Israel, with a population of over 9.5 million, is the world’s only developed country whose population is growing against a backdrop of population density. Without wise planning, the Israel of tomorrow may well resemble a never-ending field of asphalt and concrete, its air polluted, its groundwater contaminated, its serenity disturbed by traffic noise and pollution.
But a different vision is also possible.
Rapid population growth and steady expansion of agriculture and industry have contributed to environmental deterioration, especially in the coastal area where more than half of Israel’s population and most of its industry are concentrated. To combat pollution of the Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines, Israel has adopted a multifaceted program of inspection, legislation, enforcement, shore clean-ups, and international cooperation, primarily within the framework of the Mediterranean Action Plan.
Under conditions of water scarcity and intensive development, the degradation of water quality is a critical problem. The main causes of groundwater pollution are chemical fertilizers, pesticides, seawater intrusion, and domestic and industrial wastewater. High priority has been given to wastewater treatment to safeguard its effects on the environment and public health and to develop an additional water source for agricultural irrigation. A recently approved plan for water management stipulates seawater and brackish water desalination, improved wastewater treatment for reuse purposes, efficient water production, and water conservation. A rehabilitation program for polluted streams has been initiated with the aim of transforming them into freshwater resources with ecological and recreational value. The quality of drinking water is strictly supervised.
Factors affecting air quality include energy production, transportation, and industry – and all three have increased dramatically in recent years. The use of low-sulfur fuel for energy production has helped reduce concentrations of sulfur dioxide considerably, but pollutant emissions linked to increased vehicular traffic have risen significantly. Lead-free gasoline, catalytic converters, and lower sulfur content in diesel fuel have been introduced to mitigate the problem. A nationwide monitoring system is providing updated information on air quality throughout the country. Israel also complies with international resolutions on ozone depletion and climate change.
Rapid growth in population, the standard of living, and consumption have led to significant increases in solid waste in the order of 4%-5% annually. Most of the country’s illegal garbage dumps have been shut down in recent years and replaced with environmentally-safe landfills. Efforts are being made toward integrated solid waste management, which will include reduction, recycling, recovery, and incineration. Recent recycling regulations should facilitate the shift to low- and non-waste technology.
"Cradle to grave" management of hazardous substances is based on licensing, regulation, and supervision over all aspects of their production, use, disposal, and treatment. Enforcement of legislation, implementation of a national contingency plan for an integrated emergency response to accidents, and remediation and upgrading of the national site for hazardous waste should minimize potential dangers to health and the environment.
Enforcement of environmental legislation is a top priority alongside environmental education, from kindergarten to university. The public takes part in environmental law enforcement as anti-litter trustees and animal welfare trustees empowered to report on violations of the respective laws. Economic tools are increasingly used to promote environmental improvement, both in the form of financial grants to industries that invest in pollution prevention and in the form of taxes and levies on polluters. In line with the principles of sustainable development, efforts are directed at resource conservation and the prevention of pollution in all economic sectors.
In the 25 year period following its independence in 1948, Israel accorded high priority to intensive development programs: new towns were built, modern agricultural programs were introduced, water sources were tapped, and roads and airports were constructed. The rapid growth rate of population, industry, and agriculture led to environmental degradation, which was further aggravated by the concentration of most industrial and urban activities along the narrow coastal strip, where meteorological conditions are unfavorable to pollution dispersal and where Israel’s major aquifer is located.
After the establishment of Israel’s first environmental government body in 1973, an environmental management program based on cooperation and integration between environmental protection and economic development was formulated. Given the rapid rate of development, the focus of environmental policy has always been on preventive measures. Over the years, efforts have been concentrated on incorporating environmental considerations into the decision-making processes of all economic sectors. This trend is being reinforced in the wake of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit). Today, Israel is taking its first steps toward the preparation of a national strategy for sustainable development development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
In juxtaposition to its small land area, Israel is characterized by a wide range of physical conditions and a rich variety of flora and fauna. This diversity is ascribed to the country’s topographic structure and its location at the crossroads of three continents and the junction of different climatic and botanical regions. Some 2,600 plant species (150 of which are indigenous to Israel), as well as 8 amphibia, 90 reptiles, 450 birds, and 70 mammal species are found in Israel. Therefore, it is not surprising that the nature conservation movement preceded organized environmental activity for over a decade. Stringent laws for the protection of natural habitats, natural assets, wildlife, and sites of scientific and educational interest have been enacted and are stringently enforced.
While awareness of the importance of nature conservation has led to the emergence of a significant system of nature reserves (155 nature reserves spanning 3500 square kilometers-1350 sq. m.-have been declared) and national parks, the small size of the country and the heavy pressures on its limited land resources have left few open space reserves. In order to secure the biodiversity and the visual resources of the country, Israel’s green organizations have launched a major campaign on behalf of the preservation of Israel’s open space landscapes in the face of development pressures. As part of the effort, the country’s entire open landscape is being assessed and classified in accordance with such criteria as uniqueness, biodiversity, and potential for sustainability. Recommendations are then made for appropriate levels of protection and/or development for each landscape unit. First priority is being accorded to the preservation of scarce open landscapes in the central part of the country, where every vacant bit of land is under immediate threat. Hopefully, Israel’s recent ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitats (the Ramsar Convention) will further advance biodiversity and natural landscape conservation.
Indubitably, under conditions of water scarcity, on the one hand, and intensive development and population growth, on the other hand, the degradation of water quality may well be the most critical environmental problem facing Israel today. Water resource development and consumption have grown rapidly since the establishment of the State of Israel so that today all feasible resources are exploited.
About twothirds of Israel’s population and a major portion of its industry and agriculture are concentrated in the region overlying the coastal aquifer, which has been increasingly threatened by contamination from chemical and microbial pollutants, salination, nitrates, heavy metals, fuels, and toxic organic compounds. Over the past 25 years, average chloride concentrations have increased from 110 mg/liter to 150 mg/liter, and it is anticipated that within 25 years, over half the wells in this region will exceed permitted salinity levels. Nitrate concentrations have increased concomitantly due to the intensive use of fertilizers in agriculture and the use of treated effluents for irrigation.
The combination of severe water shortage, contamination of water resources, densely-populated urban areas, and highly intensive irrigated agriculture, makes it essential for Israel to increase its development and use of treated wastewater, brackish water, and water harvesting (collection, storage, and use of storm runoff). At present, effluents constitute the most readily available and cheapest source of additional water. Israel is already a world leader in recycling wastewater, with nearly 70% of the wastewater treated and reused for agricultural purposes, mainly for the irrigation of nonfood crops and animal fodder in accordance with stringent permits issued by the Ministry of Health.
While water scarcity and groundwater contamination remain major problems, there is no doubt that effective water quality management can be achieved, as witnessed by the case of the Sea of Galilee. As a result of a comprehensive and integrated program of research, administration, and planning, overall water quality in the lake has not deteriorated, and eutrophication has not occurred over the past twenty years despite substantial growth in population, tourism, industry, and agricultural development in the area. In recent years, similar management practices have been applied to Israel’s ailing rivers, which have either dried up or become sewage conduits as a result of industrial discharge, municipal sewage, overpumping, or just general abuse. Today, several of Israel’s most polluted rivers are undergoing a transformation from sewage carriers into channels of life. Cleanup and rehabilitation programs have already been initiated for such polluted rivers as the Harod, Alexander, Yarkon, Kishon, and Lachish rivers. The success of the rehabilitation scheme is largely dependent on the success of sewage treatment programs that are currently being implemented. Effluent regulations, promulgated in 1993, require secondary treatment to a level of 20 mg/liter BOD and 30 mg/liter suspended solids as a minimum baseline level. Higher degrees of treatment, including nutrient removal and disinfection, are required if effluents are to be discharged into rivers.
In November 2022, Israel and Jordan signed a declaration of intent at the UN climate conference to conserve and protect the Jordan River. They plan to reduce river pollution by building wastewater treatment facilities and upgrading sewer systems to prevent riverside cities from dumping raw sewage into the waters. They also agreed to promote sustainable agriculture, controlling runoff from farm fields and reducing the use of pesticides.
“Cleaning up the pollutants and hazards, restoring water flow and strengthening the natural ecosystems will help us prepare and adapt to the climate crisis,” said Minister of Environmental Protection Tamar Zandberg.
In Israel, as elsewhere in the world, rapid technological development, improvement in standards of living, and increased population density have brought in their wake pollutant emissions from both stationary and mobile sources. Israel’s specific conditions Ð concentration of population and industry in the coastal area, small land area, variety of natural assets, and singular geological, topographical, and climatic features Ð aggravate the problems of air pollution. The rapid emergence of industrial plants in the vicinity of urban centers, coupled with a dramatic increase in the number of motor vehicles, has exacerbated air pollution problems throughout the country.
National estimates of air pollutant emissions have shown that with the exception of three pollutants Ð sulfur oxides, total particulate matter, and lead Ð emissions of all pollutants have increased drastically since 1980. On the positive side, results show that despite continuous increases in the total national energy requirement, total sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions have been reduced significantly. This is generally attributed to the shift from the use of high-sulfur residual oil to low-sulfur coal in Haifa and Ashdod’s power plants in the 1980s and the reduction in the average sulfur content of heavy residual oil in the 1990s. Present SO2 control for Israel’s oil-fired power plants is based on tall stacks (250 meters) and on a switch to low-sulfur fuel when mandated by an intermittent control system during meteorological conditions unfavorable for the dispersion of pollutants. As a result of these improvements, the ratio of SO2 emission to electricity production has decreased to less than half of its 1981 value. Similarly, reductions in suspended particulate matter emissions have occurred largely as a result of the installation of high-efficiency electrostatic precipitators in Israel’s coal-powered stations.
On the downside, the sharp rises in carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and hydrocarbon emissions are attributed to the dramatic increase in the number of motor vehicles traveling Israel’s roads, a fourfold increase over the past two decades. Without a doubt, the major challenge in the coming years will be to significantly reduce pollution from vehicular sources. Transportation sources are responsible for a lion’s share of the country’s carbon monoxide pollution and for a substantial percentage of the concentrations of lead, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and particulates in the environment. With the exception of lead, concentrations of all these pollutants have risen dramatically over the past decade. Lead concentrations have decreased following the reduction in the lead content of gasoline and the introduction of lead-free gasoline.
Several steps have been taken to abate the vehicular pollution problem; others are planned. Most importantly, all new cars imported into the country, beginning with 1995 models, must be equipped with catalytic converters, and concomitantly, unleaded gasoline is being increasingly used. Since vehicles equipped with catalytic converters emit only a tenth of the pollution discharged from regular vehicles, the increased presence of these cars should bring about a real reduction in vehicular emissions. Additional solutions currently being considered include emission standards, more effective inspection and supervision systems, restrictions on private cars in city centers, and, perhaps most importantly, better mass transportation systems. Unless the transportation network is significantly improved, congestion, with its attendant ills of noise and air pollution, will soon become unbearable.
Since the availability of nationwide data on air quality is a prerequisite for the formulation of a comprehensive national air quality management program, Israel has approved the development of a multimillion dollar national air monitoring system to complement the 63 air monitoring stations currently in operation throughout the country. The system will include individual stations, regional control centers, and a national data processing and display center. First priority will be granted to the congested Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
Finally, on the international front, efforts are being invested in implementing the provisions of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the Climate Change Convention. Although Israel is a small contributor to such global trends, it has ratified both conventions and taken an active part in international and regional efforts in these areas.
Still another grave problem in a country with meager land resources and an ever-increasing population is solid waste disposal. Each person in Israel produces about 1.7 kilograms of solid waste a day. The total quantity of municipal waste in Israel, including yard waste and industrial waste, reaches 12,000 tons per day. Another 5,000 tons of solid waste, including construction debris, are produced daily.
Until recently, hundreds of garbage dumps were spread throughout the country. Most were poorly designed and managed, and many were about to reach full capacity Ð with no alternative in sight. Continuous delays in the approval process for new landfills, many a result of the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) Syndrome, had left about two-thirds of Israel’s population without a comprehensive solution to the problem of solid waste disposal.
Today, the outlook is brighter: several factors have combined to dramatically improve Israel’s solid waste disposal problem. A landmark decision by the government has dictated the closure of all illegal landfill sites and the transfer of the waste to a few authorized central landfills, slated to serve the majority of the country’s population within a few years. Half the sites have already been shut down, and plans are proceeding for the construction of state-of-the-art landfills which fully comply with the most stringent environmental requirements. On the legal front, environmental regulations designed to prevent air and olfactory pollution are being promulgated and enforced. Indictments of operators of improperly run solid waste sites have resulted in court sentences carrying stiff fines, and in many cases, legal proceedings have led to the closure of polluting landfills.
If present rates of growth continue (5.5% per year), a fourfold increase in municipal and industrial waste is expected by the year 2020. Reduction, reuse, and recycling are therefore imperative in order to reduce these growing quantities of waste. Today’s policy calls for a shift from landfilling to the integrated treatment of solid waste based on reduction at source, reuse, recycling, incineration, and landfilling. Today, about 18% of the total amount of municipal and industrial waste is recycled, of which about 50% constitutes post-consumer recycling.
Finally, the safe management of hazardous substances is one of Israel’s most pressing environmental concerns. Israel has thousands of plants that produce, use, store, and transport about a million tons of hazardous materials, excluding fuels. An accident or mishap can bring catastrophic results, both in terms of human life and environmental damage. In recent years, a contingency plan for the integrated organization and operation of all bodies taking part in hazardous substance accidents was formulated and implemented. As a result, Israel’s emergency response teams have undergone comprehensive training and have equipped themselves with specially designated vehicles, protective gear, and sophisticated detection and identification instruments. In addition, an Information and Response Center for Hazardous Substances has been set up both to collect quantitative and qualitative data on hazardous substances and to serve as a focal point of response during hazardous substance incidents – providing essential information, support, and coordination services.
Management of hazardous substances is regulated through a permit system for any commercial activity involving hazardous materials. Industrial plants handling hazardous substances are required to undertake all necessary measures to treat these materials according to the best available technology. Hazardous wastes must be disposed of at the central site for disposal and treatment of hazardous waste in Ramat Hovav, about 17 kilometers south of Beersheba in the Negev Desert. Disposal elsewhere, for purposes of recycling, reuse, or other treatment, must be approved in advance by the competent environmental agency. Israel’s central site for hazardous waste includes various plants for neutralization and detoxification as well as evaporation ponds and burial sites in which to bury solid wastes-all built in accordance with the U.S. standards for such burial of wastes. A state-of-the-art incinerator, capable of burning about 15,000 tons of organic materials per year, is currently being completed. The aim is to supervise hazardous substances from "cradle to grave" and to implement the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, which has been ratified by Israel.
Israel’s first permanent marine station to study the deep Mediterranean was launched in November 2017. The Deep Sea Research Station, or Deeplev, is moored fifty kilometers off of the Haifa coast at a depth of 1,500 meters. The research station is run primarily by staff from Bar-Ilan University and the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research (IOLR). Deeplev will monitor environmental changes in the open Mediterranean Sea that may be the result of global warming or gas drilling. The water in the Mediterranean is unusually warm, so Deeplev’s research will be important as ocean temperatures around the world continue to rise due to global warming.
Israel believes that sustainable development can be achieved, that environmental degradation can be arrested, and that damaged areas can be restored. However, the realization of these goals depends on cooperation at all levels of government and society.
As Israel enters a new era of peace, environmental concerns are gaining new priority, internationally, nationally, and regionally. Thus, for example, mutual concern over the fate of the Gulf of Aqaba has led to an ambitious action program of cooperation between Jordan, Israel, and Egypt. All three countries have committed themselves to set up oil-spill combating centers and establishing and implementing a regional contingency plan for the protection of this unique but sensitive region. In yet another development, an Environmental Code of Conduct for the Middle East was adopted as part of the multilateral peace talks on the environment to help all parties work together against the common threats to their quality of life and the environment. The new spirit of determination that is accompanying the dawn of peace may well ensure that the unique ecological values of this area of the world-its wide diversity of flora and fauna, magnificent landscapes, and renowned heritage sites-will be protected not just for present generations, but for the generations yet to come.
Source: Isabel Debre, “Israel and Jordan agree to team up to save Jordan River,” AP, (November 17, 2022).