Alexander River Restoration Project Wins 2003 International River Prize

Turtle Bridge at Italy Park in Nahal Alexander. Photo: Yoav Devir

In 1995, a master plan to restore the Alexander River was put together and implemented by KKL-JNF, the Drainage Authority, the Emek Hefer Regional Council, and the Ministry for the Protection of the Environment, in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, with the generous support of friends of KKL-JNF Italy, as well as KKL France. The river has become a prime spot for tourism and recreation, with the crown jewel being Italy Alexander River Park. The project is a unique example of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on environmental issues, and the results can been seen on the ground. The quality of the river's water have been vastly improved and wide areas around the banks have been preserved for recreation and sailing. In 2003, the Nahal Alexander river restoration project won the International Riverprize, at the International Riversymposium held in Brisbane, Australia. Each year, the prize is awarded for outstanding river restoration and management, and is one of the most prestigious environmental and restoration awards.

River restoration efforts. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

A lot of work was undertaken to bring life back to the Alexander River, which flows from Nablus in the West Bank to the estuary of the Mediterranean Sea in Israel. For decades, the river was polluted by the sewage from the Palestinian cities of Nablus and Tulkarem and Israeli villages in the vicinity. A major project was building the eastern Emek Hefer effluents purification plant adjacent to the security fence east of Kibbutz Yad Hannah. At present, vital efforts are being made to improve the quality of the water. The Yad Hannah sewage treatment plant is scheduled for an upgrade that will enable it to purify the water it produces to the tertiary stage. This will enable the amount of water flowing in the river to be increased and its quality to be improved. The upgrade is due to be completed in two years’ time.

Soft-shelled Nile Turtle. Photo: Yoav Devir

Currently, sewage is collected by the facility, and some of it is purified, before being channeled to the Alexander River tributary, which has come alive with water fowl, coypus, a wide variety of fish and ducks, nutrias, and the unique soft-shelled Nile turtle.

The restoration of the river does not end with the water purification, however. Removing pollution from the river has enabled the creation of a park on both banks of the river, many kilometers long, including paths accessible for the disabled, picnic grounds and recreation areas with playground facilities in the shade of ancient eucalyptus trees, lawns and gardens, all beautifully landscaped. The lush surrounding vegetation is further evidence that pollution and neglect are things of the past. Small waterfalls improve water quality and allow the visitor to enjoy the pleasant babbling sound they produce. Hikers, who had stayed away from the unhealthy river, have also returned to hike there.

Those of us who remember Nahal Alexander as it was just over a decade ago, before reclamation activities got underway, will find it hard to believe the changes that have taken place. This river, which flows for 32 kilometers from Nablus until it reaches the Mediterranean Sea, was for many years notorious for its state of neglect and pollution prior to the rehabilitation process. Nissim Almon, Director General of the Sharon Drainage Authority, confirms that KKL-JNF is an important partner in river restoration projects. “Together, we are finding a sensible way to balance the need for development against the needs of the environment, in order to conserve the riches nature has given us for the benefit of future generations,” he said.

Italy Alexander River Park. Photo: Yoav Devir

Alexander River Park stroll. KKL-JNF Photo Archive

Alexander River's clean water and lush river banks. Photo: Yoav Devir 

When asked if he could recall how the river had looked in the past, he gave a description that made for uncomfortable hearing: “The water was black, and you could smell its stink from far off. Because of the raw sewage that ran in the river, nothing could live in it. The whole area was infested with mosquitoes and the insecticide used to exterminate them had destroyed the vegetation along the riverbanks. Used motor oil had been poured on to the surface of the water to prevent the mosquitoes from breeding. Obviously, no sane person goes anywhere near a place like that.”

Architect and regional planner Amos Brandeis explained that pollution was at its worst and the river in its most appalling state. “This was where we could make a significant impact and show what can be done when the proper action is taken to rehabilitate a river,” he said. “And there was another advantage, too: this area is accessible to the public as it’s close to main roads, which makes it attractive to tourists and other visitors.”
According to Yehiel Cohen, Deputy Director of KKL-JNF’s Central Region, work at Nahal Alexander is not yet complete. Future plans include upgrading the park, a footpath along the river’s southern bank to complement the existing trail and a stage for events in Italy Park.