New Life Returns to Israel's 'River of Death'

The cleanup of the Kishon is one of several successful efforts to rehabilitate some of the country's most polluted streams.

The Kishon River has for years been associated with death. Naval commandos, forced to train in its polluted waters, claim that they contracted cancer as a result. Yet today, that stream is the source of new life - fish, birds and other wildlife are returning to it, after a massive government cleanup operation.

The Kishon project is definitely something to celebrate and that is what the Environmental Protection Ministry did on Monday during a ceremony held on the banks of the river to mark to mark a new phase in the rehabilitation of one of the country's most polluted streambeds.

Over the years, various government ministries have been blamed for neglecting the state of the country's streams, allowing them to become foul-smelling wastewater runnels. But this week, the ministries, especially the Environmental Protection Ministry, deserved kudos for fixing some of the ongoing environmental and ecological damage, particularly in the Kishon River, which flows from the Gilboa mountains through the Jezreel Valley before emptying into Haifa Bay.

The ceremony was held in the presence of Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan. Also present was Yuval Tamir, one of the leaders of the naval commandos' struggle to be recognized as victims of industrial pollution. The commandos were forced to train intensively in the Kishon during their military service, despite warnings issued by health and environmental authorities concerning the polluted water. While the Shamgar Commission, established a decade ago to investigate the possibility of a direct link between the pollution in the Kishon River and the high incidence of cancer among former Israeli navy divers, failed to find such a link, 93 of some 120 divers were diagnosed with some type of cancer, and at least one-third of those diagnosed have died.

The first stage of the streambed cleanup project includes drying a section of the river and digging a new channel for the river's water. The section to be dried will become part of the site where the polluted sludge, to be removed from the water, will be dumped and afterwards undergo biological cleaning. At the final stage, the area will become part of a park to be built along the Kishon River's banks.

Experts disagreed over how to best to treat the riverbed. Still, it is clear that getting the sludge out of the stream means getting rid of materials liable to cause future contamination. Over the years, the streambed collected various contaminants from the industrial wastewater formerly pumped into the Kishon. The project to rehabilitate the Kishon will cost more than NIS 200 million, half of which will be paid by the government and the local authorities in the area. This is a significant investment in an environmental project, especially in these tough economic times.

The cleanup operation is the continuation of ongoing activity conducted by the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Kishon River Authority to reduce pollution entering the river. The core of the project involves forcing local industries to purify their wastewater.

In the last decade, the Kishon's pollution rate has dropped, at times by as much as 90 percent. Nonetheless, the river's waters are not yet of a quality high enough to allow canoeing and other water-based activities.

The Kishon River Authority's final 2011 report notes that the treated wastewater pumped by industry into the river still deviates from quality standards set by a panel of experts about a decade ago. In addition, the river has been impacted by repeated failures of sewage systems belonging to adjacent residential centers. More than 20 such failures occurred in 2011 alone.

But, all in all, a situation assessment shows real improvements, and the best proof is the return of life to the Kishon. Both the upper part of the river and its estuary are home to 13 different species of fish. An unofficial count of birds along the riverbanks showed more than 50 species. The river authority has started to return softshell turtles to the Kishon and manages to maintain a school of Anathrobrama lissneri, a very rare fish species in Israel's coastal streams. A cormorant flock of more than 3,000 birds is also thriving there.

Yarkon River cleaner too

There have also been improvements in the Yarkon River, which flows through central Israel, emptying into the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv.The Yarkon is also synonymous with environmental pollution of water sources. Unlike the Kishon, the Yarkon suffered mostly from insufficiently treated urban and agricultural wastewater. Because much of the water that used to flow into the Yarkon is now diverted for human use; much of what still enters the river is wastewater. The worse its quality is, the more damage is done to the entire ecosystem of the river, making it impossible to use it for recreational activities.

In the last 18 months, there has been a marked improvement in the processing of wastewater by the adjacent cities of Kfar Sava and Hod Hasharon, the main wastewater contributors to the river. In addition, a facility of green basins was opened near the river; the facility is constructed with water-based flora and a special foundation of rocks, all of which help absorb contaminants and better purify urban sewage.

The outcome of these processes is a real improvement in water quality in the middle part of the river, located between Hod Hasharon and Tel Aviv. Here, too, the prominent index of improvement is the presence of fauna, especially fish such as tilapia and Clarias, a genus of catfishes. These are now living in parts of the river where they could not survive in the past.

Of course, there are still more than a few hurdles to overcome before the Kishon and Yarkon rivers have high-quality water flowing in them and ecosystems capable of existing in the long-term. One of these is making sure that higher quality water gets to the rivers in large enough quantities and is not diverted for other uses. To this end, a system is currently being built at the Yarkon that will allow wastewater to flow downstream to Tel Aviv and then be pumped back out again for agricultural use.

The condition of other Israeli streams continues to be bleak, and streams such as the Lakhish, Harod and Sorek still suffer from various types of pollution. The southern part of the Jordan River is also in bad shape: The natural flow of water has stopped almost entirely; polluted water flows into the Jordan from different sources and its ecosystem has been seriously damaged.

The situation is also particularly dismal for the Kidron River, which flows from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness. The river, which meanders through a breathtaking desert landscape and abuts important cultural and religious sites, is used as the dumping ground for raw sewage by East Jerusalem neighborhoods and Palestinian settlements in the area. In the case of the Kidron, it seems that only Palestinian-Israeli cooperation can bring about an improvement, but such cooperation is still a thing of the future.

Sustained improvements in the Kishon and Yarkon may affect other streams: Turning them into attractive parks, as has been the case with the Yarkon, may persuade local governments and central government ministries to invest in rehabilitation efforts of other streams too.