Baseline of a Desecrated Land VII: Poisoned Streams

Baseline of a Desecrated Land VII: Poisoned Streams
Part 7 of a 12 part series examining the ecological impacts of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

by Dick Callahan, reposted from

Toxic Streams and disappearing groundwater

“…and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.” Kings 18.

Kishon: If Elijah was around today he might just tell the Israelites to kill the 450 Ba’al prophets by tossing them into the Kishon. Visualize a waterway where whatever swims or flies into it dies. The Kishon got so bad that not even bacteria could survive. Who knew that was even possible? But, Dr. Yishayahu Bar-Or, a Deputy Director with Israel Environmental Protection Ministry, says that the river reached a point where it was, “absolutely dead–even bacteria were not able to live there because it was more acidic than coca cola.”

Seventy Israeli navy divers (or their widows) who contracted cancers, filed suit against multiple polluters who they maintain dumped the carcinogens into the Kishon and Haifa Bay where the men were forced to dive in training. The divers said the water burned their skin, smelled and tasted terrible, and sometimes a sadistic officer would make a sailor drink some of the water as a punishment. After thirteen years in court an Israeli judge rejected the lawsuits. Likewise, a group of fifty Israeli fishermen filed a lawsuit against the Haifa Chemicals and Fertilizers company, for illnesses they say were brought on by exposure to carcinogens released by the companies. Again, Israeli courts threw out the lawsuit.
Eventually Israel came to an agreement that it would help 92 former military divers who were compromised by training in the Kishon. A Canadian firm, EnGlobe, won the contract to dredge contaminated bottom muck. It’s no longer the most contaminated stream in Israel. Vegetation is returning to the banks and some vertebrates can be found in the water now. But it still flows past Israel’s noxious military industrial complex at Haifa which has serial toxic spills and parts of the stream bottom are still contaminated with heavy metals, petrochemicals from Israeli’s largest oil refinery, and effluent from military installations.

Yarkon: In 1997, at the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games, a substandard foot bridge over the Yarkon stream in Tel Aviv collapsed sending sixty-seven Australian athletes into the water. One died from trauma, three of them died and thirty-five others became critically ill from being dunked in the river’s pollution. Israel had been diverting the springs feeding the Yarkon for agriculture which reduced flow to a point where it was impossible for the stream to flush out sewage, farm runoff, and chemical pollutants. Resulting anoxic bottom sludge, stirred up when the Australians fell in, was fatal. Instead of going after the problem aggressively, Israel increased diversions and by 2000, a whopping 99 percent of the Yarkon was being diverted.

It’s not a recent phenomenon. As early as 1956 Israel tapped into the Rosh haAyin springs to send water south for irrigation. Alon Tal wrote, “It took little time for Israelis to grow used to the new stench-filled and stagnant reality. It was just another annoyance of daily life.”

Good people are doing what they can to clean up Israel’s waterways but, as in our own country, they’re working against a combined government/corporate/military triumvirate that talks about a healthy environment but in practice is apathetic, hostile, shortsighted, and flat stupid. In 2016 thousands of endangered Yarkon fish were killed by runoff from a light rail construction company contaminating several kilometers of the river because it was convenient, or cheaper, or they were reckless. In 2017 there was the massive, deliberate sewage treatment plant spill mentioned in section 6 above.

Yarmouk: Yarmouk water is better quality than the Kishon or Yarkon but is still compromised by farm runoff, heavy metals, petroleum and sewage. As noted above, in 2009 the Jordanians confirmed that Israel was polluting the Yarmouk with oil and sewage. Israel agreed to compensate Jordan with water from Lake Kinneret.

Nahal Kidron: In 2015 Israeli news service Haaretz’s excellent environmental journalist Zafrir Rinat called the Kidron the most polluted river in today’s Israel and West Bank. This is the sewage stream from East Jerusalem where Israelis impound some of the liquid, treat it, then use the water for Israeli farm produce. This illustrates a problematic aspect of Israel’s water technology. Israel is so strapped for water that when they pull sewage from streams and clean it up, they tend to use it on crops which means the depleted stream the water came from has even less water. Plus the concentrated waste often ends up back in the stream.

Other streams
Ariel Cohen of Nature and Parks Authority Environmental unit says all nine major West Bank streams are badly polluted. 2007 analysis revealed sewage, salts and heavy metals leaching into the mountain aquifer below the West Bank. Streams are Kishon, Shechem, Kana, Shilo, Soreq, Mod’in, Michmash, Kidron and Hebron. Palestinians produce estimated 56 million cubic meters of sewage per year, Israeli occupiers produce and estimated 17.5 mcm/year of which 31.5% isn’t treated. 43 km. of Hebron stream is untreated sewage water. There are 178 kilometers of sewage stream flows overall.

As rivers flow into the sea suspended sediments they carry settle out creating nutrient rich alluvial fans.  Estuaries that form around river mouths efficiently trap and hold nutrients which is why estuaries are among the richest ecosystems on earth. They provide spawning and rearing habitat for marine life and a healthy estuary indicates a healthy watershed flowing into it.
When polluted rivers settle out into an estuary, suspended toxins, heavy metals, agricultural fertilizer, and whatever else doesn’t belong in water, also settles out. Haaretz reports that the Israeli Health Ministry recommends a ban on fishing at all ports and marinas and on some beaches and estuaries. The February, 2018 article also notes that a quarter of the fish sampled in Haifa Bay tested over the accepted  limit for mercury.

Pumping it down: Withering nature reserves
Savvy countries play the environmental card to tourists by designating “Nature Reserves.” Israel is the lone country on earth expanding its territory by designating indigenous private lands as nature reserves, seizing them, then giving them to colonists. Whether the land belonged to indigenous people or occupiers, Israeli nature reserves are being devastated by toxic spills and by Israeli wells drawing down the water table to the point that springs and streams have no water left. What can flee does so. What can’t dies.

Some examples of falling water tables on springs
An Israeli Water Authority survey of northern spring flows between 1970 and 2011 found that output volume had dropped in 67 of 87 of the springs studied over that fifty years.

Nahal Betzet reserve is a small reserve in northern Israel about a mile from the Lebanese border. Hillel Glassman, a spokesperson for the Nature and Parks Authority, said, “There’s no more wildlife in the stream’s water at all…Plane trees hundreds of years old are dying amid a water shortage that began in 2000.’ The plane trees (sycamores are a type of plane tree) might all die because Nahal Betzet stream is fed by a spring which is dried up from Israelis pumping down the ground water.

Nahal Naaman is a spring fed stream where a Jewish National Fund website promoting the place claims springs produce 5,000 cubic meters of water per hour. The 2011 spring survey found the spring output “in steep decline” due to “increased pumping for irrigation and drinking water.”

Ein Gedi Nature Reserve is beside a Dead Sea kibbutz named for Ein Gedi spring. The kibbutz has built a 153 room hotel/guest house complex (gardens, lawns, spa with six pools, restaurant, freshwater pool, air conditioned rooms, cable TV, etc.). Bad reviews on Trip Advisor aside, you’ve got to wonder which small oasis has been parched for such a water extravagant operation to exist there, especially since they’ve built a water bottling factory to sell mineral water from the spring while the country is in extreme drought. This company has an estimated 17 % of the bottled water market in Israel. Some years ago the kibbutz made a deal with the reserve that they would take spring water and supply the reserve with water from another stream but that is falling through. The kibbutz still takes the water, and the reserve is compromised.

(*Graphic at top by artist Kari Dunn

Recognition 7: Poisoned Streams: Selected Sources

07.31.2012 The Yarkon disaster 17 years later. Aytzim, Ecological Judaism by Sarah Friedman.
07.08.2000 Lawsuit reveals depth of pollution in Israeli river Los Angeles Times by Tracy Wilkinson. Israeli divers suing the government and military for debilitating illnesses contracted by diving in the Kishon.
09.11.2012 Kishon River cleanup to begin 12 years after navy divers contracted cancer HaaretzI by Revital Hoval.
11.04.2013 Court rejects suit of 50 Kishon river Fishermen who blame their illnesses on Pollution Haaretz by Eli Ashkenazi.
02.09.2018 Despite some improvement, Israel’s estuaries remain seriously polluted Haaetz by Zafrir Rinat.
10.11.2017 Pollution kills thousands of fish in Lachish River. Ynet news. by Ilana Curiel. A local diver reports that this, “happens almost every year.” Authorities diverted river to Mel Ami beach supposedly to make an escape route to the sea for fish that were still alive. Unsure exactly what is killing the fish, authorities warned people to stay away from that beach.
07.16.2016 Thousands of endangered Yarkon river fish killed by construction.
Ynet news.
02.28.2011 Sewage without borders Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
11.13.2017 Sewage pours into northern Betzet stream, kills fish and turtles. Jerusalem Post by Max Schindler. Thousands of cubic meters of sewage into Betzet stream.
08.07.2017 Reign of sewage in biblical valley may be coming to an end Reuters. Ari Rabinovich. 12 million cubic meters of sewage per year, [33,000 cubic meters per day], flow down from Jerusalem and West Bank. Some is collected in a large pool that is used to water sewage resistant date trees. [yuk] 05.19.2017 Israel launches criminal investigation into water treatment execs over sewage spill Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat. “ongoing illegal pumping of raw sewage into the Yarkon River Basin.”
12.09.2014 Two-headed mutant salamander found in Haifa Israel 21c by Viva Sarah Press. Scientists not sure if it’s mutated because of radiation, pollution, or in-breeding from a depleted population.
06.05.2012 Sewer runs through river at heart of Israel’s most important Nature reserve. Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
09.22.2008 ‘Polluted West Bank streams pose threat to a third of Israel’s drinking water’ Jerusalem Post by Ehud Zion Waldoks.
09.02.2015 Most polluted river in Israel and West Bank to stay filthy because of government vacillation Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat. ‘Nahal Kidron the most polluted water way in either Israel of the West Bank…’ The river is an open sewer for untreated sewage from illegal Israeli Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank. The sewage flows into a reservoir where part of it is treated and piped to illegal Israeli settlements to water date groves in the occupied Jordan valley.
06.05.2012 Sewer runs through river at heart of Israel’s most important Nature reserve. Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat. Nahal Sorek is a Wadi that Israel made flow year round with the technological advancement of running Jerusalem’s sewage through it. The Israeli Water Authority came up with a scheme to build reservoirs that would hold treated sewage which would be later be pumped to irrigate Israeli crops.
09.22.2008 ‘Polluted West Bank streams pose threat to a third of Israel’s drinking water’ Jerusalem Post by Ehud Zion Waldoks. Most West Bank sewage from Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages is untreated.
08.28.2017 Report: a million Israelis take Ritalin-t type drugs Hamodia by Dror Halavy. 904.453 people give Ritalin prescriptions (or equivalents) in 2016. With half of those written in the Tel Aviv and Sharon areas.
07.16.2016 Thousands of endangered Yarkon river fish killed by construction. Ynet news.
05.19.2017 Israel launches criminal investigation into water treatment execs over sewage spill Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat
11.04.2013 Court rejects suit of 50 Kishon river Fishermen who blame their illnesses on Pollution Haaretz by Eli Ashkenazi.
02.28.2011 Sewage without borders Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.
07.17.2013 Springs in Northern Israel Producing less water, some all dried up Haaretz by Zafrir Rinat.

Enter your email address below to receive our latest articles right in your inbox.