Lesson from a dying lake

Lesson from a dying lake

15 August 2007

published by www.haaretz.com

Tel Aviv, Israel — With all the attention devoted to green cars, solar energy and the greenhouse effect, it has been somewhat forgotten that the main environmental threat impacting most Israelis directly is the loss of nature and landscapes. It is a process taking place almost daily where bulldozers bury a final sand dune or churn up another swath of natural woodland to make way for a road or destroy a winter reservoir in favor of a shopping center.

The significance of this loss and the difficulty in correcting it are underscored in one of the saddest and most beautiful books published this year – the 50th anniversary edition of photographer Peter Merom’s “Song of a Dying Lake,” reissued by the Defense Ministry. The book of black and white photographs, with texts edited by Yedidya Peles, documents the glory of Lake Hula, and its loss.

Lake Hula – its southern section a lake, its northern section large swamps – was drained in the 1950s in the interest of agricultural development. The drainage operation was carried out without conducting a comprehensive study of its ecological, environmental and emotional ramifications. Draining the lake later proved problematic for agricultural development as well: it caused fires on peat lands, sent ground pollutants flowing into Lake Kinneret, generated dust storms, and led to the spread of weeds and voles that damage crops. Neglect by farmers, because of assorted difficulties, exacerbated thesituation.

Numerous scientists have depicted the lake’s animal life and vegetation, which was far richer than those in the Kinneret. Merom describes this in his photographs, and the notes he made with Peles: “In the springtime the lake would transform. It would flood cultivated fields along its shore, cover them with fertile silt, and recede. The sun would come out and ripen the sediment-enriched cereals and corn. The water fowl would come and claim: This patch is ours, and the coastal birds would counter: It belongs to us.”

Merom and Peles describe the draining and destruction of the lake with heartbreaking resignation. The photos document plants shriveling up and dying, the carcass of a terrapin and birds desperately in search of water. “Death got most of them – the desert offers no escape,” the book says. “Cracked, parched earth cried out, as the lake’s millions of creatures died with their mouths gaping open.”

Merom thanked the lake for the days of its youth, and bid it farewell. Today the Israel Nature and Parks Authority takes pride in the Hula reserve, a remnant of the original lake salvaged by the founders of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, led by the late zoologist Prof. Heinrich Mendelssohn (a fact INPA neglected to mention at the visitors center there). The Jewish National Fund maintains the adjacent Lake Agmon – an area of the original lake that was reflooded last decade.

These are undoubtedly important nature sites, but they cannot take the place of more extensive ecological preservation activities, that would bring back to life a substantial part of the lake. Lake Hula can be further rehabilitated by flooding additional lands, which would restore at least part of the lost beauty. One of the ideas previously suggested by landscape designer Motti Kaplan, and rejected, was to restore the original state of a swampy northern region and partially reconstructed lake in the southern region.

Several scientists recommended in the past linking up the springs surrounding the Hula Valley with the areas to be reflooded, as well as to deliver better-quality water to the nature reserve. Continuing to rehabilitate Lake Hula would make partial amends for the tragedy Merom depicted, and befits the statement appearing on the final page of his book: “Once upon a time there was a lake, its story is over now, but not done with.”

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