by Shoshana Gabbay
Shoshana Gabbay is Editor of the Israel Environment Bulletin
Once upon a time Israel's rivers were key elements in the country's natural landscape, with water flows estimated at between 300-400 million cubic meters. But no more. With few exceptions, nearly all the rivers have dried up. The reason can generally be traced back to water scarcity. Water was all too frequently trapped at its source in order to supply growing urban and agricultural demand. At the same time, the situation was exacerbated by continuous discharges of industrial effluents and municipal sewage into the rivers.
The situation, however, is changing. In November 1993, a National River Administration was established to oversee the restoration of the country's rivers. The administration, consisting of representatives of several government ministries and environmental organizations, is charged with coordinating efforts to clean up the rivers, restore landscapes, rehabilitate ecosystems, flora and fauna, and develop rivers for such purposes as recreation, tourism, education and research. Its goal is to entrust actual restoration work to local bodies while serving as a catalyst, coordinator and professional guide. Therefore, it has invested major efforts to set up regional river administrations, parallel in their aims and composition to the national administration, but with a local focus.
The progress made in recent years offers hope that the dismal fate forecast for the country's ailing rivers can be reversed. As a first step, the administration has formulated a model for river rehabilitation and established criteria for priorities. As a second step, it has initiated ecological and environmental surveys in order to collect data on water and pollution sources, hydrology, water quality, flora and fauna, historical and archeological sites, landscape sites, walking paths, land uses and environmental nuisances along the rivers. Most of the data has already been summarized and mapped, and serves as a basis for assessing the rehabilitation potential of each river slated for restoration. Moreover, in each of the surveys, such considerations as sensitivity to development have been incorporated in order to help secure biodiversity and to preserve natural vistas. Thus, in areas in which unique natural resources may be irreversibly threatened by development, conservation or minimal development is proposed. In less sensitive spots, more intensive development may be possible.
Water Quality Considerations
To a large extent, the success of the river rehabilitation program is dependent on the implementation of solutions to Israel's ever-increasing effluent quantities. Growing urbanization and population density along the entire coastal region, from Haifa to Ashkelon, has resulted in surplus effluents, which exceed the amount required for agricultural reuse in the region.
Until 1991, bodies involved in river rehabilitation were convinced that the prerequisites for river rehabilitation were elimination of all effluents and introduction of fresh water only. However, successive years of drought have shown that the realities of water scarcity threaten to leave Israel's rivers dry if other means are not taken to replace or supplement fresh water supply. Today, the policy which once banned effluent discharge into rivers, no matter what the quality, is being replaced by a policy which allows the discharge of high-quality effluents into riverbeds when fresh water allocations are unavailable. The discharge of highly-treated effluents into Israel's rivers is meant to ensure water flow, the subsistence of ecosystems, and the development of recreation and leisure activities. However, effluent discharge is contingent on strict control measures which prohibit any discharge which threatens to generate aesthetic or sanitary nuisances, a deterioration in groundwater quality, or pollution of beaches.
In order to implement the program, effluent standards for each river are being set for such physical, chemical and microbial parameters as suspended solids, organic load, nitrogen concentrations, and indicators for pathogenic microorganisms. The right balance is being sought between environmental requirements (e.g., prevention of eutrophication and sanitary risks) and economic cost.
Twelve coastal rivers and two rivers in the eastern basin are currently undergoing rehabilitation according to approved master plans. More than 20 projects have been launched, from cleanups to widening of riverbeds, from drainage and soil conservation to landscape and park development. Within the context of restoration, recreation and tourism sites have already been created along sections of the Yarkon, Alexander, Kishon, Lachish, Harod, Taninim, Hadera and Jordan rivers.
The following examples illustrate some of the progress that has been achieved in recent years.