The Environment in Israel
By D'vora Ben-Shaul
Ask any environmentally aware and informed person what are Israel's critically important environmental issues and they will no doubt all come up with more or less the same list. But if you ask them to arrange the issues in order of priority you will probably get as many opinions as you have participants. This is not unexpected because not only is Israel's list of environmental problems large, but there are so many factors to be considered that priorities are, to a great extent, in the eye of the beholder and depend on the particular area with which they are in personal contact. Therefore I have listed the topics here alphabetically and not according to any particular priority; they are simply the issues at stake.
For the first three or four decades of its existence, Israel was overwhelmingly concerned with the development of the emergent state, and quite understandably, national security, infrastructure and economic development took precedence over all other considerations. As a result, very little attention was paid to the changes that were taking place in the environment as a result of all this activity. Real attention to environmental concerns has really only began to come about during the last 25 years or so, slowly gaining more and more attention but even so, still low enough in the list of national priorities that it was only in the last elections that concern for the environment formed a part of the platform of any party running for national election. Even so, the Ministry for the Environment remains one of the least sought posts in the cabinet, and it is usually reserved as a reward for some party stalwart to whom the prime minister owes a post.
This does not mean that some real advances were not made in the intervening years and among them one must cite the outstanding success of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), a non-governmental organization, whose lobbying and insistence in the 1950s, convinced a reluctant government to set aside an area, albeit a small one of the Lake Hula wetlands that were being drained, as a permanent nature reserve - Israel's first. This organization also, through their sterling efforts in schools, succeeded in educating the public not to pick wildflowers. It was also their consistent pressure on succeeding governments that led to the creation of The Israel Nature Reserves Authority (NRA). One cannot fail to be aware of the excellent work of the NRA in protecting wildlife and in saving several species from the brink of extinction. It was due to the untiring efforts of the NRA's first director, the late Major-General Avraham Yaffe that Israel ranks among the top ten nations in the world in the percentage of national land set aside as nature reserves.
It was the NRA that set up the country's first environmental protection unit, preceding the formation of the Environmental Protection Service by several years. The unit concentrated its efforts on the protection of water sources and on the prevention of pesticide abuse and in the early 1970s, found itself in the unusual position of being both censured and commended by the State Comptroller in the same report.
The NRA was criticised for having exceeded its legal mandate in dealing with issues that were not confined to the issue of nature reserves, but was then commended for having done so because these vital issues were not being addressed by any other body. One of the results of this activity was the emergence of an agriculture ministry "think tank" in 1970 where experts from a number of disciplines studied ways of protecting the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret), Israel's largest surface water source. The outgrowth of this group was the appointment of the Kinneret Management Committee which still protects the lake from pollutants and misuse.
But there are still a number of serious problems which need to be addressed and there is little time left in which to devote the required attention to them. Among them are:
It is in combating air pollution that some of the greatest advances have been made, notably in Haifa where for years the population suffered from the pollution emissions of the local oil refinery and the Israel Electric Company plant, not to mention the large complexes devoted to chemical production such as Haifa Chemicals. By the end of the 1980s, Haifa was suffering sulphur dioxide (SO2) levels more than four times higher than the standard allowable. Stringent emission permits issued in response to publicly-sponsored litigation have now brought about a situation in which there is rarely an occasion when these emissions exceed the permitted level. This is also true of other heavily industrialized areas such as Ashdod, where for two decades, emission of SO2 was so high as to pose a danger to public health and where the percentage of children and the elderly suffering from respiratory complications was the highest in Israel.
Unfortunately these gains must be measured against the rapid deterioration of air quality in other areas. While the noted Israeli songwriter, Naomi Shemer in her memorable "Jerusalem of Gold" in 1967 sang of "mountain air as pure as wine," today Jerusalem's air pollution is at such a level that it is predicted that by the year 2010, air pollution, if unchecked, will reach the levels prevailing today in Mexico City.
In Jerusalem, it is not industrial but vehicular pollution that is responsible for the degradation of air quality. Rapid growth after the Six-Day War of 1967 brought hundreds of thousands of new residents to the city and houses, shopping malls, roads and streets have multiplied accordingly. Nothing has been done to lighten this polluting factor.
Succeeding Israeli governments, for their own reasons, have always favoured private vehicles over an efficient public transport system, some say because of the enormous taxes and fees private vehicle owners pay. As a result the capital city suffers, not only from its own congested vehicular traffic, but from the clouds of vehicle-generated pollution that drift up from Tel Aviv and the entire, highly-populated surrounding region.
Even when the government finally yielded to the demands of the Environment Ministry and the non-governmental environment groups, and made lead-free gasoline available throughout the country, no one, not the ministry of health, not the transport ministry and not the ministry of environment has actually made the effort to educate the public to prefer unleaded fuel for their cars.
No engineering information has been distributed to garages, no publicity has been carried out among the public. As a result, although most vehicles in Israel can effectively use unleaded petrol, they are often told by uninformed mechanics that it might be dangerous to do so.
Nature Protection and Wildlife Management
Israel has a number of nature and wildlife protection problems that are unique. Because of stringent hunting laws and very active protection of wildlife, Israel has become a refuge for many native animals in an area where there is little protection offered. Except for Jordan, none of the surrounding Arab states have a really effective nature protection service and many indigenous animals such as gazelles, ibex, hyaenas and others are now very rare in those countries. How then, does one decide on the amount of protection to be offered an animal such as the hill gazelle, when its population reaches nuisance proportions and it becomes an active threat to agriculture in Israel, while a few kilometres across the border, gazelles have been hunted almost to extinction.
In addition, Israel is the temporary abode and therefore de facto guardian of more than three-quarters of Europe's migratory birds, which stop over here on their way south in the autumn and on their return to Europe in the spring. Sometimes, as in the case of pelicans, cormorants and starlings, the damage to field crops and aquaculture can run into millions of shekels. Israel must somehow strike a balance between the need to protect the migrants against the obvious agricultural needs.
Israelis, by and large are a noisy lot. Like all Mediterranean people they are convinced that if you are not heard you don't exist. Radios and stereos blare, cars honk incessantly and the modulation of speech is a rarity. Even so, another non-governmental organization, The Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) has succeeded in obtaining court orders to abate noise from various sources in residential areas and it is to be hoped that more such actions will be fortcoming.
Until June, 2001, there were at least a dozen pesticides in use in Israel that are banned in most western countries. Since Israel exports a variety of fruits, vegetables and cheeses, attempts are indeed made to keep pesticide levels to a minimum, since the growers and producers know that food exceeding the stringent European standards will be returned. This in some way does protect Israeli consumers from excessive pesticide residues in food, but not in all cases. Whenever foodstuffs are returned for this reason they are usually diverted to the Israeli market because of the less stringent standards and because there is no adequate monitoring system in effect.
Although both the ministries of health and agriculture are supposed to monitor food quality, both adamantly refuse to release their findings to the public, maintaining that "this would confuse people." This paternalistic attitude, however, is becoming less felt since the passage of the Freedom of Information Act in 1998 by the Knesset.
Private studies, some of them carried out by the ministry of the environment and some by NGOs, have shown that about 12 percent of the vegetables and fruits that reach the market exceed even the liberal Israeli standards for pesticide residue and in a large number of cases, the pesticides were officially licensed only for use on non-food crops such as cotton.
Because both the responsible ministries have shown that they cannot be relied upon for adequate monitoring of food products, there is an increasingly vociferous demand for an independent food administration.
The Sea and Seacoast
In the 20 years that have passed since Israel signed the protocols of the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean, great strides have been made in the prevention of pollution from oil spills and today the dumping of contaminated bilge water and the release of oil in Israeli seas is the exception, and a sharply punished exception at that. In consequence, tar on the beaches has been reduced by more than 200 percent.
But other pollutants are still being dumped into the sea including sewage and polluted water from chemical plants, and in some cases, permitted dumping of chemical waste at sea.
Much still needs to be done since in Haifa harbour, to site just one instance, mercury and other toxic metal contaminants have rendered the fish unsuitable for food.
As for the coast line itself, the picture is even more depressing. Once a land of golden Mediterranean beaches, today the proliferation of marinas for pleasure vessels and the tendering of beachfront sites to developers have reached such a proportion that public beaches are getting more and more scarce, and due to an expanding population, ever more crowded and even more polluted. In addition, the recent craze for all-terrain vehicles has made visiting some public beaches both dangerous and offensive.
The most active and by far most successful opponent of the destruction of the coastal area is the IUED. This organization has had some major successes in court when petitioning for stoppage of projects and demands for disclosure of full environmental impact statements.
But the IUED stands alone and until now no national level planning authority has intervened, so that each municipality or local council decides for itself how much land may be ceded to private concerns and, how much seafront for marinas. Since both bring in high revenues, the decisions are usually budgetary and not environmental.
Most of the systems used in Israel for the discharge of sewage effluents, the conduits, the sedimentation and aeration ponds and the sewage treatment plants are inadequate to the demands placed on them today. Many are old and in poor repair and even more were never designed to cope with a population that is increasing by approximately one million per decade.
In addition, in many cases communities have been developed without the proper infrastructure, and it was only recently that one of the oldest settlements in the Galilee was converted from cesspits to a central sewage disposal system. In most kibbutzim and moshavim there are no treatment facilities beyond sedimentation and aeration and in some places, notably Jewish settlements and the Arab townships in Judea and Samaria, the raw sewage simply flows into the wadis.
All of this, poses a serious threat to Israel's water supply. Not only does the effluent find its way to rivers and wadis and eventually to the Sea of Galilee in some cases, it also percolates downwards and contaminates the underground aquifers.
Dealing with all of this is a monumental problem since only court orders seem to be able to convince the heads of local and municipal councils to invest their tax-gained income in a sewage system rather than something more glamorous such as a community centre or a sports complex. The IUED, however, has been singularly successful in bringing action and in getting such court orders issued and, at the same time, in many more cases, by using persuasion to convince authorities.
Rather more than 95 percent of Israel's solid waste is buried in landfills, burned in open-air pits or left to rot in garbage dumps throughout the country. This is in contrast with Switzerland that buries only 12 percent of its garbage or Japan that buries 19 percent. Recycling in Israel is so minimal as to hardly deserve mention. This is not due, as some imagine, to a lack of public willingness to participate in recycling; in fact, where pilot projects have been instituted such as in Tivon and Yavne, for instance, public participation has been overwhelmingly successful, and a new system for collecting plastic soft drink bottles is increasingly effective in the major towns.
The open garbage dumps create a variety of environmental dangers. Aside from aesthetic considerations, they contribute a large amount of toxic and particulate matter to air pollution; they comprise a health hazard due to breeding flies, rats and mosquitoes and they contaminate underground water supplies. When situated, as was Hiriya, Tel Aviv's main dump until two years ago, in too close proximity to a major airport, millions of scavenging gulls, ravens and other birds are a major threat to aircraft and large sums have been spent in attempts to keep the birds away from the runways.
Despite all this, until heavy winter rains caused the Hiriya garbage mountain on the edge of Tel Aviv to collapse, completely blocking the flow of the nearby Ayalon River, nothing constructive was done to alleviate this condition. The ministry of the interior which is responsible for municipalities, refuses to assign any realistic place to the problem in their priorities and year after year, all attempts to introduce serious steps to help solve the problem are met with a solid wall of objections. The interior ministry still insists that "recycling has not yet been proven to be effective or economically sound." By artificially keeping haulage rates low through subsidies, the ministry has created a situation in which Israeli towns and cities pay only $7 per ton for garbage disposal, approximately one tenth of that paid in all other industrialized countries. At these prices it is simply not worthwhile to change the system.
Surface Water Pollution
The serious nature of the pollution of Israel's rivers was dramatically highlighted four years ago when a footbridge over the Yarkon river collapsed and a group of Australian athletes competing in the Maccabi Games were thrown into the polluted river below. Several subsequently died, and others were injured, not from the fall but from the insidious poisoning from exposure to the toxic waters of the chemically-polluted river.
Toxic waste disposal in Israel has significantly improved over the past few years but is still a long way from satisfactory. From a situation only some seven years ago when thousands of tons of toxic waste produced by industry failed to reach the country's toxic waste disposal facility at Ramat Hovav in the Negev, today virtually all industrial toxic waste is accounted for.
But the toxic waste site itself is as big a problem as the one it was designed to solve. Twenty-five years worth of back-logged materials are kept in often leaking containers at the site and the poisonous materials that seep into the soil are a threat to the Negev aquifer and a potential health hazard to communities kilometres away. At last, an incinerator capable of handling toxic waste has been installed but it is of a size that will require several years, working at maximum capacity, to deal with the back log, not to mention the hundreds of tons that arrive every year. It is clear that the facility's capacity must be enlarged.
At the same time, toxic waste from agriculture and from households and small businesses has hardly been addressed. Public-spirited citizens sometimes collect used batteries that pollute the groundwater with a variety of metals including nickel, cadmium and lithium, but once they have collected them, no one seems to be able to organize any transport to the toxic waste dump. Much needs be done to ensure that batteries, paint, solvents, used motor oil and pesticide containers and left-over pesticides also get to a disposal facility. Even some kibbutzim and moshavim still toss this material into the nearest wadi.
In 1948, only three per cent of the land in the country was under pavement or asphalt; by 1992 the figure had grown to over 17 percent. Even this figure does not seem large for a state that has known such a drastic increase in population and such rapid development, except when one realizes that 95 per cent of the total population of Israel lives north of Beersheba. This means that almost all of the paved and asphalted land is in less than half the country.
Estimates by a study group from the Technion, Haifa, indicate that if the current increase in population continues at the present rate, and if building policies and infrastructures are not carefully tailored, by the year 2020, Israel will have a population of between nine and 12 million people and at least three million vehicles. Approximately 60 percent of the Galilee will be urbanized, paved or asphalted. This does not include the coastal strip where planners already speak of "Nashkelon," that is, one continuous urban belt from Nahariya to Ashkelon.
Every year more and more farmland and natural areas yield to added highways and additional residential complexes. In addition, the recent construction of large industrial centres in the Galilee further encroaches on once natural terrain. But in actual fact there simply is no overall plan for Israel's future growth.
Even though water comes last in this alphabetical list of environmental concerns, it is probably the one single issue that most people would give first place in any list of priorities.
The quality of drinking water and sometimes the strong taste of chlorine in most of Israel's water, is unsatisfactory and is expected to continue declining. This is the conclusion of the ministry of the environment and is borne out by the repeated occasions on which the ministry of health is obliged to advise residents in certain areas to boil their drinking water, and by the rapid increase in the sale of bottled mineral water, considered a rank luxury only a few years ago.
Moreover, the quantity of water available is one of Israel's greatest causes for concern and major efforts have been expended in finding ways to save water, particularly in agriculture. Today Israel leads the world in the utilization of "grey water," that is water recycled from sanitary sewage.
All of this water is diverted to industry and to agriculture where fresh water allotments have been cut by as much as 40 percent without a resulting decrease in crop yields. Israel has also invented and markets an enormous variety of water saving systems for agriculture, including computer-controlled irrigation systems that only turn on the water when the moisture level at the roots of the plants indicates the need. But in the meantime, agricultural fertilizers have resulted in nitrate contamination of many wells in the coastal region and over-pumping from the aquifers is allowing salt water to seep in from the sea, rendering the water unsatisfactory for household and most industrial use.
Israel currently faces the most serious water crisis in its history. Several years of insufficient rainfall and increased demands due to population growth and expanding industry have led to a situation where drastic measures to reduce water consumption are necessary.
Israel has also ceded millions of cubic litres annually as a part of the peace agreements with Jordan and it is no secret that there is just not enough water in the long run, nor will there be unless other sources such as desalination operated by cheap, sustainable energy become available. For this reason, large budgets are devoted to the development of solar energy for desalination and recently an agreement was reached with the World Bank to fund an experimental power plant that derives its energy from ocean waves.
In the private sector less attention is paid to water conservation and it is only when the level of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's largest surface water source, begins to drop below the danger point, and when people see this on their television sets, that anyone seems to be concerned. But vast efforts are underway to find agricultural and industrial uses for water that is too saline to be potable and many other, smaller projects are devoted to this.
Even though Israel got off to a slow start in dealing with its environmental problems and even though these problems are many and complicated, even the environmentalists prefer to see that the glass is still half full rather than half empty and the public is becoming more and more aware of the problems involved. The Life and Environment umbrella organization has more than a dozen member NGOs and the list is still growing. This in itself holds out the hope that as more and more Israelis are becoming concerned over these issues, and demand effective action, that successive governments will face up to the challenge.
D'vora Ben-Shaul came to Israel from the US in 1959. She is a biologist and nature writer with a PhD from the University of Texas, and has spent many years studying Israel's natural life. She writes extensively on topics concerning nature, biology and the environment.
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry