Water, water everywhere... in Beersheba?

An abundance of gurgling fountains and sparkling water features, partnered with shady plants and trees, is being touted as the first step in a makeover for the Negev’s biggest city.

Beersheba water features 521 (photo credit: Courtesy of Beersheba Municipality)
Beersheba water features 521
(photo credit: Courtesy of Beersheba Municipality)
Up to now, Beersheba’s warm and rainless summer days meant that annually, the city took on colors of the Negev – gray, beige and tan. This year, things have changed.
The metamorphosis is just beginning, but even so, summer this year finds Beersheba decked out in the sparkling and shimmering shades of azure, blue and green, the colors of water.
Thanks to new fountains and water features all over the city, the residents of the Negev’s biggest city are being treated to water that variously sprays, gushes, spurts, flows, bubbles and gurgles.
And not just water, either. Vast numbers of desert-hardy green plants and trees enhance the fountains, many of them holding out the promise of blessed shade from the hot sun.
It’s quite a change – and, as residents are assured, this is the first step in Beersheba’s civic makeover.
The dun-colored desert city is being restored to its historical status as a watery oasis, the place where dry and dusty desert travelers came to refresh themselves with Beersheba’s abundant water.
“Beersheba is becoming Israel’s ‘City of Water,’” asserts Mayor Rubik Danilovich. “Little by little, Beersheba is being transformed into an attractive, vibrant and welcoming urban oasis.
“By adding watery elements all over the city – waterfalls, arching water jets, bubbling fountains and ultimately three lakes – Beersheba exudes a much more vibrant feel. Water symbolizes life. It transmits a feeling of energy and vitality while at the same time generating a sense of peacefulness and tranquility.”
Historically, Beersheba and its water are intrinsically united.
Since time immemorial, Beersheba’s reason for existence has been its water supply. During the winter, rainfall in the Hebron hills seeps into the ground and flows south, underground, filling the aquifers that underlie Beersheba. Even the name “Beersheba” relates to water. Genesis records that a well – be’er – that Abraham dug here was disputed by Abimelech. In settlement of the dispute, the two swore an oath – sheva – over the well.
“Therefore that place was called Be’er Sheva, because there the two of them took an oath.”
Because Beersheba enjoyed the status of an oasis, it sequentially served as an important stop in the trade routes, a Roman army camp, and a center of Byzantine worship, with numerous churches. It was an Ottoman administrative center before becoming an Israeli city in 1948.
One reason World War I’s decisive “Battle of Beersheba” – the last cavalry charge in history – took place here was because it had ample water for the soldiers and their horses. In short, without water, there would have been no Beersheba.
Not that the water was always used, or even visible.
For Danilovich, the transformation he calls “Project Urban Oasis” is the culmination of a longstanding personal dream.
As the 40-year-old mayor, who grew up in Beersheba, recalls, “I always thought the city had too much brown. Since I was a child, I dreamed of making Beersheba into the city of water instead. I wanted this desert city to be an oasis.
“As people came into Beersheba, what I wanted them to see first were waterfalls, lakes, fountains, water and greenery, all over.”
Danilovich served for 10 years as Beersheba’s deputy mayor, and was elected to the top spot in 2008. Changing the way the city looked was one of his first priorities.
“I’ve always believed that Beersheba has the potential to be a very beautiful and inviting city. I started by holding a competition for landscape architects from all over the country, looking for someone to design all the public spaces in Beersheba, everything from sidewalks to garbage disposal, traffic circles and street furniture, with special emphasis on the Old City.
“Now we have our plan, and we’re implementing it. We’ll be creating dozens of water elements all over the city – in parks and plazas, in traffic circles, near public buildings, in residential areas – all of which will improve our environment and climate, and certainly the way the city looks. Every year, we’re also committed to planting thousands of climate-appropriate trees all over the city.
“All this will enhance the quality of life for residents and make Beersheba a more attractive place to visit.”
THE THREE lakes on the planning boards constitute the boldest civic improvement plans under way – not to mention being something long-time residents are struggling to envision.
“Overall, one of our biggest projects is the creation of the Nahal Beersheba Park, which includes the revitalization and recharging of the Beersheba River,” Danilovich notes. “The new Nahal Beersheba Park will include a total of 5,200 dunams [1,300 acres] of recreational areas including numerous sports courts, playgrounds, bike and walking paths, as well as a futuristic amphitheater with seating for 12,000, making it Israel’s largest.
“There’ll also be restaurants and cafes, galleries and boat rentals for people who want to venture out into the new 90-dunam lake. That will be the biggest lake, but a second – about one acre in size – will be created in the Children’s Park being built in the northwest area of the city.
“The third body of water is perhaps the most innovative: It’s a simulated in-city “beach” that will cover about 1.2 acres in the city center.
Construction will begin later this year and be completed by the end of 2012.” Seeing all these water-themed projects come into existence isn’t without controversy.
One local resident complained to the local Anglobeersheba e-mail list: “I just found out a fountain is being built next door to my apartment.
Now as I sit and work, I’ll be listening to the sounds of the fountain, thinking of the lack of water in our country, thinking of how high my water bills are, and how my taxes are being wasted.”
Others wondered if all the evaporation would make Beersheba more humid, or whether fountain water carried by the breeze and thereby falling on sidewalks constituted an unacceptable waste.
Still others asked a more basic question: “Where is all the water for these projects coming from? Didn’t we have a water crisis in Israel?” In response, city officials point to the new Beersheba Municipal Water Purification Plant, construction of which began several years ago. The plant collects and then recycles waste runoff water, which recycled water is then reused, feeding all the new water projects wherever they might be. All the lakes, fountains, waterfalls and other watery enhancements will use recycled water which has been reclaimed instead of wasted.
Purifying recycled water to drinking-water standards is still too expensive to be feasible, experts say, but it’s fine to use for fountains, lakes and ornamental waterfalls.
In short, as Danilovich says, “We won’t be wasting water anymore. We’ll be reusing it.” Seeing this creative reuse of water at night is nothing short of spectacular.
“We’ve designed each water element or structure with its own customized lighting, so that when the lights play against the arching or flowing water, the result is dramatic, making the whole project a work of art,” Danilovich says, noting another aspect of the project.
“Beersheba is sponsoring a competition for architects and artists to help us select special artistic elements that will fit into the urban environment and enrich it. All in all, the basic idea is to give the city a new exciting and welcoming appearance.”
It must have been that way in the old days, too. For traders or travelers from all over the world making their way through the dusty, hot, arid desert, the oasis of Beersheba looming ahead must have been a most welcome sight.
From the looks of it, “Project Urban Oasis” is leading Beersheba back to the future.