Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation Is Necessary to Clean Up This Highly Polluted Stream

The Kidron river flows through both Palestinian and Israeli territory, and has become a grave sewage hazard

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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The Kidron River Israeli-Palestinian sewage treatment project, June 22, 2020
The Kidron River Israeli-Palestinian sewage treatment project, June 22, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

The Kidron River is the worst sewage hazard in Israel. This is how the stream monitoring unit inspectors from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority describe the river that begins in Jerusalem and flows east through the West Bank to the Dead Sea. This environmental abomination has been going on for decades, but its end is now in sight.

Over the past few months, the Jerusalem water and sewage companies, Hagihon and Jerusalem Wastewater and Purification Enterprises, have begun work to establish a system of filtration and purification facilities to treat the sewage to make it suitable for agricultural use by Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the Jordan Valley.

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The story of the Kidron could serve as the basis of a fascinating course in environmental studies. It serves as an example of how a national conflict can prevent the preservation of an essential resource and turn a gem of nature, landscape and heritage into a severe environmental hazard.

The stream gathers untreated sewage from Jerusalem and Palestinian communities, flowing through both territories controlled by Israel and those under the civil responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. Over 13 million cubic meters of sewage flows through the Kidron every year, collected in reservoirs built by the water authority for the settlers in the Jordan Valley. Only after an initial purification process can the water be used for agricultural irrigation via a pipeline.

A sewage treatment pipe that is part of the project to treat wastewater, June 22, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

For years, Israel and the PA have been unable to reach an agreement on the route and location of the sewage treatment facilities, the sewage lines, or the pipelines for the treated water.

Only the never-ending efforts of a number of intermediaries, led by environmental law expert Prof. Richard Laster of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, followed by the involvement of the Israeli Water Authority and the Prime Minister’s Office, led to the breakthrough. The effort was aided by a legal battle, initiated by the Zalul Environmental Association to clean up the Kidron.

An understanding was eventually reached on the basis of mutual interest. Israel urgently needed to deal with the national shame of its capital polluting the environment. The Palestinians, on the other hand, needed a solution to the sewage hazard, along with a source of water for agricultural land in the Jericho region. Hagihon and the Jerusalem water purification company, both of which are chaired by Avi Balashnikov, the former director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, gave the process a push and began work on the project recently.

The Kidron River is different to most, given that the sources of the pollution need to be treated, while continuing to guarantee a regular supply of clean water to the stream. Since the Kidron flows through the Judean Desert, its sewage treatment plan is based on restoring it to what it was in the past: A dry stream most of the year, with flowing water only after winter storms and flooding.

The cost of the project is estimated at 800 million shekels ($232 million). A solids filtering facility is being constructed at the exit from Jerusalem and a tunnel for the sewage pipe is being built farther to the east. The tunnel will allow the sewage to bypass the Mar Saba Monastery. The last, and easternmost stage of the project will be the development of the sewage purification plant, which is already in operation and treats waste from parts of Jerusalem and other communities. The facility will be expanded to include a new system that will greatly expand its treatment capacity. The treated water from the facility will flow to the Palestinians in the Jericho area and settlers in the Jordan Valley for agricultural use.

The old Kidron River purification facility, June 22, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The implementation of the plan depends on the willingness of the PA to carry out its part of the agreement. One of the main pipelines in the project has been planned to pass through territory under PA control, so the PA will need to lay the pipe that will bring the treated water to Jericho. Giora Shaham, the head of the Israeli Water Authority, and Hagihon are convinced that the Palestinians have a clear interest to complete the project.

“In the area of Jericho there are date plantations on an area of 25,000 dunams (6,250 acres),” said Shaham this week. “Now, a lot of them are young, but in a few more years there will be a need for a large quantity of water to irrigate them.”

Eli Cohen-Kagan, the CEO of Hagihon, said a number of Palestinian towns in the region have shown great interest in being connected to the sewage treatment system. They are tired of using septic tanks and paying for tanker trucks to empty them, he said.

However, current tensions between Israel and the PA could affect the progress of parts of the project on the Palestinian side. If the parts of the project in areas under Palestinian control fail to be completed, sewage will continue to flow into parts of the stream – but it will have been treated already. In addition, the plans are being made to clean up the enormous quantities of waste that have collected in the streambed over the years, as well as vegetation that has spread because of the wastewater, and is inappropriate for the desert environment.

After the coronavirus crisis passes, the Kidron River and the Jericho region could become an area that attracts tourists, which would be beneficial to the Palestinains. But in addition to its environmental goals, Israel has managed to turn the Kidron into another means of extending its presence in the Jordan Valley.

This is the continuation of the growing and deepening coexistence in infrastructure being forced upon the Palestinians, who must continue to find a way to adapt. Their date groves continue to develop alongside those of the settlers, and everyone will benefit from the sewage both peoples created farther up the stream. It is unclear what the future holds for the residents of the region, but maybe, at least the stench, trash and pollution will disappear.

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