Israel-Syria border, to an area considered disputed territory between the two sides. The project would strengthen Israeli control over the region, and according to Michael Brecher and Jonathan Wilkenfeld's book, A Study of Crisis. Syria contended that Israeli activities violated the 1949 Armistice Agreement which stated the Demilitarized Zone was a no-man's land. Israel meanwhile, maintained that the land fell under its jurisdiction according to the British Mandate maps. The dispute escalated as Israeli workers came under fire, for which Israel blamed Syria. Israel suspended work for a week while the matter was considered by the UN Mixed Armistice Commission (MAC). Violence increased as Syrians killed seven Israeli policemen and Israel retaliated with an airstrike. Both sides appealed to the UNSC, blaming the other for breaching the Armistice Agreement. Forty Israelis were killed in the conflict and some 100 were injured, many from heavy Syrian shelling of the area. According to A Study of Crisis, Syria also suffered heavy casualties. On May 8, 1951, the UNSC called for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of military troops from the area. The MAC mediated an agreement, and Israel resumed the project.
The JNF completed its seven-year project in November 1958, but in the coming years, it became apparent the consequences were environmentally disastrous. Though water levels increased by an estimated 28 million cubic meters per year, its quality was reduced by large amounts of nitrates and sulfates released by decomposing peat, which during the rainy season were washed into the Kinneret. Before the drainage project, the swamps had acted like filters, purifying the water. Moreover, the peat itself, once exposed, turned into highly flammable, infertile black dust. Strong winds sweeping the valley produced dust storms that in turn damaged agricultural crops and an entire area sunk some three meters. Over 100 animal species disappeared, numerous freshwater plant species became extinct, and many flocks of migratory birds found alternative areas to stop on their route between Africa and Europe.
Additionally, the eradication of malaria as one of the project's key objectives was later discredited, as it transpired that the disease was overcome by other factors, chiefly by the work of Israeli scientist Gideon Mer. Indeed, Dr. Chaim Sheba, Director-General of the Ministry of Health sent a letter to the Prime Minister's Office in November 1951, warning that the drainage operation may even increase the number of new infections and urging Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to reconsider the matter. The government, however, did not heed the warning and went ahead with the project.
By the 1980s, it was apparent that the drainage had not produced the desired results and ideas of re-flooding part of the area emerged in a bid to rehabilitate the land. After years of SPNI campaigning, the Hula Restoration Project came to life. In the early 1990s some 10 percent of the Hula wetlands were re-flooded, and a new and much smaller lake, Agmon, was created.
By 1964, the Hula Reserve was established, becoming Israel's first declared nature reserve. While the many species that were lost cannot be returned to life, the valley once again teems with birds stopping by on their journeys between Africa, Europe and Asia, with an estimated 500 million birds from over 400 species passing through the reserve each year.