Galilee Diary: Unintended Consequences
Praised are You, O Lord our God, ruler of the universe, whose world contains such as these.
– traditional blessing upon seeing a beautiful natural phenomenon
I recently went with a group of friends on an outing to the Agamon Hula, or Hula Pond, located in the Hula Valley (north of the Kinneret). This is now an extremely popular tourist site for Israelis and visitors from abroad, but its history is a cautionary tale about development, hubris, and unintended consequences.
When the Zionist pioneers arrived in Palestine, there were a number of malarial swamps around the country, some due to natural topography, some due to the blockage of drainage systems over centuries of neglect. The Hula was the largest of these, sitting in the northern part of the Syro-African Rift Valley which is Israel's most prominent geological feature. The dream of draining this large swamp and turning it into a rich agricultural basin was one of the first major development challenges taken on by the country. In the course of the 1950s canals were dug and the Jordan dredged out, and the swamp disappeared except for a small area kept as a nature reserve. This was seen as a great triumph of modern technology, and an example of how Zionism was redeeming not only the Jewish people, but the land of Israel, in a physical sense, converting it from stagnation to productivity.
It seems that there had been warnings from experts from other countries that this project might not be such a great idea; however, we were undaunted. In the end, they turned out to be right. The elimination of the swamp led to pollution of the Kinneret, erosion of top soil, underground peat fires, and of course the elimination of much natural flora and fauna. The agricultural paradise didn't really materialize as planned. And the natural paradise of the swamp was eliminated. In the '90s, it was decided to re-flood part of the valley, and the Hula Pond was created. Since the Syro-African Rift is a major migration route for birds from Europe to Africa, the lake and its surrounding fields became an important way station on this route. This in turn led to complaints by farmers in the area, whose fields were being decimated by the huge numbers of migrating birds, especially cranes. The solution was to create feeding areas and stock them with tons of grain for the hundreds of thousands of birds. In the end, the value of bird-watching tourism to the area economy exceeds what would have been the value of agriculture there.
Today there are walking trails along the margins of the pond, with shady spots and observation points where rangers set up telescopes so you can get a close look at the masses of birds, and pick out the many different kinds. You can rent a bicycle built for one, two, three, or five, or a golf cart, or buy a guided tour in a tractor-pulled blind. In addition to birds, there are nutria swimming in the canals - a nearby farmer tried to raise them for fur but discovered that their coats are sparse in such a warm climate, so he turned them loose, and they multiplied successfully. You can also see barn owl nesting boxes in the surrounding agricultural fields; Kibbutz Sde Eliahu, farther down the Jordan Valley, pioneered the use of owls as an organic control for rodent infestations (which came with the conversion of the swamp to fields).
It was a perfect fall day (of which we have three or four every year). The birds are a mind-boggling display of the fecundity and diversity of nature; and the story of the place a reminder of how little we understand it. And a good time was had by all.