Nicky Blackburn
January 7, 2007, Updated September 13, 2012

When Michael Cohen visited the Alexander River estuary in the center of Israel a few weeks ago with other researchers, he was shocked at what he found.

“The river was so unclean, there were dead fish, plastic bottles and other garbage floating downstream and it was a disgusting brown colour,” says the director of special projects at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura near Eilat.

“The tide was out, so the filthy river just stopped five feet from the Mediterranean. The sea looked so pristine and clear, but at high tide, all the filth from the river washes straight into the sea polluting it for miles around,” he told ISRAEL21c.

The miserable state of the Alexander, which runs through both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, is one of the reasons why a team of Israeli and Palestinian researchers have joined forces to create a blueprint for action to restore the quality of not only the Alexander, but the 15 rivers that flow through both Israeli and Palestinian areas.

Rivers, as everyone knows, are not confined by borders. Cleaning a river in one location, will not stop it becoming polluted elsewhere, if people continue to dump sewage or industrial waste along the route.

Most of the rivers that flow through PA and Israeli land are heavily polluted with raw sewage, effluent, and industrial waste. This is the first time, however, there has ever been any kind of joint monitoring of water quality or combined action plan to clean the rivers up.

The team of 14 researchers from the Arava Institute on the Israeli side, and the Water and Environment Development Organization (WEDO) in Bethlehem on the Palestinian side, is being funded with a $1 million grant from the Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC) Program of the US Agency for International Development (USAID).

The three-year Trans Boundary Stream Restoration Project began in October 2004, and after two years of monitoring, team members are now in the final stages of putting together an effective river restoration strategy for Israel and the PA which is tailored to the unique ecological and geographical conditions of local streams. Final recommendations will be available in July this year (2007).

The group, who meet regularly in the field and elsewhere to assess their work, focused on two steams that flow through large population centers in both Israel and the PA – the 25 mile Alexander, which flows from the heavily populated West Bank city of Nablus to its estuary not far from Netanya in Israel; and the River Hebron, which passes Hebron in the West Bank, flows through Beersheva as the River Besor, and then runs on to Gaza and the sea.

The researchers set up 15 monitoring stations along the length of both rivers – six on the Alexander (three on each side), and nine on the Hebron River (four on the PA side) and began monitoring the quality and flow of the water, and the ecological health of the streams.

“This is the first time any monitoring of water quality has been carried out on these two rivers,” says Lior Asaf, scientific coordinator of the project on the Israeli side.

So far 300 measurements from these rivers have been analyzed, and a further 100 samples taken during recent storms have now been sent away to be checked. Though the data so far is still raw, the results are clear, says Asaf, a hydrologist from the Arava Institute.

“Both steams are heavily polluted,” he says.

There are numerous point pollution sources that originate in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, according to the project’s recently published annual report. In the Alexander, untreated sewage is dumped into the stream at Nablus, and the annual report states that there are 70 sources of pollution along the steam’s route, including sewage and effluents from refugee camps, towns, the Palestinian city of Tulkarm, stone cutting industries, landfills, and leather factories. In addition, from October to December, waste from surrounding olive press factories is added to the general pollution.

In Israel, pollution sources include treated and untreated sewage, fishpond effluents and industrial effluents. Winter storms and floods bring even more pollution.

Since 1995 some $12 million has been spent on restoration efforts to the Alexander, and Israel has even set up a wastewater treatment facility on the river. In 2003, the river won the international Riverprize award in Australia for this work. Despite this, however, the report states: “Despite considerable restoration efforts, to date, the stream is still severely polluted, unsuitable for human use with unhealthy ecosystems.”

Without any kind of wastewater treatment facility, the Hebron stream is inevitably in worse condition than the Alexander, according to Asaf. The major source of pollution is raw sewage discharged from Hebron. Domestic sewage is also pumped into the stream from the Israeli settlement of Qiryat Arba. In addition, according to the report, wastewater from almost 100 industrial facilities flow into the steam, treated effluents are discharged from Dimona, wastewater from Ofakim, and on occasions treated wastewater leaks out of municipal waste facilities in Beersheva.

“Raw sewage flows for over 60 miles from Hebron, through Beersheva to Gaza,” says Asaf.
During winter storms pollution also comes from Ramat Hovav, a toxic waste disposal site that contains some of Israel’s heaviest chemical industries.

In the past, both the Alexander and the Hebron steams traditionally dried up during the summer months. Now they have become a permanent, year-round conduit for sewage and effluent, says Asaf. “In the last 50 years, many streams have been transformed into sewage canals,” he explains.

With the monitoring virtually complete, the Palestinian-Israeli team has now set about the last part of their program, developing the foundations for an effective river restoration strategy for Israel and the PA.

Four team members (two Israeli and two Palestinian) recently took part in a two-week workshop at the University of Maryland, to learn about the clean up of the once heavily polluted Chesapeake Bay.

“We are not simply coming up with a report or a survey, but are developing a real road map to move things forward,” says Asaf. “We plan to develop a clear plan of what should be achieved. Many people say we should wait for peace and then we will all have a clear vision of what’s going on, but we believe that we can’t wait for that. We should address our problems now because natural resources do not know boundaries. We need to come forward with a clear Palestinian and Israeli vision of how to address these problems, what is in our best interests, what should be done, and how much it will cost.”

The Palestinian and Israeli researchers, who include Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Moslems and Palestinian Christians, meet regularly and communicate mostly in English. Their most recent meeting took place in Beit Jalla, just outside of Jerusalem.

“We meet in a place that is usually safe for both of us,” says Asaf.

The project demands a great of cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli teams and Asaf says the researchers work extremely well together. “Certainly from the perspective of “peace making” the initiative has exceeded the participants’ expectations,” the annual report states.

In May the research team plans to hold a joint workshop in Akaba in Jordan where they will invite policy makers from both the Palestinian and Israeli sides. “We have received a positive reaction so far,” says Asaf.

In the meantime, the researchers have also approached the Ministry of Environment in Israel to encourage them to continue monitoring water quality in the two rivers using the framework of monitoring stations already set up by the team. “We believe it is easier to encourage people to go forward once we have this framework for information,” says Asaf.

Asaf is a firm believer that the only way to solve the problem of the region’s polluted rivers is by working together. Israel, for instance, now has plans to build a wastewater facility on the Israeli side of the Hebron river. “In the short term that may prevent pollution down stream, but if we don’t deal with the source of the pollution it will not solve the problem forever,” Asaf insists. “If we don’t take control we won’t do the right job.

“Our team includes many people from different religions, but there is no difference between any of us,” Asaf continues. “As human beings we need clear water and water resources. We need natural places that we can come and relax and enjoy ourselves, not places fouled by raw sewage and effluents. We can only achieve this if we work together. Only multilateral action will solve these problems.”

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