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Environmental Protection

Israel, with a population that has increased from 800,000 in 1948 to 5.6 million today, is the only developed country in the world in which population continues to grow against a backdrop of population density. In fact, according to Israel’s master plan for the 21st century, Israel, in the area north of Be’er Sheva (where 92% of the population is concentrated), will be the most densely populated country in the world within thirty years – if present trends continue. The master plan anticipates that by the year 2020, the country’s population will exceed 8 million, its built-up space will treble, and the number of cars on its roads will increase three-fold, reaching 3.6 million. 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.

Historical Overview

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 environment 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 on sustainable development–development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Nature Conservation

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 amphibian, 90 reptile, 450 bird and 70 mammal species are found in Israel. Therefore, it is not surprising that the nature conservation movement preceded organized environmental activity by 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.

Water Quality

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 two-thirds 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 anti-cipated that within 25 years, over half the wells in this region will exceed permitted salinity levels. Nitrate concentrations have increased concomitantly due to 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 non-food 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 which 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.

Air Quality

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 concentration of population and industry in the coastal area, small land area, variety of natural assets and singular geological, topographical and climatic features aggravate the problems of air pollution. The rapid emergence of industrial plants in the vicinity of urban centers coupled by 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 sulfur oxides, total particulate matter and lead 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 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 down side, 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 doubt, the major challenge in 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 in to 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 multi-million 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 takes an active part in international and regional efforts in these areas.

Solid Waste

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 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 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.

Hazardous Substances

Finally, safe management of hazardous substances is one of Israel’s most pressing environmental concerns. Israel has thousands of plants which 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 substances 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 substances 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 at the central site for the disposal and treatment of hazardous waste in Ramat Hovav, about 17 kilometers south of Be’er Sheva in the Negev. 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 US 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 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 to establish and implement 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 which 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.

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