Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.

The Pathology of a Polluted River


At a senior staff meeting of Israel's Ministry of the Environment, days after the Maccabiah Games, the importance of a cogent government re-sponse was raised, and opportunities created by the tragedy were also pointed out. Historically, environmental disasters have spawned quantum

progress. The “London Fog” killed 4000 people in 1952 but ultimately led to England's Clean Air Act in 1956 and the subsequent dramatic improve-ment in London's ambient air quality.[39] The toxic tribulations of residents in New York State's “Love Canal” neighborhood produced an enormous nationwide investment in hazardous chemicals cleanup in the United States through the establishment of Superfund.[40]

But the response to the crisis from Israel's Ministry of the Environment was remarkably sluggish. It is not clear whether the hesitation stemmed from not wanting to exploit the misery of the victims, or not wanting to implicitly acknowledge responsibility for the pollution problem, or per-haps, just not knowing what to do. At a formal level, sewage reaching the Yarkon River had been allowed by the Ministry of Health and Israel's Water Commissioner, which might have served to temper the virulence of these agencies' responses.[41]

By the end of the summer, the Environmental Ministry had changed its tune. The international media's focus on the Yarkon and related pollution stories were becoming embarrassing, with top periodicals running exposes like Time's “The Filthy Holy Land.”[42] Lack of clear information led to wild claims, such as an erroneous theory appearing in the Australian press that the river contained nuclear wastes. There was a need to muster some sort of response to the disaster. Environmental Minister Rafael Eitan, a former general who typically paid more attention to his second portfolio at the Ministry of Agriculture, eventually went on the record demanding 15 mil-lion shekels from the Finance Ministry for special Yarkon rehabilitation.[43]

Later, the Environmental Ministry announced an enforcement cam-paign against Yarkon polluters. But it was unsuccessful in identifying any point source polluters beyond the sewage from the cities of Ramat ha-Sharon, Kfar Saba, and Hod ha-Sharon.[44] No legal actions against pol-luters were ever filed.[45] Of the requested funds, only five million shekels were ultimately approved for conducting general exploratory research about the contents of the river's sludge. Director General Ronen explained: “It's a good start. Before you take out the sludge you have to know how and when. We've commissioned a report from some Dutch experts. At least Holland has reclaimed a few rivers and actually might know what they are doing. I just got back from visiting England and they explained to me that river reclamation is a matter that takes twenty years. Until the sewage flow is stopped, it's basically a hopeless issue.”[46]

The follow-through was even less impressive. It took some three years for the modest public funds to be transferred by the Treasury to support an assortment of Yarkon-related research initiatives and proj-ects.[47] Four years after the catastrophe, a thirteen-million-dollar compensation

package was finally closed for Sasha Elterman and the other victims.[48] Baruch Weber, Deputy Director of the Ministry's Water and Streams Division, offers a pessimistic prognosis for the Ministry's efforts. “The problem is the legal standards for sewage treatment.[49] They may be acceptable as a generic effluent criterion, but if we're talking about a recreational resource, they just aren't relevant. With the sewage treatment facilities in place, chemicals can slip through the treatment process and will continue the mass destruction of aquatic life.”[50] Indeed, the Ministry of the Environment recommends effluent standards that are twice as stringent.[51]

Hydrologist Dr. Dror Avisar is also pessimistic about the adequacy of the remedial measures pledged. The problem, he argues, will ultimately be maintaining the new sewage treatment plants. Municipalities are not always ready to pay for the expertise necessary to keep the level of treatment high. Even if, hypothetically, they are treated to a BOD level of 5 or 10 milligrams per liter and the Yarkon flow was entirely based on high-quality effluent, there is the problem of periodic “overflows.” These are inevitable because of maintenance requirements or equipment breakdown. “If these overflows happen five times a year (a reasonable level of operation based on present experience from Tel Aviv), multiply it by seven cities. The river will die. It just can't handle this level of direct raw sewage discharge. That's after you've cleaned the water, brought back the fish, and rehabilitated the river. Without the lands for an overflow backup settlement pond, all the efforts will be for naught.”[52] Rachel Adam, an attorney at the Ministry of the Environment specializing in water quality, agrees that zero discharge should be the ulti-mate goal. All treated sewage should be utilized by agriculture.[53]

As Israel's Water Commissioner for most of the 1960s and 1970s, Menahem Kantor was a central figure in national water policy. He has reached an even more discouraging conclusion: “There's no choice but to dry up the rivers of Israel. We don't have the groundwater available to di-lute the streams. If you want a river full of water, it creates an illusion. The public thinks it can swim in this water even though it's wastewater. It cre-ates the disaster that we saw at the Maccabiah.”[54]

The Ministry of Health was much less hesitant in its response from the start. It took protective measures. On September 22, Shalom Goldburger, the Ministry's chief environmental health engineer, recom-mended a ban on all boating and fishing (and, of course, swimming) on the lower stretch of the Yarkon. The decision was based on water quality monitoring in the Tel Aviv section from April to August 1997 that showed clear violation of water quality standards. This effectively shut

down a range of recreational activities that had been part of the Tel Aviv experience for years.[55]

Following the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the sponta-neous creation of memorial sites through the lighting of traditional mourn-ing (yahrtzeit) candles at the sites of tragedies emerged as a ritual of Israeli youth culture. All signs of the bridge were removed, but months after the event, the Maccabiah site became a shrine. Candles were scattered on the con-crete blocks adjacent to the river bed. The death of four healthy athletes and the untold suffering of many survivors may not have inspired any meaning-ful policy changes, but it left in its wake a wave of graffiti on the blocks with sketches of fish skeletons and an ominous engraving: “This pollution kills.”[56]

The Pathology of a Polluted River

Preferred Citation: Tal, Alon. Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel. Berkeley, Calif:  University of California Press,  c2002 2002.