Israel Environment Bulletin Spring 1995-5755, Vol. 18, No. 2


Once upon a time Israel marched to a different drum. The newly reborn nation set out to conquer the wilderness, to redeem the soil from hostile nature. Today, the dream of yesterday is gradually giving way to a new vision, a vision of harmony between ecological and economic needs, between conservation and development. In the Hula Valley, in northeastern Israel, a new dream is struggling to be born.

Yesterday’s Dream

The Hula Valley, nestled between the hills of the Galilee and the Golan Heights, occupies an area of approximately 175 square kilometers. For centuries, the small tributaries of the Jordan River flowed unchecked from Mount Hermon into the closed basin; with time, overflooding transformed more than a third of the basin into swampland unfit for cultivation and infested by malaria.

The Hula Valley was a natural target for implementing Zionist pioneering ideals in the early years of the Jewish state. Noble goals, such as redemption of the land, water conservation, combating malaria and utilizing the peat at the bed of the swamps and lake, were the driving forces behind what was to be the first major national enterprise in the renascent state the Hula drainage project.

Between 1951 and 1958, the Jewish National Fund concentrated gargantuan efforts in deepening and straightening the Jordan River’s course south of the Hula Valley and in constructing a network of drainage canals to lower the groundwater and prevent flooding. Drainage of the Hula diverted the Jordan River from the heart of the marshland north of Lake Hula to the eastern and western edges of the valley and through two main canals downstream. By 1958, Lake Hula ceased to exist; the swampland disappeared; the historic path of the Jordan River through the valley was no more. The only remnant of the former site was a 300-hectare nature reserve, set aside for preservation as a result of conservation efforts by a dedicated group of nature lovers and scientists (later to become the Society for the Protection of Nature In Israel). Their campaign helped preserve the indigenous vegetation, animal and bird life that had flourished at this unique meeting point of tropical and temperate climate zones.

Drainage of Lake Hula and the surrounding wetlands rid the area of the malaria-infested swamps and reclaimed 6,000 hectares of land for farming purposes. The dream seemed to be fulfilled as the region was transformed into a breadbasket of Israel, abounding with fruit trees, wheat, corn and other produce. But the price was high, the gap between expectations and consequences wide. The valley’s indigenous fauna and flora disappeared, the water-bird population declined. In the center of the valley, where the peat soil was concentrated, drainage led to decomposition of the organic matter, rapid subsidence of the peatlands and spontaneous fires fueled by the organic matter. The underground conflagrations accelerated the disintegration of the soil, and flyaway peat dust covered nearby farm areas, rendering them unsuitable for agriculture. Declining soil fertility and productivity led to the abandonment of agricultural land and to severe damage to the ecosystem. In parallel, exposure of the organic soils to oxygen accelerated the formation of nitrates which then leached into Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). As water quality in Lake Kinneret deteriorated, scientific research indicated that the Hula peatlands contributed nearly 50% of the nitrates entering Israel’s only freshwater surface reservoir.

Based on monitoring and research carried out since the 1960s by scientists at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and elsewhere, emergency steps were taken to minimize nitrate leaching from the Hula Basin into Lake Kinneret. A system of canals and gates was set up to minimize entrance of flood water into the area, subsoil irrigation was replaced with sprinkling to induce denitrification, and rice, fish ponds and forage were encouraged to decrease nitrate accumulation. But research findings called for more much more.

Fashioning Tomorrow’s Dream

Given the scope and complexity of the problems, a Hula Valley Administration was established under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund, the Ministry of Agriculture, the Israel Lands Authority and the region’s local authorities. In mid-1992, to further expedite implementation of a rehabilitation plan, comprehensive planning was turned over to Tahal-the National Water Planning Company.

Despite the diversity of interests, it was widely agreed that the guiding principle behind any rehabilitation program must be to raise and maintain a high water table. A review of agricultural and agro-tourism options resulted in a decision to opt for the agro-tourism alternative and to create a central tourism strip, encompassing some 800 hectares, across the area where agriculture was worst-hit. Here, at the heart of the peatlands, a topographical depression had formed as a result of the decomposition and the burning of the peat. Experts believed that flooding an area of some 100 to 200 hectares would arrest the decomposition and subsidence of the peat soil and raise the depleted water table under adjacent farmland.

To arrive at an operative program, representatives of each of the systems using the area and its resources were asked to compromise on their original aims for the good of the project as a whole. Farmers agreed to relinquish some of their land allocations for the creation of the tourism strip. Green bodies allowed the plan to integrate some commercial elements. Economic and tourism sectors agreed to balance commercial development with the conservation of open spaces. Water bodies agreed to restore some of the Jordan River water originally diverted from the Hula Valley.

On April 25, 1994, Jordan River waters were once again allowed to flow into a reconstructed part of the drained area at the heart of the Hula as part of the first stage of the rehabilitation project. The flooded area was excavated and reshaped to prepare it for tourism and recreation, while bolstering the natural environment. Boating canals were dug from north to south along the edges of the "everglades" stretching for 5-6 kilometers to maintain the water level in the peat farmlands. Part of the historic Jordan River bed was redug and reconstructed while other sections were cleared of debris and erosion and the banks restored with new plantings and landscape. The northern section of the Jordan riverbed was rehabilitated and by the autumn of 1994, a dam and water diversion facility were built to regulate the water flow and redirect the water into the peatlands and the new water body.

The reflooding and rehabilitation project is expected to significantly alter the current landscape, placing a 100-hectare lake at the center of what will be a combination of wetlands and tourist area. Tourism development will feature the lake, boating facilities, canals and islands in a marshland setting, a wildlife park, grazing land and open breeding grounds for unique, rare marsh fowl and animals, including indigenous species and migratory birds, site-specific vegetation, vacation facilities and a water park at the eastern springs.

The water for the project will be drawn from the Jordan River which will once again resume its historic course. Hiking trails and picnic tables will be installed along the restored riverbed, and springs from the foot of the Golan Heights will be used for swimming and vacationing in the eastern Hula. A separate duct will be built to drain effluents from Kiryat Shmona and the kibbutzim in the western part of the Hula Valley in order to cleanse the Jordan River’s western canal and make its water suitable for recreation, fishing and boating.

The project is expected to be completed in about four years, at an estimated cost of $20 million in infrastructure and an additional investment of $7 million in tourism development.

Yet, the ambitious project is not designed to return the Hula to its former state. Most of the area will remain farmland and only a small part will be transformed into a tourist park. The lesson learned from the past is that everything will be done in stages, and each stage will be carefully monitored and investigated in order to study its impacts so as to ensure that development in the field matches expectations.

The program is accompanied by a research and development component with four objectives aimed at informed economic management of regional and local resources, development of tourism-oriented land and water habitats, environmentally sound management of the area, and development of environment-friendly agriculture in the peatlands adjoining the tourism development project.

The entire project a partial reversal of the draining scheme of forty years ago reflects the reversal of priorities in today’s world. According to project director Giora Shacham, "draining the swamps was the correct thing to do to meet the needs of those pioneering days. Today the world has changed, and the needs are different. So we are making what we call a surgical correction." Will the "surgical correction" provide the necessary remedy to the plethora of ills that have plagued the valley for decades? Will it fulfill the multiple and often competing goals of nature and environmental protection, economic needs and agricultural development? Only time will tell, but given today’s careful planning, monitoring and research, optimism may well be in order.