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Mt. Iskander, which rises south of the Wadi Ara highway, offers an impressive view of Umm al-Fahm. It is clear that the city has grown considerably during the past few years, including improvements to the infrastructure and the construction of new public buildings. A tour of the city's neighborhoods and streets, however, guided by Mohammed Rabakh, director of the municipal environmental unit of the northern triangle region, shows that Umm al-Fahm's municipality and its residents are still struggling with substantive waste and sewage problems. The city still lacks the means to solve several chronic problems that affect the quality of life and mar the otherwise lovely mountainous landscape that surrounds it.

Wastewater flows into a few of the streets in the city's eastern neighborhood, which has a population of 45,000. "The municipality has succeeded in properly managing some sections of the sewage infrastructure," says Rabakh, "but more [sewage treatment] installations are needed, at a cost of more than NIS 10 million." Rabakh notes that when the community of Harish was established nearby, and sought to attract Jewish families, many millions were invested in the new locale. Today it stands almost empty.

The worst eyesore in Umm al-Fahm is the thick ring of garbage that has piled up around the city's outskirts and its entrances. Residents and business owners alike dump massive quantities of construction waste all along the sides of the road, in the forests that surround the city and near the dirt path that leads to the main church.

In a common effort, the environmental unit and the municipality initiated the establishment of an organized garbage dump on the city's outskirts for solid refuse, including construction waste, and dumpsters for household garbage are emptied regularly. Even though there is no charge for burying solid refuse at the dump site, many people still dump refuse in the nearest open area. "Some of this is left by illegal dumping offenders from other towns," says Rabakh.

Another environmental problem facing not only Umm al-Fahm's inhabitants, but all the residents of the Wadi Ara area, is the tremendous number of cars that travel along the main road crossing this region, creating constant noise and air pollution. Rabakh believes there is a definite connection between the traffic jams and the social and economic distress of the region's residents. "No industrial zones were developed here," he says, "and every morning, and again in the late afternoon, the road is jam-packed with the cars of people traveling to and from work in other regions."

Another sad reality is that there are no parks or green spaces in Umm al-Fahm. There is only one place in the city that could possibly be referred to as a "public park," and even it has no proper playground for the city's children. "Several hundred dunams of land surrounding the city are designated for public parks," says Rabakh, "but the city cannot afford to develop and maintain these parks, as most of its budget is invested in basic infrastructure, such as sewage, schools and access roads." Umm al-Fahm's children have to make do with their backyards, or risk playing in the narrow streets, where there is a steady flow of traffic.

The tourism cure?

Rabakh hopes that one of the catalysts for resolving these environmental problems will be the area's potential tourism development. Recently, area residents founded a nonprofit association called Sikui (Chance), which promotes equality between Arabs and Jews, and an association called "Green Carpet," whose goals include increased tourism to the area and the advancement of environmental projects in the region's Jewish and Arab communities. "If the tourist industry develops and people come to tour this area, eat in the restaurants and sleep in the guesthouses, it will be an incentive to take care of the area and the environment," says Rabakh.

In the meantime he is struggling to keep alive the environmental unit he heads. A few similar units in Arab towns have recently had to close d own due to a lack of budgets; and even the unit Rabakh heads operates with little authority and a slim budget. He hopes that the planned cooperation with the Towns Association for the Environment in the Hadera region will provide him with more resources for contending with the host of problems facing Umm al-Fahm and other Wadi Ara communities.