B'nai B'rith International - The Global Voice of the Jewish Community
When pilgrims travel to Israel and find their way to the Jordan River to see where Jesus was baptized, their reaction invariably is the same.
Their jaws drop.
Expecting to see the raging river described in the Bible, they come upon a sewage-laden trickle.
Though savvy Israeli tour guides have learned to carefully steer their charges to spots where the Jordan appears deeper and cleaner, the river remains a microcosm for the dismal state of Israel's waterways, nearly 60 years after the founding of the Jewish state.
The tributaries that feed into the upper Jordan River, north of the Sea of Galilee, or the Kinneret - Israel's most important sources of fresh water - are clean and drinkable.
But the exploitation of this water for domestic, agricultural, and industrial consumption has left the lower Jordan River nearly bone dry. Where there was once an annual flow of about 1.4 billion cubic meters of water, there is now a paltry 100 million-some 7 percent of the original total. Much of this is contaminated with sewage.
The lower Jordan looks like most of Israel's other rivers: toxic streams choked by pollution, soiled by unfettered industrial dumping, and desiccated by insufficient rainfall and heavy water use.
Israel's waterways are perhaps the most salient example of the country's environmental record.
"Israel's rivers have essentially turned into open sewers," says Yariv Abramovich, managing director of Zalul, an Israeli environmental group dedicated to protecting Israel's rivers and seas.
"Industry and municipal sewage-treatment plants use these streams as an outlet for their waste, and the pollution fills the streams and arrives at the sea, contaminating the sea," Abramovich says. "There is a problem of [perception] here: Viewing a river as something that you can use as a channel for sewage is sick. This is gross negligence. We are years behind when it comes to the environment."
A 2004 report by Israel's Environmental Ministry concludes: "It may be said that Israel's rivers still constitute ecological and aesthetic nuisances [that] pollute the environment, groundwater, and open space."
The contamination of Israel's water sources threatens far more than the country's rivers, some of which have zero water flow. At stake is the health of the country's massive agricultural sector; the availability (and cost) of drinking water in Israel; broad government policy goals, such as settlement of the Negev Desert, which has virtually no water of its own; and even national security.
At points along Israel's only major freshwater lake, the Kinneret, beach-goers clamber over large rocks exposed by retreating waters to reach an area deep enough for a swim. If the water table drops much more, experts warn the silt at the bottom could rise and contaminate the entire lake, rendering it saline and making Israel's main source of drinking water virtually useless.
This would constitute not only an environmental catastrophe, but an economic and political one: Israel shares its fresh water with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, in keeping with peace treaties signed in the mid 1990s. Were Israel to lose the Kinneret as a source of fresh water, Jordan and the West Bank also would find themselves in crisis.
What's more, in years past Israel has threatened to send fighter jets into Lebanon to bomb even seemingly small-scale efforts to divert waters from the tributaries that flow into the Jordan River and, hence, the Kinneret. If Israel were to lose its main source of fresh water, the government might come under increased pressure to secure alternative water sources beyond Israel's borders.
This makes negotiating any future peace deal with Syria or Lebanon only more difficult, experts say.
One thing is clear: Israel cannot afford to squander water. And reversing damage already done will take time, as evidenced by efforts to rehabilitate the country's rivers.
Israel has about 40 rivers, all of which once supported diverse aquatic species and wetland ecosystems. In recent years, the country's growing water needs, urban sprawl, and rapid industrialization have depleted and devastated most waterways. Some parts of rivers have disappeared entirely.
"By the beginning of the 1990s, pretty much every Israeli river did not have water flow," says Gil Yaniv, deputy minister of infrastructure for the Environmental Ministry, referring to the fact that rivers either were stagnant or had dried up. "The rivers of Israel had become sewage channels."
Cleaning up, and the case of the Yarkon
Early last decade, the government made two key decisions that started the process of rehabilitating Israel's waterways. First, the government adopted new sewage controls, investing some $1.5 billion since 1993 in building wastewater treatment plants and channels. Where there were seven such water-treatment facilities in the early 1990s, there are now 56.
Second, Israel increased its water reuse, recycling 80 percent of its treated sewage water for agricultural operations.
From 1994 to 2003, organic carbon pollutants in Israel's rivers dropped by 77 percent, nitrogen pollutants declined by 52 percent, and phosphorus pollutants were reduced by 83 percent.
These changes significantly slowed the deterioration of Israel's rivers. A decade after river restoration began in earnest, many waterways show improvement, but challenges remain.
Israel's halting progress is best illustrated by the case of the Yarkon River, which flows through metropolitan Tel Aviv and is Israel's largest coastal river.
Perhaps the single most important event in bringing water pollution to public attention was when a bridge over this river collapsed during the 1997 Maccabiah Games.
The accident killed two Australian athletes. At first, Israelis chalked the tragedy up to poor construction. But soon a different picture emerged. Within weeks, two more Australian athletes who had plunged into the river died; investigators concluded they were killed by pollution.
Ten years later, the Yarkon is considered a relative success story: Fish species and plant life have returned to some parts, bike paths and parks have been built along its banks, and the pollutant discharge has been significantly reduced.
But you still wouldn't want to risk a swim.
"The river is improving; it has improved greatly in the past 10 years," says the Yarkon River Authority's director, David Pargament. But, "we are trying to solve decades of problems. And that takes time."
Before it was tapped as a major water source, the Yarkon was one of Israel's largest rivers, with a flow of 220 million cubic meters per year-more than any other besides the Jordan-and meandered for some 17 miles.
As early as 1955, Israel began diverting water from the Yarkon to irrigate Israel's Negev Desert. Decades of heavy use, compounded by inadequate rainfall, reduced the river's flow to a trickle, and pollution discharge left it all but destroyed.
Recognizing the river's abysmal state, Israel started the Yarkon River Authority in 1988. Greenery was replanted along its banks, hundreds of tons of garbage were removed, and authorities tightened discharge restrictions. Local municipalities have built parks, bicycle paths, and fishing docks along parts of the river.
But the Yarkon continued to suffer from Israel's most pressing environmental challenge: the scarcity of fresh water.
As a result, environmentalists formulated a new strategy; authorities allowed treated effluents to enter the Yarkon to ensure water flow.
"There are two things that need to happen to rehabilitate a river: Stop polluting it and secure its water sources," says Pargament, who since 1993 has been charged with cleaning up the Yarkon. "Rehabilitating each section of the river is a massive operation. The goal here is sustainability. At the end of the day, the public wants to use this area."
The Yarkon River Authority has ended the daily dumping of more than 25,000 cubic meters of polluted effluents.
The job of the Yarkon's rehabilitation, however, remains unfinished. That will require more money, work, enforcement and - no small matter in this part of the world - rain.
"The fact remains that the wheel cannot be turned back; that the continuing impact of humankind on rivers cannot be totally nullified," says Yeshayahu Bar-On, chief scientist at the Environmental Ministry and former head of its Department of Water and Rivers. "Restoration objectives are therefore formulated in more moderate terms, which focus on minimizing damage and conserving the dynamic ecosystem in the river."
Critics say environmental regulations are too lenient and enforcement is lax, due to powerful industrial and agricultural lobbies. Despite government regulations, it's up to local municipalities to restore their own rivers. As a result, some waterways have improved while others remain neglected. The Kishon, located in the Haifa area, is an environmental disaster.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to restoring Israel's rivers is that there's simply not enough water.
Of the more than 2 billion cubic meters of water Israel consumes every year, approximately 60 percent goes to agricultural needs, 33 percent to domestic consumption, and 7 percent to industrial use. Only recently did Israel pass a law guaranteeing nature a share-about 4 percent annually.
Because there isn't enough fresh water to replenish the rivers, the government has changed its strategy for maintaining river flow. It abandoned a zero-tolerance approach toward introduction of effluents into the rivers and instead allowed treated wastewater to be released into rivers, as with the Yarkon.
Though not as clean as fresh water, without the effluent, the rivers would run dry and ecological and marine life would die. "Human intervention is considered an inseparable part of this system," Bar-On says.
Climate change apparently has only made matters worse. The problem is not just Israel's declining annual rainfall totals, but the form the rain takes.
"It's not so much that we're getting less rain - we're actually getting more rain in certain parts of the country - but the way that rain falls," says Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East.
Rather than experiencing intermittent showers throughout the winter that enable the ground to absorb the rainfall and groundwater sources to be replenished, Israel in recent years has seen more wintertime dry spells followed by torrential rains. The dryer ground cannot absorb the overwhelming rains, and so the rainwater tends to run off the soil rather than sink into it. This both reduces the benefit of any rain that does fall and contributes to the pollution of rivers that absorb runoff laden with oils and other pollutants.
The flipside to Israel's depletion of water resources is the country has become a leader in maximizing use. Certain irrigation techniques pioneered by Israel maximize the value of limited water quantities. Rather than let Israel's Mediterranean-bound rivers empty out into the sea, coastal factories have begun capturing the sea-bound water for agricultural reuse.
"We cannot afford to be wasteful here in Israel," says Noam Gressel, CEO of Assif Strategies, a corporate environmental consulting company. "We have to be much more vigilant about the environment than most Western countries.
"We don't have reserves. We don't have a lot of water. We don't have a lot of other natural resources. We don't have a lot of renewable resources, like wood. We don't have oil to sell.
"We have some dust to sell, but that's about it."
The Slow Death of the Dead Sea By Uriel Heilman
The Ein Gedi Spa at the Dead Sea seems like an ideal place for a little R&R amidst the frenzy of modern Israel. It is set in the quiet of the desert, has stunning views of the Jordanian mountains, and its therapeutic waters reputedly do wonders.
There's only one problem: The sea is gone.
In its place are empty lifeguard towers and abandoned beach umbrellas lodged in the parched earth, which mock the Dead Sea's quiet demise.
The sea still exists, but it's smaller, shallower, and more distant-some 160 feet from the original beach. Following decades of heavy water use from the freshwater tributaries that feed into the sea by farmers, industrial enterprises, and cities, the lowest point on Earth is drying up.
"Over the last 50 years, every source of water for the Dead Sea has been removed," says Gidon Bromberg, Israel director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, an international environmental group. "This is a completely manmade disaster."
A tram shuttles visitors from the abandoned beach at Ein Gedi to the new one, at more than 1,300 feet below sea level. Thirty years ago, this beach lay in deep water. In 10 years, this beach likely also will be dry, and the visitors' ramp will have to be extended to reach retreating waters.
By 2025, the Dead Sea is expected to be at 1,440 feet below sea level.
The shrinkage of the sea is just part of an environmental disaster that, if left unchecked, could devastate this region, environmentalists warn. Havoc extends up the Jordan River, the Dead Sea's main source of water, and has affected Israel's rivers and streams.
In the southern Jordan Valley, thousands of sinkholes have appeared near the sea as retreating groundwater shifted the earth, washing away deposits that held up the sand. As a result, beaches, nature reserves, and agricultural fields have been forced to close; future development in the northern part of the Dead Sea has been suspended.
The shifting groundwater also has altered natural oases and springs near the sea, leaving some dry and shifting others. Unable to move with the water, some natural habitats have been destroyed and with them the feeding grounds of indigenous wildlife. Ornithologists say the annual migration of birds to this area-the third-largest in the world-is tapering off.
Perhaps most significantly for the few thousand people that live nearby, the economic consequences of the sea's retreat have been staggering.
"There is economic loss, there is potential human-life loss, and there is the demise of the environment," Bromberg says.
Locals say they're afraid tourism will dry up.
"This has cost us more than $25 million since 1995, when the sinkholes started opening up," says Merav Ayalon, spokeswoman for Kibbutz Ein Gedi, the largest Israeli town at the Dead Sea.
Farther south, at the cluster of hotels on the Israeli side, hoteliers have preserved beaches by creating an artificial pool maintained by Dead Sea Works, the massive mineral extraction plant whose work has accelerated the sea's disappearance through evaporation. If not for this artificial pool, the hotels would be in the desert.
At the time of Israel's founding, about 1.4 billion cubic meters of water annually flowed into the Dead Sea. Today, that total has sunk to a mere 100 million cubic meters, much of it polluted.
Short of a major change in policy-which environmentalists say is imperative-the Dead Sea will continue to shrink at its current rate of 3.5 feet per year until the sea levels out in 100 to 200 years at some 1,800 feet below sea level.
By then the sea will be but a fraction of its current size, and its composition could be quite different.
The Israeli government is not ignorant of the problem, but stabilizing the Dead Sea would require new international agreements-including between enemy states-on water use in the Jordan River and its tributaries, as well as a sharp reduction in the quantity allotted to Jordan Valley agriculture.
As an alternative to restoring the natural flow of the Jordan River, some have suggested building a "Red-to-Dead" canal, which would bring water to the Dead Sea from the Red Sea, some 125 miles south.
President Shimon Peres is the plan's most visible champion, casting the channel as part of a "Peace Valley" that would strengthen ties between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority-all having a vested interest in the project's success.
Notwithstanding the enormous financial costs of such an enterprise-between $3 billion and $5 billion-scientists say bringing salt water to a sea that has been fed only fresh water could forever alter, or ruin, the Dead Sea.
"A decision like this cannot be made without checking the ecological impact on the environment," says Noam Goldstein, project manager at Dead Sea Works, which has made a fortune extracting potash, magnesium, table salt, and bromide. "It's possible that with a canal the sea will turn brown, or red. It's possible it will stink because of the introduction of new chemical and biological substances into the water."
So far, the governments that use water, which would otherwise flow into the Dead Sea, have done little about the problem, partly because of powerful local agricultural lobbies. Israel's Agriculture and Tourism Ministries declined to respond to requests for comment on this story.
Meanwhile, the problem has worsened. Route 90, the Israeli highway that runs north-south along the Dead Sea's western shore, has been rebuilt several times because of sinkholes.
"The public at large and the region as a whole are the big losers," Bromberg says. "There are some small stakeholders that are clearly gaining-industrial zones in the south, and agriculture in the valley-but the key issue needs to be striking a fair balance."
Bromberg says Israel needs to help the towns in the Jordan Valley move away from reliance on agriculture, which uses excessive quantities of water, to more sustainable economic models, such as tourism.
"It doesn't make sense that the desert is a major export of food products, which, in reality, is water," Bromberg says. "We're exporting the little water that we have."
Scientists estimate that the Dead Sea needs at least 650 million cubic meters of water per year to stabilize over the next two decades.
Unless this somehow happens, experts say, the Dead Sea will continue dying.