Running out of sand

Environmentalists fear that human interference is causing irreversible depletion of Israel's coastline.

receding sand 88 298 (photo credit: )
receding sand 88 298
(photo credit: )
Danny (not his real name), in his early forties, sits on a large yellow towel at Herzliya's Hasharon beach, staring morosely at the ocean. He was born and raised in Herzliya Pituah, moved to the US in his early twenties, and this is his first visit home in many years. "I grew up right back there on Rehov Wingate," he says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder "and spent almost every day of my childhood here on this beach. Today, I can't believe my eyes. The water is filthy and the beach is almost gone." Danny remembers a length of beach that was as broad as the widest point of the Acadia beach, south of Hasharon. Since then, he laments, most of that stretch has deteriorated to a mere ribbon of sand - and even less than that where he is sitting, on a small plot of sand wedged between the ocean in front of him and a concrete walkway behind. "I remember the many hot, burning footsteps you had to take, running from your towel to the shore. Soon there won't be enough sand for you to put down a towel here." Farther north, the situation appears every bit as grim. The ancient site of Apollonia is perched high up on fossilized sandstone cliffs overlooking the sea, but sections of those cliffs are crumbling from the pounding of ocean waves. Earlier this month, another section reportedly crashed onto the beach below, heightening already long-standing fears that the cliffs and their ancient historical treasures are about to be washed away. Established on an earlier Canaanite site by the Phoenicians in the sixth century BCE, Apollonia later became an important harbor town under the Seleucid Greeks. Enlarged again under Roman rule, Apollonia became - along with Jaffa and Caesarea - one of the three great cities along Via Maris, the Roman-occupied Holy Land's great coastal road. Growing even larger during the Byzantine period, Apollonia fell to the Muslims in 640 BCE, was taken by Crusaders in 1101, captured by Muslims in 1187 and retaken by the Crusaders after a battle between Saladin and King Richard I of England in 1191. Finally, after a 40-day siege in 1265, the Mameluk Muslims razed the city walls, destroyed the Crusader fortress and ended the city's long history. Archeological excavations of the site began in 1994, and a national park showcasing Apollonia's long history was opened in 2002. Even before excavations began, some of the site's ruins - including sections of the medieval city wall and Crusader castle - could be seen above ground, clinging precariously to the fossilized sandstone cliffs. According to the website of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), "The ancient coastal cities of Israel are undergoing a massive amphibious attack by man and sea. Twenty years of continuous monitoring and numerous studies of coastal tectonics and sedimentology have shown that the destruction in the coastal cities Ashkelon, Ashdod-Yam, Yavne-Yam, Apollonia, Caesarea, Dor and Acre are extremely rapid and stem mainly from human interference in the coastal system. We anticipate that if the process continues at the present rate without our intervention, the greater part of the [ancient] coastal cities will disappear within 10 - 20 years. These coastal remnants comprise an important chapter in the history of the Land of Israel and are an important cultural resource." The imminent destruction of ancient coastal cities is but one aspect of the larger problem of relentless erosion of Israel's coastline, which receives its entire input of sand from the Nile river delta in Egypt. Sand from the Nile empties into the Mediterranean, is carried northward by ocean currents and deposited all along the eastern Mediterranean coast. According to Nir Papay, beach and coast policy coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), our coastline has lost an estimated 20 million cubic meters of sand over the past half century. About half was taken away for building and industrial uses, and half blocked by various man-made barriers to the sand's natural migration. The Environment Ministry says that of the 366,000 dunams of sand spread along Israel's coast a century ago, a little more than half remain today. Of the approximately 110,000 dunams of sand that remains relatively undisturbed, 50,000 are earmarked for future development. The problem is seen by environmentalists to be particularly acute in Herzliya where, according to the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED, Adam, Teva V'Din), the beaches have diminished by at least 30% in the past 14 years. Like other environmental groups, IUED points to the construction of the Herzliya marina in 1992 as the major, if not sole, cause of the decline of the city's beaches. Indeed, the construction of marinas (and the multi-story beachfront residences and hotels that go with them), port facilities, breakwaters and artificial islands is seen by many to be a major threat to Israel's coast, disturbing the natural northward migration of Nile River sand and blocking its landfall on Israel's coast. In a 1999 study of coastal development and environmental degradation, the Environment Ministry warned of what it called "marina mania" implicit in a coastal master plan that, at the start of the 1990s, called for the construction of 14 marina complexes, including boat anchorages, exclusive high-rise apartment buildings and five-star hotels at oceanfront sites from Ashkelon to Nahariya. The study described the Herzliya marina - the first to be completed under the coastal master plan - as a prime example of damage to the coastline, and found that since the marina and detached breakwaters were constructed, the width of the adjacent beach decreased at a rate of about five meters per year. With the marina's construction, the beach was isolated from its historical sand supply. Even more damning was the study's observation that with far more planned boat berthing spaces than the actual number of boats in Israel, "The reason for continuing with the marina initiative appears to have little to do with providing new berthing sites. In actuality, marinas have become fronts for developments that do not conform to the prohibition of building within 100 meters from the water. The underlying aim of the marina plans may well be to allow for building approval on the shoreline." The Environment Ministry concluded that the developers' aggressive push for more marinas and the resulting obstruction of public access to beaches now exclusively designated for marina residents and commercial tenants amounts to the privatization of Israel's coastline. Herzliya's municipal spokesman, Ilan Pilo, lays the blame for the damage to Herzliya's beaches squarely on the marina. "The issue of the marina is a black stain on proper administrative functioning in Israel: the way it was planned, the way some of the beach was dried up, the way buildings were constructed a few meters from the shore or actually on the sea. It was against all rules and legislation. This happened, of course, before Yael German became mayor and began to fight against the marina." Not everyone is convinced that marinas are to blame for beach erosion and coastal degradation. When the Herzliya marina was still in its planning stages, developers maintained that marinas have minimal impact on coastal erosion compared with projects like ports - and they continue to make that claim. Architect Ben Hoffenberg, 71, who was involved (with real estate developer Motti Zisser) in the marina and adjacent Arena shopping mall project, says that the sand problem - like the flow of sand itself - originates not in Israel but Egypt. The Aswan High Dam built during the 1960s and completed in 1970 caused a significant decrease in the Nile River's outflow into the Mediterranean. With less river water emptying into the sea, the developers say, came less sand. Thus there is now simply less sand leaving the Nile, flowing into the sea and being carried northward to Israel and deposited on Israeli beaches. Papay acknowledges that Egypt's Aswan High Dam is part of the problem which, he says, is further aggravated by the slow but steady destruction of the Nile delta. Nonetheless, he is not ready to let local developers off the hook. With their reclamation of large tracts of shore land and construction of marinas, beachfront hotels and condominiums along with offshore breakwaters and artificial islands, they are responsible for most of the damage to Israel's coastline over the past two decades. The SPNI, in conjunction with other environmental groups like the IUED, have been instrumental in getting local governments to rethink and even scrap plans for constructing marinas and oceanfront hotel and condominium developments in Netanya, Haifa and Nahariya. They also recently lent their support to local residents fighting a plan to "enhance" and "upgrade" the largely undisturbed aqueduct beach in Caesarea by building a beachside promenade, three restaurants on the beach, sports facilities and parking lots. These groups also spearheaded the landmark Coastal Protection Law enacted by the Knesset in 2004. The law includes provisions to prohibit further environmental damage, protect public access and right of way, and levy stiff fines on owners of facilities that negatively impact the coastal environment. Despite these victories, Papay says that the problem of beach erosion is highly complex and cannot be blamed solely on marinas. The port of Ashdod alone, he notes, has blocked the flow of 4,000,000 cubic meters of sand. Coastal sandstone cliffs like those in the vicinity of Apollonia are suffering from another man-made problem, Papay notes. Global warming is raising the sea level of the Mediterranean by one centimeter annually, as well as raising the water temperature, causing higher and stronger waves. This, says Papay, results in some 20 cm. of sandstone cliffs being lost every year. While the IAA is undertaking a reinforcement and protection plan for Apollonia in collaboration with the Nature and Parks Authority, the Herzliya municipality and Tel Aviv University, Papay says that the underlying issue of climate change - like the depletion of sand flow from the Nile - must be dealt with at both local and international levels. "The issue of the coast involves many different aspects. There is no one solution to these problems. We know that now. We have to continue to try different methods to protect the environment and learn from each of them," says Papay. For people like Danny, sitting on a Herzliya beach that is becoming smaller every year and remembering better days, solutions to those problems cannot come fast enough. Blocked sand, blocked beaches The past two decades have seen an almost relentless assault on Israel's Mediterranean coastline. The assailants have been its coastal developers, resulting in the twin scourges of blocked sand and blocked beaches. Blocked sand In the late 1980s, government coastal surveys identified 55 "seaward-projecting and offshore structures," along Israel's 205 km coastline, including harbors and port facilities, marinas and anchorages, intake and cooling ponds for power plants, breakwaters and artificial islands. During the subsequent decade these structures increased almost exponentially with the addition of marinas in Ashkelon, Ashdod and Herzliya, and the construction of huge beachfront residential developments such as the Sea and Sun complex north of Tel Aviv and Carmel Beach Towers south of Haifa. By 1998, the Geological Survey of Israel concluded that sand depletion along Israel's Mediterranean coastline was already far exceeding the natural replenishment of sand carried northward from the Nile River delta by ocean currents. The Geological Survey's published report, "Marine Sand Resources Offshore Israel," placed the blame for the problem primarily on beachfront and offshore structures that block the natural flow and depositing of sand. The report concluded that the loss of sand - and resultant damage to Israel's beaches - was expected to become even more severe as additional development projects worsened the already serious interference with natural sand replenishment. That prophecy continues to be fulfilled. Blocked beaches Environmentalists and citizens' rights groups have long held a special grudge against the development of Tel Aviv's shoreline, in which a long stretch of beach was cut off from the city by a line of hotels and a major road. The decision to allow that construction, these groups say, not only resulted in the crowding of some 250,000 beachgoers on a narrow strip of sand between the ocean and the private development but also set the stage for further and more glaring abuses of the public's right to appropriate space along Israel's shoreline. Helter-skelter coastal development over subsequent years has left Israelis with no more than 50 km of undeveloped coastal space. But the people are fighting back. In its first coastline protection case in 1997, the IUED aimed its sights on the Carmel Beach Towers complex. Developers had already erected one enormous building and were planning to construct four more in an attempt to create a private, upmarket residential complex that would have blocked off nearly a kilometer of Haifa's public beach. IUED intervention persuaded the National Planning and Building Council to freeze further construction. A year later, the IUED filed suit against the Sea and Sun residential complex. A court ruling in IUED's favor led to an agreement under which Sea and Sun's owners and developers must remove extensive earthworks, walls, private gardens and barriers and restore the beachfront to its natural state. The SPNI is working with the government in planning a coastal park in north Tel Aviv, along with a beachfront reclamation project for the Yarkon River peninsula. And along with the IUED and other environmental NGOs, the SPNI helped ensure the enactment of the landmark Coastal Protection Law of 2004. It appears that the public's awareness of attempts to privatize Israel's coastline has finally caught up. As an Environment Ministry statement put it: "Today, a growing number of Israelis have made it clear that they are not ready to pay the price of heedless development for the benefit of the few, that the pleasures of the beach and coastline cannot be bartered or sold to the highest bidder."