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.
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.