Stink or swim

Israel's misuse of its scant natural resources has led to the pollution of nearly all its rivers.

sewage 88 (photo credit: )
sewage 88
(photo credit: )
It's hot. The children are bored, teenagers loud and you don't feel like staying indoors. So you go to the local river, where the children swim and search for soft-shelled turtles, the teens rent a rowboat, and you happily relax on a bench under a riverbank eucalyptus grove. Such a scenario is hard to envisage, given the current state of Israel's rivers. Of the 16 rivers that flow into the Mediterranean and 25 that reach the Jordan River and Lake Kinneret, none is clean enough to swim in. Sewage freely flows where fresh water once did. Rich ecosystems supporting varieties of fauna, flora and water-life now wallow in pollution where even microbes struggle to survive. "Historically, Israel hasn't valued its natural resources," says Gidon Bromberg, Director of Friends Of the Earth Middle East (FOEME), a branch of the multinational NGO that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists. "The idea was that water is here for economic purposes, for example urban and agricultural use. Now we are paying a heavy price." The Ministry of Environmental Protection and green organizations agree that the problem originated with the implementation of the Zionist dream. "Making the desert bloom" was a priority for the infant state, and fresh water was diverted from rivers and streams for urban and agricultural development. Emptying river beds were seen as ideal recipients for industrial and urban wastes, filling the rivers and reaching the Mediterranean Sea. "Israel is a small country, with few [natural] resources," says Raanan Boral, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's (SPNI) Environmental Protection Division. "When we make a [ecological] mistake, we pay immediately as there's less place to play with. We achieved contamination quicker [than in Europe or the US] because of this." It seems everyone is to blame. Many fingers point at industry and manufacturers: Every river in Israel suffers pollution from nearby factories. High amounts of dangerous bacteria and chemicals, well above legal levels, have caused high total organic carbon (TOC) and bacterial pollution. Dr. Yeshayahu Bar-Or, chief scientist of the environmental protection ministry, described the former situation in the Kishon River, near Haifa. "Acidity levels are measured on a scale of 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Due to heavy metals and chemicals in the water, acidity levels in the river were between 1 and 2. The water itself was basically an acid!" In 1997 the government began an initial cleanup and life slowly returned to the river, but Bar-Or is quick to emphasize that much still needs doing in the Kishon, like Israel's other waterways. "Industries around the Besor River in the south have been given until 2010 to effectively deal with effluents within their own plants and transfer remains to incineration centers. Most of these manufacturers have already installed cutting-edge technology," Bar-Or affirms. Another leading contributor to Israel's dire water situation is the agricultural sector, blames Bromberg. While not accused of excessive polluting, it is the highest water consumer in Israel, and not necessarily focused on conservation. Water used for agriculture is highly subsidized, he explains, and without financial incentive, water conservation is less important to farmers than profit. "Growing tropical products such as mangos and bananas in the desert makes no sense. They require tremendous amounts of water which Israel simply doesn't have. The role of the agricultural community is to protect the land. By wasting resources and not using them optimally, they are no longer doing that," says Bromberg. "Public opinion and powerful lobbyists back the farming community. Fewer than one percent of the population are farmers, and even with subsidies, farming is a difficult profession to survive in. Farming is romanticized by a population who perhaps feels a cultural obligation to support those still actively living the Zionistic farming ideal. Farming communities could turn to rural tourism, forestry or organic produce as well as growing produce which is less water consuming," suggests Bromberg. The urban sector is also at fault, with a full 30% of urban water wasted, according to FOEME estimates. With better management and updated equipment, this wastewater could be treated to a level fit for human consumption. "The government promised that by 2009 a sewage treatment plant would be built to serve the whole Galilee area, yet they haven't even begun breaking ground," decries Bromberg. Israel produces over 450 million cubic meters of sewage annually, says Boral of the SPNI. Of this, roughly one-third is treated and purified to levels fit for drinking, a third treated to levels usable for agriculture, and another third left untreated. "Israel works by crisis management," Boral explains. "Until a major issue or emergency occurs, the problems are ignored. Those appointed to solve problems often cause more than they solve." An example would be the National River Administration, says Boral. "Their job is to ensure that the rivers are running freely and the banks are clear for the public. In their desire to do a good job, they may bring in large trucks to clear the ground - destroying the local flora and ecosystem under heavy tires and boots." Bar-Or tries to put the situation into perspective. "We can look at the glass as half-full or half-empty. Major improvements have taken place within the past 10 years. While pollution levels are unarguably still far too high, progress and clean-up is slowly taking place." Too slowly, insist organizations like FOEME, Zalul, and the SPNI who blame the ministry for a lack of real movement, although all agree that pollution has decreased considerably since the late 1980s and 1990s. "Legislation is in place," complains Zalul director Yariv Abramovich, "the government just doesn't bother to enforce it." Bar-Or strongly disagrees, while admitting that a lack of manpower hampers the ministry's ability. He points out that a major enforcement campaign led by the ministry against several large industrial plants recently resulted in indictments. In February, the Dan Region Wastewater Treatment Plant (Shafdan) was found guilty of failing to properly maintain its sewage pipeline transport system, resulting in major marine pollution on January 28, 2003. The Shafdan, which treats sewage generated by some two million people in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and is the largest plant of its type in the Middle East, accidentally released some three million cubic meters of raw sewage into the sea off Tel Aviv while repairing cracks in the system. "The Shafdan forgets it is a public organization with a responsibility to the people" insists Abramovich, who considers the waste treatment authority "egocentric and only after its own good." The Shafdan is currently planning a NIS one billion project to incinerate waste. Incineration destroys everything, leaving nothing left to deal with. However it creates substantial air pollution. Green organizations propose a different solution - heat dry technology. Cheaper and environmentally friendly, this would also create fertilizer for agriculture. But this leaves the Shafdan with waste products, which means arranging transportation and working with farmers, waste storage and possible excess. A final solution is still under discussion. To quote the Environment Protection Ministry's website, "everyone agrees that preservation of Israel's water resources is one of the major challenges confronting the country today, especially as Israel entered the 21st century with one of its greatest water overdrafts ever." While desalination is a viable option under serious consideration, using natural resources correctly should be the first priority, say environmentalists. Desalination plants are expensive to build, and require fossil fuels which cause further pollution. "We realize that the country has legitimate water needs," declares FOEME's Bromberg. "If 25% of river water would be left at their source - the rivers themselves - a full 75% could still be removed for use elsewhere without damaging the river. Obviously each river would need evaluating individually." Three years ago, a monumental change in Israeli law was passed, recognizing nature as a legitimate consumer of natural resources. Practically this means that some water will be left in the rivers although to date, the law is very poorly implemented, says Bromberg. The role of public opinion should not be underestimated, notes Zalul's Abramovich. Public awareness and involvement is the non-profits' most powerful tool. "Even though environmental problems seem insurmountable, by thinking globally and acting locally we can become a powerful force of change." "The public is the main player here," agrees SPNI's Boral. "When 'green' organizations make an issue, they are often ignored. When local communities step in, the councils generally listen. They know that if not, the media will get involved, with the government close behind. The bad publicity is simply not worth it. While rivers are not as 'romantically Israel' as, say, the Kinneret, rivers are in closer proximity to most Israelis and affect them locally. If the public took the rivers' problems to heart, they could change their local environment in major ways. 'Adopt-a-river' programs have worked all over the world. Why not in Israel too?" "We are already seeing the results of public opinion," says Bromberg. "Recognizing the severe sewage situation in the lower Jordan River, the public worked together with advocacy groups for change. Now the government is promising to leave a certain percentage of water in the river." The Na'aman River near Acre and Alexander River in the Sharon are examples of real change brought about by a public who became involved on all levels. Political pressure, demonstrations, clean up projects and financial backing all brought about real improvement, explains Abramovich, pointing out that the restoration plan for the Alexander River won the prestigious International River prize in Australia in 2003. The public expects quality land without sewage pouring into rivers and the sea near swimming areas. By demanding reform on all levels and arranging clean up demonstrations, groups like FOEME, Zalul and the SPNI want to ensure that we could soon be wading in the water, searching for turtles and swimming with the fish.