Shrinking Sea of Galilee has some hoping for a miracle

The Sea of Galilee has been shrinking for years, mainly due to overuse, and environmentalists are raising the alarm. (AFP)
Updated 13 November 2018
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Shrinking Sea of Galilee has some hoping for a miracle

  • The Sea of Galilee has been shrinking for years, mainly due to overuse, and environmentalists are raising the alarm
  • Plans are being devised to resuscitate the freshwater body
EIN GEV, Israel: It was not so long ago when swimmers at Ein Gev would lay out their towels in the grass at the edge of the Sea of Galilee.
Today, they put up their parasols 100 meters (yards) further down, on a sandy beach that has appeared due to the shrinking of the iconic body of water.
“Every time we come we feel an ache in our hearts,” said Yael Lichi, 47, who has been visiting the famous lake with her family for 15 years.
“The lake is a symbol in Israel. Whenever there is a drought, it is the first thing we talk about.”
In front of Lichi, wooden boats with Christian pilgrims aboard navigate the calm waters, among groups from across the world that visit.
The Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe Jesus walked on water, has been shrinking for years, mainly due to overuse, and environmentalists are raising the alarm.
Plans are being devised to resuscitate the freshwater body known to Israelis as the Kinneret and to some as Lake Tiberias.
For Israel, the lake is vital, having long been the country’s main source of water. Israeli newspaper Haaretz provides its water level daily on its back page.
Its shrinking has been a source of deep concern. When two islands appeared recently due to falling water levels, it received widespread attention in the Israeli media.
Since 2013 “we are below the low red line” beyond which “salinity rises, fish have difficulty surviving and vegetation is affected,” said Amir Givati, hydrologist at Israel’s water authority.
The level is only around 20 centimeters (less than eight inches) above the record low plumbed in 2001 — except, at that time, 400 million cubic meters (14.1 billion cubic feet) a year were pumped out for irrigation.
“This year, we only pumped 20 million cubic meters, but the lake is in a very bad state,” said Givati.
Added to that is the 50 million cubic meters Israel sends to neighboring Jordan as part of peace agreements.
Its unique characteristics go beyond its religious significance.
It is 200 meters (650 feet) below sea level, located north of the Dead Sea, the River Jordan between them.
Both the Dead Sea and the Jordan have also suffered from overuse.
The Galilee covers some 160 square kilometers (60 square miles), roughly the size of Liechtenstein.
At the water ministry, blame for its condition is placed on five years of drought.
But “climatic factors alone are inadequate to explain the record shrinkage of the Sea of Galilee,” wrote Michael Wine, Alon Rimmer and Jonathan Laronne, researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University.
Irrigated agriculture, pumping and diversions are the main culprits, they say in an analysis.
Israel constructed a national aqueduct in the 1950s in the years after the country’s birth, when it was on a quest for nation-building and sought to “make the desert bloom,” as its early pioneers put it.
The aqueduct carried water from the lake toward the rest of the country.
“Lake Tiberias was used as a national reservoir,” said Julie Trottier, a professor who specializes in Israeli-Palestinian water issues.
A man-made canal supplied water to the west toward the Mediterranean coast and into the Negev desert in the south, she said.
That system has not been in place for some 10 years. Now, most homes in the west of the country use desalinated water from the Mediterranean, while farms are irrigated with water that is treated and recycled.
But eastern Israel does not have access to desalinated water, said Orit Skutelsky, of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.
Farmers in the region rely on rivers that provide 90 percent of the lake’s input.
Dozens of pumps remove nearly 100 million cubic meters (3.5 billion cubic feet) each year from those sources, whose flow has decreased and is no longer enough to supply the lake, says the researcher.
Several kilometers from the beaches at Ein Gev, at the foot of rocky hills, immense nets cover banana trees whose leaves wilt with the surrounding dry vegetation.
“We call it the valley of bananas,” said Meir Barkan, tourism director for the Ein Gev resort.
“When they began planting trees, there was no water problem and the banana is the only fruit that you harvest year-round.”
But without desalinated or recycled water, the farms are a main player in the “competition for resources between nature, agriculture and tourism,” said Eran Feitelson, geography professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
For Lior Avichai, agronomist at the Zemach Nisyonot research center, the solution is not to “kill agriculture and the local economy,” but to use less water.
Authorities propose providing the region with desalinated water via the aqueduct.
Skutelsky said that to better manage the ecosystem, the water should be sent further upstream and then allowed to flow down naturally.
But “that would be very expensive,” said Skutelsky.
Menahem Lev, 59, has spent 39 years of his life on the lake as a fisherman.
In his open palm, he displays a Saint Peter’s fish just pulled from his nets, barely bigger than his hand.
“The solution can only come from the government — or from the sky,” he said.
He points to the half-abandoned dock which pilgrims’ boats can no longer reach, forcing visitors to disembark on the bank.
“I am really ashamed when tourists see the lake in this state,” Lev said.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.