Israel’s Worst-Ever Ecological Disaster - A Personal Perspective by Noam Weiss
2014, the year of so many triumphs for Israeli nature, ends in disaster. On December 3rd, a pipeline in the Evrona Nature Reserve burst, spilling more than 3 million liters of raw crude oil over the unique landscape. As the incomprehensible images of this catastrophe come in, we can only try to internalize what has happened. Noam Weiss, SPNI’s Director of the Eilat International Birdwatching and Research Center, shares with us his first person perspective.
The Evrona Nature Reserve is sensitive and fragile. The Acacia trees are hundreds of years old and support a unique biodiversity. Within the desert forest of giant Acacia trees live more than 200 charming Dorcas Gazelles, as well as porcupines, red foxes, wolves, hyenas and unique species of rodents. Birds, such as desert larks, blackstarts, scrub warblers, little green bee-eaters and Arabian babblers are also commonly found. Hooded, desert and morning wheatears and the southern great shrike are also common visitors in winter along with the rare Asian Desert Warbler. Recently, 6 hoopoe larks were spotted after years of scattered observations. We think there are only 10 pairs of these birds in Israel. Within the arid desert, the Acacia trees provide the foundation for life.
Every time the staff of Eilat's birding center passes by on its weekly monitoring mission, we greet the bushes as friends as we pass, and are careful not to leave too many footprints. The birds and herd of Gazelles were full of life and everything was so clean. All this beauty is now contaminated, by the sight and smell of the black sludge flowing in rivulets across the previously pristine desert.
I live in Beer Ora. It's a small, pleasant village, 20 km (12 miles) north of Eilat. Every day for the past few months, on my way to work, I travelled past a huge hole in the ground at Beer Ora’s entrance. Each day a mixture of workers, supervisors and heavy machinery were attempting to join together two giant oil pipes. It didn't look like they were succeeding as the number of supervisors and sophisticated devices multiplied week by week.
Eventually, they all left. I’m not sure what happened, but on December 3rd, 3 million liters of oil erupted from that place. My phone got a short SMS telling me that I couldn’t leave my home. The radio said that it took 2 hours to shut off the supply as the fail-safe systems failed. My neighbors and I awoke to a black morning.
The area was chaos. Vehicles from the pipeline company, police, Nature and Parks Authority, and government were trying to gain a handle on the disaster. During the night they had managed to build dams and collect much of the oil in several small black lakes. Dozens of oil tankers, tractors and trucks of every shape and size were moving around in no discernable pattern trying to avoid becoming stuck in the contaminated sands, as people tried to work out the next thing to do. By 8:30 a.m. planes were flying overhead trying to get a handle on the full scale of the disaster.
From my perspective, I could see that the gazelles’ movement was as chaotic as ours. They were far from their usual homes; fortunately none appear to be directly harmed by the oil. The birds remained in their usual spots, perched above the black sludge. We have not found any contaminated birds … yet. The bushes were not so lucky, drowning in the black gold. They will die for sure. The proud Acacia trees remain green and in bloom, not yet tainted. If this place is to recover, the Acacia trees must survive. If they die, in time, so will everything else. We are praying for a miracle, but we know, deep down, that the damage has already been done. The soil is now toxic, a small amount of the oil will be enough to infect and kill a tree, even one hundreds of years old. The closest thing to a forest in the Eilat area is dying, and with it everything that lives here.
Looking for a miracle we hang to every spark of optimism. The oil did not percolate more than 3 cm into the soil in the clayish areas and only 20 cm in stony spots, so if we can purify the contaminated soil we could limit the damage, and the ecosystem could renew itself over time. We appreciate the joint efforts of everybody here – the pipe-line personnel, wildlife rangers, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Eilat Birding Center, police, the Ministry for Environmental Protection, journalists, truck and tractor drivers. Everyone is doing their utmost despite the dust, the fumes, the smell and their exhaustion to save this natural habitat. Their fatigue is masked by their adrenalin and the Eilat spirit.
The Arava people are mourning like they have lost a family member. Even in this desert, nature is everywhere - it is a part of us. You can see people walking, crying and hugging the dying trees. The sorrow is palpable and everywhere.
The beautiful sunset on the Arava, when the mountains are colored red, Sunbirds and Wheatears are singing and the Acacia trees are blooming, all gives the impression that nothing has changed. The heart cannot yet believe what happened, resting on memories of our beloved land and waiting for a miracle. But our minds know. The Evrona Nature Reserve will never be the same again. The damage is done.
International Birding and Research Center - Eilat
Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel