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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Israeli River Pollution

Air Date: Week of

While Israel has many sound environmental protection and water clean-up laws, Reese Erlich reports from Haifa that despite the arid country's precarious water supply, monitoring river pollution and enforcing cleanliness are seemingly low priorities for the Jewish State.


CURWOOD: The latest Mideast peace summit in Maryland may have broken a 19- month deadlock between Palestinians and Israelis. But its lasting impact for the troubled land and its people remains unclear. Much is at stake in the proposed settlement, including the future of natural resources. The region's ecology, in particular its water supply, is under heavy pressure. The severity of water pollution hit home for Israelis last July as athletes marched during opening ceremonies for Israel's version of the Olympics. A bridge spanning the Haifa River collapsed. Four Australian athletes who fell into the river died, but not from drowning. Israelis were shocked to learn the athletes perished after inhaling a fungus living in the river's mud, a fungus that fed on toxic pollution. Reese Erlich reports from Haifa.


ERLICH: Workers sandblast a ship here in a Haifa harbor dry dock. Decades ago this port had clean, blue water. Now it's muckish and brown, and produces a putrid odor.

BEN DOV: The sign is warning Danger, Polluted Water, and it's standing just by the Kishon port. And it was posted all along the Kishon River itself after the accident that happened last year in the Maccabiah Games in the Yarkon River.

ERLICH: Ofer Ben Dov, an environmental activist and head of Greenpeace in Israel, stands on the shore of the Haifa Harbor. He says in the year and a half since the Maccabiah Games accident, government authorities have done little to clean up the Yarkon River, nor the Kishon River here in Haifa.

BEN DOV: They were very quick in posting the signs, but they're not that quick in cleaning the water.

(Liquid spew)

ERLICH: A few miles away, pipes from petrochemical plants spew oil byproducts into Israel's most polluted river, the Kishon. For 30 years these companies have dumped oil, solvents, and other toxic waste into the river. It combines with barely-treated sewage from Haifa City. The stagnant river is a sickly green color, with a moldy consistency of liquefied jello. Ofer Ben Dov says nothing can live in the river any more.

BEN DOV: The main problem of this river is it's got no oxygen. Even the biological system cannot try to help and digest or break down the pollution itself, because nothing lives here. It's the Dead River, it's must deader than the Dead Sea. Even in the Dead Sea they found that some bacteria are living. Here it is nothing.

ERLICH: Major industries such as shipyards, petrochemical plants, and refineries, have all contributed to pollution of the Kishon and many other Israeli rivers. Dr. Noam Gressel, director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel, says government action has not kept pace with industrial development.

GRESSEL: All the rivers running into the Mediterranean Sea along the Israeli coast are polluted at some point and to some degree. Israel is a developed country with a developed industry, so there's certainly a lot of hazardous waste, including liquid waste, being generated. On the other hand, the environmental awareness is not high enough to the degree that environmental laws would be enforced. Israeli water law is extremely good, if it was followed up and enforced by the government.

ERLICH: Israel does indeed have some of the toughest environmental laws in the world. Aron Wolf is a geography professor at Oregon State University who frequently travels to Israel. He says Israel's Parliament passed the strict laws in the 1950s and 60s because the Zionist movement long advocated protection of the land. Today, even the Israeli Army pays homage to safeguarding natural resources.

WOLF: Army recruits actually go through a course in their basic training called Yidia Ha'aretz, which is Knowledge of the Land, where they're taken around and shown the different features of the country. And great emphasis is placed on protecting the features and the resources.

ERLICH: Unfortunately, according to Israeli environmentalists, the military doesn't always practice what it preaches. Military industries and army bases are responsible for large amounts of water pollution, including groundwater contamination from leaking gasoline tanks, and wastewater dumped into the Mediterranean. Professor Wolf says years of military exercises in the occupied Golan Heights have added to the water problems.

WOLF: The Golan Heights is where a lot of the Jordan River originates, and there have been studies done on lead and copper from, just from the shell casings and bullets that are used in military exercises. Some of that is leaking into the water supply.

ERLICH: Officials from the Ministry of the Environment concede that Israel's emphasis on national security has left few resources available for cleaning up pollution. Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Environment, Ron Komar, says his ministry gets shortchanged monetarily and politically.

KOMAR: You have to remember that the Israel is a state in a war. The war situation affects everything. Everybody was concentrating and I can say even still concentrating, because our budget now is even not 1% of the total budget of the country. And I think we are in the smallest ministry in Israel.

ERLICH: Analysts say ecological problems go beyond the ministry's low budget, however. The Minister of Environment, Rafael Eitan, has no background in environmental affairs, according to activist Ofer Ben Dov.

BEN DOV: He's a former general in the Army. In terms of environment, he doesn't do enough. He threatened to resign over the issue of talks with the Palestinians, giving land or not giving land or how much to give, but he never threatened to resign over environmental issues.

ERLICH: Environment Ministry official Ron Komar disagrees. He says the environment ministry in the last 2 years has been cracking down on water polluters, finding some and requiring them to treat their waste. He says the national government is working with municipal officials to clean up the Kishon River, and argues that Haifa's sewage plant and local industries will be required to treat their wastes.

KOMAR: It has to be treated very carefully, and with very strict limits of toxics, and just afterwards will be going first of all to the river, and in the long-term it will be by a pipe directly to the Haifa Harbor. In the year 2004, we are hoping that nothing will be into the river and all the sewage will be treated.

ERLICH: Environmentalists say they have heard such promises before. They say serious efforts to combat pollution will not proceed until Israel makes peace with the Palestinians and Arab neighbors. Israel's entire water supply originates in Arab countries and in the occupied West Bank. Professor Wolf says Israelis and Palestinians have on occasion realized their common ecological goals.

WOLF: I think when things are good politically, that lots of cooperation gets achieved on environmental issues, on water resource projects. Which in turn helps generate goodwill and confidence building between the parties.

ERLICH: The Maccabiah Games disaster in Tel Aviv last year sparked public outrage over the deterioration of Israel's water quality. While the immediate outcry has subsided, environmental activists say the next step is to channel the dissatisfaction into stronger enforcement of Israeli laws on natural resources and take full advantage of peace, if and when it comes. For Living on Earth, I'm Reese Erlich in Haifa, Israel.



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