Israel's Hula Valley faces rebirth as farmland is turned back into wetland

April 28, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

HULA VALLEY, Israel -- Water coursed through the ancient path of the Jordan River for the first time in four decades last week, racing to reclaim a swamp from the failed meddlings of man.

"Look at that water lily," said Giora Shaham, an engineer acting as nursemaid to the rebirth of the wetland. "We haven't seen that in 40 years. And the other day I found some papyrus."

Lilies, papyrus and a profusion of wildlife covered this broad valley be- fore the birth of Israel in 1948. Mosquitoes, too.

To proclaim its bold ambitions for settling the biblical land, the young state drained the wetland and prehistoric Lake Hula to make room for farmers.

The enterprise was the pride of Zionism, the largest engineering project of the new state. Last week, Israel gave up on a part of it, acknowledging that in the Hula Valley nature knew best. They began reflooding about 2,000 acres that turned out to be better suited as a swamp than as farmland.

"The original concept was a mistake," said Francis Dov Por, a professor of zoology at Hebrew University and co-author of a study on the valley.

"The area is of no use to agriculture. When it was exposed to the air, it started to oxidize and burn. The whole area sagged down, in some places four meters," he said. Water collected in the sinking fields, and "the swamp is coming back."

Nature's vindication is not so complete, however. The area to be reflooded is less than one-tenth of the 25,000 acres drained between 1951 and 1958. The rest of the land still is being farmed; some of it profitably, some not.

Even the restored area is being tailored again by man. Planners are trying to create a shallow lake for tourism and recreation, instead of the natural swamp that was there before.

"We'd like to have a nature reserve, but it can't be," said Eli Sadot, a researcher for Israel's Nature Reserves Authority. "You have to understand this is a tourism project."

Still, the $25 million effort shows Israel is starting to weigh environmental concerns. Until recently, the rush to carve out a country, and defend it, shoved aside ecological considerations.

Some Israelis are beginning to rethink the costs of the ambitious Zionist projects to settle remote parts of Israel. The bold agricultural pledge to "make the desert bloom" created a bounty that fed Israel and greened arid stretches with irrigation.

But that came at the expense of disrupting ancient ecosystems, polluting fragile land and -- most ominously-- exhausting underground water supplies.

The Hula Valley project was a variation of the "make-the-desert-bloom" philosophy, intended to create new farmland from land considered worthless.

The area 12 miles north of the Sea of Galilee was certainly inhospitable to man. It was plagued by malaria, and the hardy few Jewish settlers and Arab natives who lived there bore a frightening toll from the disease.

"My grandmother in a short time buried five sons in the cemetery from malaria," said Arik Lubovsky, who was born in the Hula Valley and whose ancestors were among the first Jewish settlers there. "And she said she was luckier than others."

Those Jews -- many from Russia who sought to cultivate the Promised Land years before modern Israel was born -- gravitated around Lake Hula, an old lake that had seen encampments of man on its shores as early as 7,000 B.C.

It was a shallow lake, 3 to 6 feet deep, covering 4,000 acres in a gentle cradle formed by the Golan Heights to the east and the Nephtali Hills to the west. Blocked by a plug of land from joining the Sea of Galilee in the south, it backed up to the north in a broad 5,000-acre swamp, surrounded by a broader swath of often-soggy land.

Haven for wildlife

This expanse was a haven for wildlife. It had the northernmost stand of papyrus, that versatile reed that ancient Egyptians flattened and soaked into the first writing paper. Among the starburst clumps of papyrus were coots and ducks, storks, egrets, kingfishers, otters, even wild boars and water buffalo.

To drain the area, Israel rechanneled the Jordan River into two man-made canals and cut the plug bottling the valley.

"When they looked at the swamp, they saw a monster, like in the ancient Greek myths," said Yoram Avnimelech, chief scientist at the Israel Environment Ministry.

"There were mosquitoes and there was malaria. The land was not producing anything, and water was being wasted."

Not everyone was convinced of the value of this triumph over nature.

"It was a shock," said Mr. Lubovsky, on a tour through his village of Yesud Hama'ala, which stood at what once were the banks of Lake Hula. "Life centered around the waters. I still remember running from that house there and jumping into the lake," he said. "We woke up one morning, and the fishes were trying to swim in the mud."

Researchers concluded that at least 10 animal species were lost when the lake was dried: a frog unique to the Hula Valley, two species of dragonflies, a species of fish and several insects.

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