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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Instant Paradise: Reflooding Israel's Hula Valley

Air Date: Week of

In the 1950's, Israel drained wetlands near the Sea of Galilee to create farmland. Since the project failed, recently some of the area has been reflooded, and birds abound in the Hula Valley. Now there is debate over whether to bring in tourists to experience the wildlife renaissance. From Israel, Patricia Golan explains.


CURWOOD: In the late 1950s, shortly after the state of Israel was founded, authorities undertook an ambitious project to drain a large lake and marshlands near the Sea of Galilee. The aim was to create a vast area of rich agricultural land in the Hula Valley. But the project turned out to be a failure. Some of the valley has now been re-flooded in a successful attempt to restore part of the original marsh. But the effort has also generated a new fight, this time over whether the wetlands should be left alone or turned into a tourist attraction to help debt-ridden settlements in the area. Patricia Golan traveled to the Hula Valley and filed this report.

(Crickets, owls, and other animals)

GOLAN: The original Hula marsh lay on the plains north of the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a freshwater lake known as Lake Knerret. The site is right on the Syrian/African Rift junction where Europe, Asia, and Africa meet. For those who remember the wetlands then, the profusion of plant, bird, and animal life from all 3 continents was almost indescribable. Galilee historian Arik Lubovsky was born on the stores of the lake.

LUBOVSKY: I still remember the water buffaloes. This whole lake was filled with water buffaloes. They used to walk in the mud. The whole area was yellow colored and green. The water lilies, plenty of butterflies. So everybody used to have a natural shower in the lake. To bring water with buckets or with barrels. To irrigate, to water.

GOLAN: The huge and unprecedented 1950s project to drain the Hula Swamp, as it was called, became part of national lore: an example of Israeli determination to cultivate the land. The drainage project was aimed not only at creating agricultural land, but getting rid of, for once and for all, the anopheles mosquito, carrier of the deadly malaria plague that had killed thousands of early settlers. Construction crews dug a network of deep channels, transforming some 15,000 acres of wetlands and swamps into arable land, which was then leased to collective farms and villages in the area. One thousand acres were set aside as a nature reserve. The results of the drainage were almost immediate, but not exactly as expected. Nature Reserves Authority head Eli Sedot explains that the land recovered for agriculture was a disappointment.

SEDOT: [Speaks in Hebrew]
TRANSLATOR: Only part of the recovered land was useful. The high nitrate content of the peat made agriculture unprofitable. Fires kept breaking out in the peat beds. They would spread through water tunnels and were almost impossible to put out.

GOLAN: Not only that. It soon became clear that the marsh had served as a filter for the water that eventually reached the Sea of Galilee. With that filter destroyed, pollutants flowed into Israel's chief water reservoir. Furthermore, as the peat beds dried and decomposed under the Mediterranean sun, the entire area began to sink. Clearly, the grandiose rehabilitation plan of the 50s had to be rehabilitated itself. In the 1980s government agencies embarked on a 9-year study of the area. It resulted in a master plan which called for the reflooding of part of the drained Hula, in effect reversing the drainage project of 40 years ago. Two years ago bulldozers scooped away an earthen dike, allowing water from one branch of the Jordan River to spread across 250 acres of the most damaged part of the Hula Valley. The results astonished everyone.

(Riotous bird calls)

GOLAN: An almost instant paradise sprang from the soil. The once lush wetland floor made a comeback. Dabbler ducks, ibis, sandpipers, storks, egrets, pelicans, and other water fowl returns. Papyrus was planted and took root and proliferated. Standing at the edge of the newly created lake, project researcher Moshe Goffen says he was thrilled to see how life returned.

GOFFEN: For example, an old native fish was recently fund in this shallow lake. Moreover, about 38 old native species of plants, which inhabited the Hula Swamps 40 years ago, completely disappeared after drying of the Hula, came back within less than 2 years into this area. How did they come back? Nobody knows.

GOLAN: The re-flooding project is aimed at preserving the soil and improving the quality of water that reaches the Sea of Galilee. But it also includes a controversial proposal to generate income for the farmers in the area who have lost their agricultural fields. The plan is to build a tourism center around the newly flooded area, including a holiday village, nature trails, restaurants, and boat rides through the lake. Professor Goffen, an enthusiastic proponent of the scheme, explains that a safari park is planned to encircle the lake.

GOFFEN: If we can introduce elements like grazing animals, green grass covering the area, and people coming to watch these animals and will pay money for coming to watch these animals, this is the new utilization technique of this area compared to the old one, which was pure agriculture.

GOLAN: Moshe Goffen says the new eco-tourism site will provide income for the farmers and badly needed jobs. He insists the site will be carefully managed. But the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel doesn't believe it, and has now gone to Israel's Supreme Court to try to put the brakes on the project.

(Voice on a CB radio)

GOLAN: Yohanan Darom, northern region coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature, took me on a tour of the newly created Hula Wetlands.

(Water splashing and bird calls)

DAROM: At the minute that the vegetation grew up higher and higher, a lot of colonies of water birds came here, nested in here, and reproduced themselves in here. As you can see now, thousands and thousands and thousands of birds, what's amazing, it's the speed of how nature reconstructs itself.

GOLAN: According to the development plans, visitors will be able to glide through the water in electric boats. The developers claim this will not disturb the birds. But the Nature Protection Society's Darom is alarmed.

DAROM: Imagine 4,000 people running around this lake in an electrical engine boat, shouting, singing, talking. Even if they are sailing in the edges of the pond, there will be no birds in here.

GOLAN: Hula Valley project director Giora Shaham is furious that the Society for the Protection of Nature is only now making a fuss.

SHAHAM: We spent about $2 million in the last 2 years, with 20 groups of researchers, from water aspects, from ecological aspects, from agriculture aspect. And they are -- all their reports showing that there will be no damage to the area, what -- a hundred huts of a little village, tourist village we destroy the whole area? It's ridiculous to think that those minor activities that we are planning there are going to destroy the area total.

GOLAN: One of the many governmental bodies involved in the Hula project is the Ministry of the Environment, whose approval is needed for any construction in the newly flooded areas. After long negotiations with developers, the Environment Ministry reached a compromise that removes, at least on paper, all commercial activity to at least 400 yards away from the water's edge. Farmers who watched the swamp reclaim their land agreed to this restriction, but argue that they have the right to develop, since they hold the rights to the land. But there's almost no such thing as privately-owned land in Israel; 92% of it is administered by the state. Valerie Brachia is director of planning in the Ministry. She says that in such a small country, management of the site should be carried out by those who have the national interest at stake.

BRACHIA: We don't have the scale of wetlands that there are in some places, and we don't have the scale of space available for recreation and tourist opportunities. We have to find ways, sometimes difficult ways of managing, so that we can manage different activities together, so they can blend together and not conflict together.

GOLAN: In March, the Supreme Court begins deliberations on the case brought by the Society for the Protection of Nature. The court is to consider an appeal for an environmental impact assessment of the entire project.

(Wildlife sounds, crickets and hooting)

GOLAN: Meanwhile, for a third season an extraordinary variety of wildlife continues to flock to the Hula wetlands. For Living on Earth, this is Patricia Golan in Israel's Hula Valley.



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