There are no great rivers, gushing falls or large lakes in Israel. Ours is a dry country, with several streams we like to call rivers, and many wadis; dry gullies similar to the arroyos in the southwestern United States. In Hebrew, both wadis and rivers are called “nahal”, but we distinguish between two different types. “nahal eitan” – a perennial river – has flowing water throughout the year, usually from springs, at least along some parts of its trajectory. Our wadis on the other hand are dubbed “nahal akhzav” – a “disappointing river” – since most of the year they are dry, and only during the few winter days, when floodwaters rush along them, are we reminded that these dry gullies are actually stream beds.
In the relatively arid Mediterranean region, springs and rivers have played a major role since ancient times. Most of the archeological and historical remains in the country are found adjacent to sources of water. This is true of other countries and regions as well; Rome was built on the River Tiber, Paris on the Seine, London on the Thames and Cairo on the Nile. Rivers have always been both a source of water for drinking and farming, as well as a route for trade and travel.
For many years, the delicate balance between the rate of pollution and its eventual decomposition was maintained, and the rivers survived. However, the sad state of rivers in Israel has not developed overnight, but is the result of decades of neglect, in which Israel’s rivers became the sewage canals for industrial and agricultural waste and the dumping ground for municipal garbage. When the State of Israel was first established, rapid development of industry and agriculture took priority over environmental concerns. Over time, damage to rivers and streams became a serious problem that had to be treated before the situation became irreversible.
We have to take a new look at rivers – not just as a line of water flowing from east to west, from the mountains to the sea, but as a complex three-dimensional system, that includes the river, surrounding lands and the space they occupy. This concept can be the basis of a unique planning opportunity to break up the urban sprawl with green parks and recreation areas.
The way ahead is long, arduous and costly. The damage of years cannot be corrected in days, weeks or even years. In order to rectify the situation and restore the rivers to their former glory, we need a long-term outlook and a multi-stage plan. To prepare this plan, we must study the various components of the complex riverine ecosystem, which is never the same for any two rivers.
HaShofet River. Photographer: Eyal Bartov, KKL-JNF Jerusalem
Another factor to be considered is the legal aspect of the program. Some laws, rules and regulations already exist, but they relate principally to constant pollution sources, and are easier to enforce. Legal steps must also take into consideration isolated pollution incidents that occur as a result of technical problems or unusually heavy rains. The program for the rehabilitation of each specific river will include legal provisions that stipulate continued protection of the river and sanctions for polluters.
With the right doses of research, planning and resource allocation, Israel’s rivers can once again achieve their full potential as vital ecological systems and as sources of pleasure and recreation for residents and tourists alike. In order for all this to happen however, river rehabilitation must be recognized as a vital, high-priority project on a national level.
Success cannot be achieved without the blessing of the public. The main objective of the river rehabilitation project is to improve the quality of life for inhabitants in the river vicinity and for residents of the country as a whole. Without their cooperation, the best plans will fail, and without their environmental awareness, any solution will be short-lived.
The River Rehabilitation Authority
In 1993, the Israeli Government established the River Rehabilitation Authority (RRA), in which a number of government agencies and non-governmental environmental organizations participate. The major goals the RRA has set include coordinating efforts to clean up rivers, restore landscapes, rehabilitate riverine ecosystems, flora and fauna and develop recreation, tourism, environmental education and research in the rivers and their surroundings. Two years after it was established, in 1995 KKL-JNF assumed overall responsibility for the RRA.
Members of the authority come from both government and non-governmental agencies and environmental organizations: KKL-JNF, the Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, the Water Commission, the National Sewage Project Authority, the Government Tourist Corporation, the Research Institute for Nature Conservation at Tel Aviv University, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and the government ministries for agriculture, environmental protection, interior and housing.
The numerous bodies involved and the variety of interests they represent make coordinating the RRA a difficult but challenging task. No two rivers are the same, and no two rehabilitation plans will be identical. But the guiding concept is one: Development integrated with an overall approach to environmental aspects as part of the goal of long-term river rehabilitation.
River rehabilitation cannot be achieved overnight, and twenty years is a conservative estimate of the time needed to achieve our goals. The complexity of the project and the limited resources available require that priorities be set. In some cases treating the entire length of the river at once is not feasible, so various sections of a river are restored and developed at different times. In order to set these priorities and prepare master plans, the RRA has completed surveys of all the major rivers in Israel and their surroundings. Local river administrations have been established for some rivers or sections of rivers and several detailed programs are already operational.
Harod River. Photo: KKL-JNF Photos Archive
The RRA works in close cooperation with local authorities to ensure not only successful rehabilitation, but also lasting results. Treatment of specific rivers is contingent on a binding agreement between RRA and the municipality or regional council under whose jurisdiction the treated section lies, and is part and parcel of RRA policy. Several local river administrations have been established so far: Lachish, Soreq, Alexander, Taninim, Harod and two for separate sections of the Jordan River.
Some of these local administrations are in full swing. KKL-JNF is currently developing the Lachish River Park near Ashdod to restore a three-kilometer stretch of the river and transform it into a major recreation area. Rehabilitation measures on the Yarkon River that flows through Tel Aviv started ten years ago and the situation is improving, although it is far from ideal still. Although the upper part of the Jordan River, north of Lake Kinneret is known for the high quality of its water, the lower southern part shares the sorry fate of most of Israel’s rivers. A proposal for joint rehabilitation by Jordan and Israel has been drafted as part of the peace process to improve both quantity and quality of the water in the river that is our common border. During 1997, several projects relating to rehabilitation in the Harod River, Taninim River and Hadera River have been completed and work on these rivers is continuing.
The present aims of the RRA include the following steps:
- Reliable and lasting disposition of pollution sources from rivers and their tributaries, to ensure that rivers that are rehabilitated will not regress to their former state
- Planning and implementation of installations to supply alternative water sources for the rivers. This is necessary for the ecological rehabilitation of the river.
- Preparation of a development and implementation program for recreation and leisure areas in the rehabilitated areas
- Preparation of statutory plans to ensure “green zoning” of large areas within the river drainage basins. These areas must be well placed both ecologically and economically, to eventually provide the financial basis for maintaining the infrastructure, supplying water and ensuring proper drainage.
- Planning and implementation of measures to prevent floods in an ecologically feasible manner
One River at a Time
KKL-JNF made a strategic decision to get involved in stream restoration in 1984. We should remember that Israel's Ministry of the Environment was only established in 1988. KKL-JNF has concentrated on regularizing the stream channel, preventing erosion of stream banks, planting trees along the stream course and supporting research on how to restore the polluted ecosystems around the streams.
River Rehabilitation Process
River rehabilitation is a complex multidisciplinary problem that has to deal with a broad scope of themes in fields as far apart as engineering, ecology, planning, hydrology and landscaping, just to mention a few.
A typical rehabilitation process includes the following stages:
- Planning, surveying and supervision
- Cleaning and uncovering the area to be treated
- Deepening the riverbed, which includes excavation and removing the debris
- Restoring the flow channel and anchoring riverbanks
- Recreational infrastructure that includes projects such as marinas, promenades, recreation and leisure areas, toilet facilities, lighting, etc
Alexander River. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
In preparing its plans for river rehabilitation the RRA has to consider a variety of criteria, a few of which are mentioned below:
- Preparation of detailed rehabilitation and development plans – plans can only become operational once their specifics are available. When detailed plans are ready actual work can start the minute financing is obtained.
- The first step to be taken is simple rehabilitation, in the most direct sense of the word – eliminating pollutants and reviving the damaged ecosystem. Once these have been accomplished other activities will follow naturally.
- Simplicity and dependability of plans – the systems that will supply water and prevent pollution must be simple and easy to maintain. This will ensure their long life and economic feasibility.
- Lobbying by local residents – in some cases the population in the river vicinity is highly motivated and involved, and wishes to actively participate in rehabilitation. This should be encouraged, even when the site in question is not necessarily high-priority on a national scale.
- Cost – the decision to implement a given plan is a direct function of economic feasibility, which must be taken into consideration.
These are obviously not all the considerations, nor will they necessarily be the major ones. They just provide an idea of the RRA deliberation processes in preparing the long-term national river rehabilitation plan.