The 1997 Maccabiah bridge disaster, in which four Australian athletes died after falling into the Yarkon River, became associated in the public mind with pollution in the river. Their loss − three died of infections after being pulled out − increased pressure on the relevant government and local authorities to clean it up.
The tragedy followed many years during which the flow of spring water to the river was suspended almost entirely and redirected to provide drinking water and agricultural irrigation. Instead of fresh water, poorly treated sewage flowed in the Yarkon, leading to the destruction of the area’s unique flora and fauna and creating a layer of toxic pollution on the river bed.
The collapse of a temporary pedestrian bridge over the polluted Yarkon during the opening ceremony of the 15th Maccabiah Games, injured 60 Australian athletes and killed four: bridge team member Elizabeth Sawicki, 47, and bowlers Gregory Small, 37, Yetty Bennett, 50, and Warren Zines, 54.
After the Yarkon River Authority was set up in 1988 under the auspices of the nearby local authorities in cooperation with the relevant government ministries, a master plan was completed for rehabilitating the river. The operational plan focused on ensuring a constant allocation of freshwater or treated sewage and upgrading sewage treatment plants to improve the quality of the waste water piped into the river.
The turning point occurred in 2003 when the government finally approved the river recovery plan in the wake of the bridge disaster. One of the few waterway cleanup plans to receive government approval, it has been successfully implemented in large part.
The plan allocated funds to rehabilitate the river, including piping freshwater from the national water company Mekorot’s delivery system into the Yarkon’s upper section. Further downstream, highly treated sewage would also be piped in; then, the Sheva Tahanot waste water facility near Ramat Gan would then receive what is already in the river and pump water for agricultural irrigation.
In the past two years, work has been completed on upgrading the Hod Hasharon and Kfar Sava waste treatment plant, which is the Yarkon’s main water source.
Before the upgraded sewage enters the Yarkon, it goes through an additional treatment system known as wetlands. This is the key factor in the very substantial improvement that has occurred in the water quality of the Yarkon. One of the program’s clearest indicators of success is that species of fish that had disappeared due to the heavy pollution are once again being found in the river’s central section between Hod Hasharon and Tel Aviv, which once was the most contaminated.
Meanwhile, accessibility and the availability of hiking and leisure options near the river have also improved significantly. Bike paths were built along the river’s banks and two years ago several bridges were erected in its central stretch, allowing hikers to cross over. The pollution problems are not completely gone, and low-quality sewage water is still piped in occasionally – the most serious case occurred four years ago after a fire in the Hod Hasharon region created a chain reaction that culminated in detergents flowing into the river and badly damaging the fish. Overall, however, the river’s condition has genuinely improved.
But the Yarkon’s negative image persisted. Four years ago an Israeli kayaking champion, Yasmin Feingold, had a near-fatal drowning accident in the Yarkon. Passersby said they were afraid to jump in and come to her aid because of the river’s infamous pollution.
In 2011, Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, who was chairman of the Yarkon River Authority, jumped into the river for a swim to prove that it is no longer a danger to the public. Huldai terms the river’s recovery process a success.
“There is an improvement in the water quality and also in the public domain,” he said. “We use an Israeli invention for rehabilitating waterways that includes piping water and pumping it out for additional use because that’s the situation in a country where water is scarce and competition over it is fierce.”