By Zafrir Rinat
For several years now, a white river has run through the Hebron Hills. The color comes from pollution - waste from a sawmill near Hebron. And according to a recent Israeli-Palestinian study, pollution from this river and others like it is threatening the groundwater inside Israel, and is impeding attempts to rehabilitate Israel's rivers.
Israel has tried to deal with the problem by collecting and purifying the waste at the Green Line, the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. But that is insufficient, because much pollution enters the groundwater in the West Bank and spreads to Israel underground.
The two-year study was conducted by the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, the Blaustein Institute for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University and the Palestinian Water and Environmental Development Organization. It focused on the Alexander River, which runs from Nablus to the Mediterranean north of Netanya, and the Basor River, which runs from near Hebron to the Gaza Strip. Major investments have been made in rehabilitating both rivers in recent years, including by establishing waste treatment plants along them.
However, the study found, the Basor is now full of both municipal waste and toxins emitted by the stone- and leather-working industries around Hebron. It estimated that anywhere from 45 to 90 percent of the pollution seeps into the ground before the river reaches the Israeli treatment plant, thereby endangering the groundwater. Moreover, some of this underground waste then reenters the river downstream of the treatment plant.
The study found that faulty sewage systems in Israel also pollute the river.
While the Alexander River has improved substantially, the study said, it still is being polluted by municipal waste and the olive oil industries around Nablus and Tul Karm, as well as various sources within Israel, such as fertilizer and insecticides from nearby farms. In this case, too, about half of the pollution on the Palestinian side seeps into the groundwater before reaching the Green Line.
Amos Brandeis, chief planner of the project to rehabilitate the Alexander, noted that the German government plans to build waste treatment plants for Nablus and Tul Karm, but they will not be operational for several years. He also noted that the amount of municipal waste on the Palestinian side has grown, due to population growth and because many more houses have been connected to the sewage system in recent years - and this system flows directly into the river, rather than to a treatment plant.
Hydrologists Lior Assaf and Hila Ackerman of the Arava Institute said that more could also be done on the Israeli side - for instance, said Assaf, "planting buffer zones of vegetation along the river banks, which would help prevent pollution from entering the river."
Professor Alon Tal of the Blaustein Institute, in his summary of the research, noted that Israelis and Palestinians had managed to work together to reduce pollution despite the political tensions. "Nevertheless, what has been done to date is only the first stage," he wrote.