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Green groups warn planned road in central Israel will kill off crucial wetlands

Poleg swamp, southeast of Netanya, second in size only to Hula Valley marsh in northern Israel, said to be essential to wildlife, including migrating birds

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

  • The Poleg Swamp, seen onn March 9, 2010. (Chen Leopold/Flash 90)
    The Poleg Swamp, seen onn March 9, 2010. (Chen Leopold/Flash 90)
  • A European serin caught for bird ringing at the Poleg swamp. (Yotam Lehnardt)
    A European serin caught for bird ringing at the Poleg swamp. (Yotam Lehnardt)
  • A short-eared owl caught for bird ringing at the Poleg swamp. (Yotam Lehnardt)
    A short-eared owl caught for bird ringing at the Poleg swamp. (Yotam Lehnardt)
  • A swamp cat caught on camera at the Poleg swamp. (YouTube screenshot)
    A swamp cat caught on camera at the Poleg swamp. (YouTube screenshot)
  • A European bee-eater caught for bird ringing at the Poleg swamp. (Yotam Lehnardt)
    A European bee-eater caught for bird ringing at the Poleg swamp. (Yotam Lehnardt)
  • Aerial view of the Poleg swamp. (Ami Lazar, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
    Aerial view of the Poleg swamp. (Ami Lazar, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
  • A squacco heron caught for bird ringing at the Poleg swamp. (Yotam Lehnardt)
    A squacco heron caught for bird ringing at the Poleg swamp. (Yotam Lehnardt)
  • Aerial view of the Poleg swamp in central Israel. (YouTube screenshot)
    Aerial view of the Poleg swamp in central Israel. (YouTube screenshot)

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority and environmental groups are hoping to drum up enough public opposition to stop the construction of a road which they say will sound the death knell for the country’s second-largest wetland, the Poleg swamp, south of Netanya, in central Israel.

The plan for the road has been deposited at the National Infrastructure Committee with Tuesday, February 8, the last day for the public and environment groups to register their objections before the project is approved.

The swamp forms part of the Poleg River flood plain and is home to hundreds of species of animals and plants, some of them in danger of extinction.

Located east of Kibbutz Yakum, it is the only remnant left of a wetland that once stretched over thousands of dunams (acres) and is a critical stopping point for migrating birds.

A rare green lung in this highly built-up area, it is also much loved by the thousands of Israelis it draws, particularly at weekends.

Plans have been public for years to increase from two to four the railroad lines already crossing the swamp, between the northern city of Haifa and the Shefayim Kibbutz on the central Israeli coast. An additional two lines will be added to run locally between Netanya and Shefayim. These have not been opposed by environmental organizations because of their belief that public transport has to be increased to reduce pollution by cars.

But the idea of a new 60 meters (66 yards) wide road that would solely serve public transport between Netanya and Shefayim only emerged a couple of years ago as the National Infrastructure Committee, a body set up to fast-track planning, discussed depositing the railroad plan.

Artist’s impression of the expanded railroad system and road planned to cross the Poleg swamp. (National Roads Company of Israel)

According to Roei Shtrauss, the INPA director for the Sharon district, the planners did not carry out a proper environmental survey for such a road, as required by law nor did they investigate alternatives.

Yariv Malichi, the INPA’s central district ecologist, noted that Israel once had 250,000 dunams (61,775 acres) of wetlands which had since been reduced to just 8,000 dunams (1,976 acres). These are mainly in nature reserves, among them in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, the site of the country’s biggest wetland.

Many species of birds visit the Poleg swamp. (YouTube screenshot)

The Poleg swamp is so important because it is the only one in the area, Malichi explained.

Today, it attracts birds from all over the world, as well as local predators of all sizes, among them endangered swamp cats.

A swamp cat caught on camera at the Poleg swamp. (YouTube screenshot)

Wetlands are also recognized for their ability to absorb massive amounts of carbon dioxide from the air.

A noisy, brightly lit road would threaten nesting by drowning out communication between birds, Malichi warned. “Life will not be able to continue here,” he added if the road plan went ahead.

According to a professional opinion obtained by the INPA from Emeritus Prof. Abishai Polus, of the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology, there are no intercity roads reserved solely for public transport anywhere in Israel or the world.

This particular plan, to accommodate a relatively small number of buses, is unnecessary, he concluded. Changes being made to the coast road (Route 2) to allow for more public transport would serve the country’s need for at least the next 20 years, Polus said.

The Poleg Swamp, with a train visible just beyond. (YouTube screenshot)

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is also involved in the fight, noting that a road will add pollution to the swamp and destroy the area that forms part of an important local and national ecological corridor, through which animals can move between built-up areas.

The whole area is under immense pressure for development. Just to the northwest, where the Poleg River drains into the Mediterranean Sea, residents are battling plans to build a large hotel and shopping complex near the beach on the southern edge of Netanya. They say that it will damage ecosystems and rob the public of a popular area of open space.

Natural vegetation around Poleg. (Rivka Eidelman)

In a statement, the National Infrastructure Committee said that it could not comment on pending objections to the road. Like all objections to the plan, this objection will also be heard and discussed and a decision would be made within the framework of the committee.

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