While enjoying the Nahariya beach in April, a resident noticed strange-colored, foul-smelling water flowing in the Ga'aton River, which passes through the town before reaching the Mediterranean. There was no room for doubt: sewage had been streaming into the sea for hours. The man called Zalul, and workers from the environmental non-profit organization quickly arrived on the scene. They then summoned Zalul director, Ezer Fischler.
"The stench hit me the moment I reached the site," Fischler recalls. "I saw brown water running into the sea, and there was stuff in it which is best not to describe. A [patrol] car from the Environmental Protection Ministry's Green Police turned up, and Health Ministry officials recommended the beach be closed off to swimmers. Two days later, after the mess had been cleaned, it was reopened to the public."
Swimming season had began about two weeks prior to this particular incident. In the four months that have elapsed since then, according to a report released last week by Zalul, there have been 14 additional occasions in which beaches were closed off to bathers thanks to the presence of dangerously polluted sewage water.
Between April and July 22, there were 31 days in which Israeli beaches were closed to swimmers, Zalul says. This figure is almost double that seen for the entire 2009 swimming season, which spanned from April to October, and saw beaches closed on 16 days.
Fischler has no easy explanation for this dramatic increase. Regional councils that do not adequately maintain sewage pipes play a large role in this matter, he believes. In most cases, sewage mishaps are not quite as obvious to the senses as the episode in Nahariya. Still, with each incident sewage water has streamed into the sea, endangering the health of bathers.
"Each beach has a sample station, and every week samples of sea water are taken to a laboratory," says Zeev Fish, national public health inspector for the Health Ministry. "If the sample yields unacceptable results, we announce that the particular beach is unsafe and ask the Interior Ministry and local councils to close the beach to bathers."
On certain occasions Fish will not even wait for the lab results, and will call for a beach's closure following reports relayed by bathers or officials from the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Haifa heads the list
Haifa heads the list of areas in which beaches have been closed off to the public this season. The city's Hasheket beach was shut down for 13 days after a Health Ministry test found unacceptable levels of bacteria in its water samples. Kiryat Haim beaches, which are under Haifa municipal jurisdiction, were closed for the same reason. There have also been a number of closures at beaches in Bat Yam.
"There are some councils that have inadequate sewage systems," Fischler explains. "Residents pay sewage fees - and the Haifa municipality receives tens of millions of shekels every year as revenue from these sewage fees. So why is it, with such revenue at its disposal, that the city allows sewage to flow so often?"
"We toured the nation's problematic beaches at the start of the swimming season," Rani Amir, head of the beaches and coastline department at the Environmental Protection Ministry, says. "A crew from Israel 1 television accompanied us. We focused on beaches maintained by [Haifa's] Carmel Water Corporation. We stood, for instance, near a sewage cover at the Bat Galim beach, about 15 meters from the water. Anytime there's rainfall or too much pressure in the system, sewage water flows to the sea at that site."
"I don't know what causes these malfunctions [at Bat Galim]," Amir adds. "We are on a collision course. If the incidents don't stop, we will use all our authority under the law to prevent these mishaps. We will lodge criminal complaints against the directors of the water corporation, we will fine the local council and we will take other measures."
Nor Eldan, director general of the Carmel water company, does not deny that there are problems, but insists that cooperation with local councils and government ministries that handle coastline pollution is needed.
"In Haifa, the drainage and sewage system runs virtually alongside the waterline," he says. "Any leak or spillage ... reaches the sea within a few minutes. Moreover, next to the sea, close to beaches where there have been accidents - Bat Galim and Hasheket - there are three entities not under our jurisdiction: the Rambam Medical Center, the Haifa harbor and the navy. Sewage malfunctions at these beaches are often due to activities undertaken by these bodies."
While the Carmel water company was established just half a year ago, Eldan explains, it faces problems that have existed for years.
"We closed four openings to the sea in Haifa's drainage system, ensuring that when there is any leakage, the water will stop before it reaches the sea," Eldan says. "Our staff inspects the beaches every morning to make sure there is no sewage spilling into the sea. We work in conjunction with the health and environment ministries, and also call on them for help in enforcing laws related to sewage from the harbor, the navy and Rambam. Cooperation is the key to solving these problems."
Don't call it a trend
The steep rise in the number of days during which beaches were closed this summer does not necessarily reflect a trend. In fact, water around Israel's beaches is much cleaner and safer than it was just a few years ago.
"Last year there was a statistical drop in the number of incidents that required us to close beaches," Fish recalls. "This year there is a significant statistical rise. Still, the malfunctions today are very different from those seen in the past."
Acute problems were once seen in beaches around Acre and Herzliya, he explains, with Acre beaches closed for years due to polluted water. These issues have since been resolved, and the relevant local councils now possess the means to address sewage issues as they arise.
Amir believes the Environmental Protection Ministry is to thank for the improvement seen in the nation's beaches.
"Up to four or five years ago, dozens of cases in which sewage reached the water could be seen," he recalls. Stricter enforcement on the part of the ministry, he asserts, has helped clean up the coastline.
The worst episode, Amir says, involved the Dan Region sewage reclamation plant. In January 2003, a major sewage pipe that passes through Jaffa cracked open. Under orders from the plant's directors, sewage that should have flowed through the pipe spilled into the Mediterranean Sea. Over the course of one month, three million cubic meters of sewage sludge was pumped into the sea. Beaches had to be closed to bathers and bans were placed on fishing, sailing and diving. Senior officials connected to Dan region sewage systems were eventually indicted and convicted of criminal offenses.
"Things have changed since then," Amir says. "Today, the local councils and city sewage companies are much more careful with regard to maintenance of sewage systems."
Paradoxically, Fischler suspects that local councils' increased vigilance and the improvement in sewage system maintenance has contributed to the disappointing results seen thus far for summer 2010.
"Perhaps the decreased number of malfunctions that led to sewage water flowing into the sea has, this year, caused apathy and lack of attentiveness to sewage system maintenance," he speculates. "Perhaps there are council employees who say to themselves, 'There haven't been any mishaps for a long time, so who needs to worry about the pipes and sewage systems?' But that's where the problem starts. If the system isn't maintained, it malfunctions. If it's maintained properly, however, sewage doesn't reach the sea. It's as simple as that."