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When Prayers for Rain are Answered

The sight of floodwaters covering Tel Aviv highways and Modi’in shopping malls from this week’s rains was jarring and unexpected.  Israel is, in most minds, an arid land bereft of water, not cursed with its superabundance.  But a look at geography and history suggests differently, pointing to both the accomplishments of Zionist technology and their fragility.

Where today there are high-tech industries, tourists, and millions of Israelis, once there were hippopotami.  During most of the past 10,000 years, Israel’s Coastal Plain was swamp.  Bones recovered from excavations there suggest that hippos may have been present even into Hellenistic times, along with an astonishing array of other wildlife.  The Nahal Taninim, which empties into the sea near Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, translates as “Crocodile River”, describing another long-extinct denizen.  Today's landscape is not only modern—Tel Aviv skyscrapers, the Ayalon Freeway, apartment buildings as far as the eye can see—but deceptive.  It hints at the existence of nature, in ways that New York and Los Angeles rarely do, but implies that nature has been overcome.  It has not.

Israel’s Coastal Plain stretches from Gaza to Haifa.  Bordering the Mediterranean are sand dunes and rocky cliffs, cut by rivers from the east and pummeled by waves and storms from the west.  The waves breach the dunes and cliffs and deposit sand in the river mouths, which flood to form swamps. Through time, settlements were either located to the east along the foothills, like Antipatris, or, like Jaffa and Caesaria, perched on fossilized dunes or rocky outcrops closer to the sea, with the spaces in between occupied by fish, fowl, and mammals. 

From the Bronze Age onward, engineers strove to keep the river mouths open, but silt from the highlands and sand from the sea inevitably closed them off.  The immense Bronze Age and Iron Age fortifications at Tel Akko were partly created out of sand dredged from a now-disappeared estuary.  Then, in the middle of the first millennium B.C.E., the Phoenicians started over, some two kilometers to the west,and founded the Akko—or Acre—that persists today on a rocky outcrop jutting precariously into the sea. Such settlement histories are typical. 

The swamps and hidden recesses of the Coastal Plain held abundant resources—and abundant bandits and thieves.  As early as the Late Bronze Age, the Hittite king Burnaburiash wrote angrily to the Egyptian king Akhenaten accusing one of Akhenaten’s Canaanite princelings of plundering a caravan.  Graves of these merchants have been excavated where they appear to have been hastily buried, just north of Akko. 

Through the Crusader period, kings and villagers kept the coast under control, maintaining waterworks and harbors and fighting the battle between too much water and too little.  But from the medieval Mamluk period onward, sand, silt, and insecurity gradually made the Coastal Plain a malarial marsh.  On the eve of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798,the coastal interior was occupied by Bedouin who raided Coastal Plain settlements and whose animals destroyed the fragile vegetation that held sand dunes in check.  Thereafter, dunes progressed inland at a rate of dozens of feet per year, burying agricultural lands.  By the 19th century, the Coastal Plain, along with much of the country, had fallen into disrepair.  Before the British mandate, malaria infected a majority of residents; even in Jerusalem, far from the coast, a 1912 survey showed that between 40 and 80 percent of schoolchildren had symptoms. 

Change came quickly.  In the 19th century, global interest in Palestine, including superpower competition and tourism, began to lift the coast from dereliction.  Beginning in the 1870s, Zionists purchased tracts on the coast and in the Jezreel Valley and Huleh Basin, largely unwanted swamps of the Coastal Plain, and set about making them habitable.  The first agricultural settlement—Petach Tikvah, along the banks of the Yarkon River—was quickly abandoned because of malaria.  But its settlers' successors dug canals and planted eucalyptus for drainage and suppressed mosquitoes.  Bypassing traditional subsistence farming methods, they introduced modern agricultural techniques and multiplied yields. Prosperity and labor needs helped ignite mass Arab migration to the area, especially from Egypt, as well as the purchase by absentee Arab landlords of previously abandoned land. Along with the drained swamps, the most successful symbol of the Zionist mastery of nature was Tel Aviv itself, founded in 1909 on a sand dune north of Jaffa. 

Yet an increasing population on the coast meant, at first, more grazing animals and cutting of forests for fuel; both increased soil erosion, clogging streams with silt. Complex ecosystems with varied plant and animal species were flattened, reduced to mono-crop orange groves feeding the European market.  Many of Palestine’s remaining forests fell victim to the building of Turkish railroads and World War I.  Thereafter, the British introduced regulations—later continued by Israel—for agriculture, land use, town planning, and architecture, rules largely honored in the breach. 

The Coastal Plain is Israel’s agricultural, industrial and residential heartland.  The new state’s need for housing, food, and industry was overwhelming and, in turn, overwhelmed sensible planning.  By the 1950s, water diverted for all these competing purposes began to reduce the coast’s streams and rivers, and discharged waste turned them into toxic trickles.  The imperatives of growth led to the 1964 construction of the National Water Carrier, which routed water from the Sea of Galilee south through pipes and culverts, thereby dramatically reducing the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, and the Dead Sea.  By 1967, almost all the streams south of the Galilee were being used for sewage, a problem addressed by treatment plants only in the next decades.  Despite enormous progress in public health and water efficiency, there remains enormous competition among these sectors for water allocations—as there is between Israel and the Palestinians

Today, Israel has over 1,000 square kilometers of man-made “impervious surface area”—buildings, roads, parking lots; this measure places it within the world’s top 100 countries.  Coastal aquifers have been severely depleted and contaminated by seawater and industrial pollutants.  An increasing part of the rain that falls on Judean and Samarian hills slides down paved streets, highways, sewers, and riverbeds to the sea, failing to recharge the aquifers.  The automobile has been especially destructive.  In 1960 there were 70,000 cars in Israel; today there are 2.5 million.  The construction of a modern highway system has constricted the ability of the landscape to drain and recycle water. 

Technological societies like Israel and the United States have manipulated environments with determination but little understanding of the long-term impacts.  Lining riverbeds with concrete, as with the Ayalon and throughout Los Angeles, gives the illusion of mastering nature.  In average years, the consequences are mostly invisible; the absence of thriving ecosystems is apparent, but not the failure of the aquifers to be recharged.  Then, the inevitable flooding causes surprise. 

When it comes to environmental issues, liberal democratic societies have been partially self-correcting. They periodically take steps, like dismantling dams in the Pacific Northwest and reflooding parts of the Huleh Basin, to ameliorate and undo negative conditions.  Arguably, however, Israel’s environmental progress is slipping, a victim of both politics and economics

Still, if Israel and the United States have been environmentally overconfident and insensitive, other countries have been catastrophically cruel.  The Communist legacy of environmental destruction in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China is nearly beyond description.  Soviet engineers reversed the flow of entire rivers and nearly emptied the entire Aral Sea, leaving a chemical-laden dustbowl.  Communist politics demanded that technology master and subjugate nature to demonstrate the wisdom and superiority of the Party.  Zionists were never so absolute; they were and, one hopes, are capable of learning to work with nature. 

The flooding in Israel and elsewhere shows that nature will not be mastered.  The response to the hundred-year storm or, worse, the earthquake and tsunami, can be planned up to a point—after which matters are in God’s hands.  Humans push the limits, ignoring, minimizing, or rationalizing risks as only they can.  But flooded highways are gentle reminders that nature has its own reclamation project, which will triumph over ours.

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James More on January 11, 2013 at 10:25 am (Reply)
About time we try to persuade the oil gluttons to move from the Arctic, melting the icecaps by heating up the water by bringing warmer oil up in pipes, and then by carbon in atmosphere, and by depleting the thermal oil buffer within the earth that makes this earth inhabitable and takes mother nature billions of years of evolution to make this earth environment sustain life.

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