Leaky Sewage Pipe Shuts Down Tel Aviv's Beaches for a Month

standing on dam photo

"To the untrained eye, it looks like water."

This being World Water Day, the issue of water management and conservation (always a big one in this part of the world) got a bit of extra press in Israel today. On the positive side, the morning papers reported that Israel was being praised at the World Water Forum in Istanbul for its exceptional rates of recycled wastewater and desalination. On the not so positive side, a group of environmentally-concerned lawmakers organized a visit to the Ayalon River, where they tried to figure out why sewage has been polluting Tel Aviv's beaches for over a month now. The answers they got were less than satisfying. For over a month, Tel Aviv's beaches have been off limits to bathers due to enormous quantities of raw sewage being dumped into the sea. The source of the pollution is a ruptured sewage pipe several kilometers inland. A group of parliamentarians, fed up with the sluggish response of the official bodies responsible for water issues, decided this week to invite them to the scene of the crime and demand some answers. The lawmakers, many of them newcomers to Israel's Knesset, came from across the political spectrum.

The officials, bureaucrats from various regulatory bodies, were not thrilled about getting grilled by the lawmakers, but did their best to shed light on the situation. On some things (that there was a broken pipe, that there was negligence involved and that it was slow to be fixed) they agreed, on other things (like whose responsibility it was and whose heads should roll) they clearly did not.

dirt dam ayalon photo

An earthen dam, built to hold back spilled sewage. Every time it rains, the dam bursts.

The lawmakers, for their part, were more concerned with making sure this kind of event did not happen again. Once upon a time in Israel there were few rules to protect the country's rivers and the sea. Over the years, however, steps were taken to end the befouling of national waterways. Isolated events and "malfunctions" continue to occur, however, and each time the result is weeks or months of polluted beaches.

The overwhelming consensus after the tour was that the bureaucratic structures that regulate water and sewage issues need to be overhauled, one way or another. Preventative maintenance, instead of pinpoint responses to predictable crises, also wouldn't hurt, they concluded. And the lawmakers pledged to work on passing a new law that would close loopholes and prevent pollution of bodies of water.

fishing in yarkon photo

Men fishing in the polluted Yarkon River.

Later, a chance encounter a bit downriver served as a chilling reminder of the human consequences of bureaucratic foot-dragging (and, I guess, lousy human judgment as well). Sitting along the banks of the river was a group of men, fishing. Haven't you heard about the pollution in the river, I asked them. They had, but they shrugged off my question and assured me that everything was fine. "I eat these fish all the time, and nothing's happened to me," one of them told me.

Photos by Daniel Cherrin.

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