Israel’s environmental crises today include:
Air pollution: Israel’s major cities, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa, as well as industrial centers like Ashdod, face severe air pollution problems, primarily from industrial and automobile emissions. In ‘003, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense published the results of a study it conducted with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that indicated that 1,400 Israelis die each year from exposure to air pollution in Tel Aviv and Ashdod alone. This is over twice the number of Israelis who die annually due to traffic accidents and terrorist acts combined!
A study published in November by the Epidemiological Department of Barzilai hospital (Ashkelon) showed a very high correlation between the level of air pollution and the rise in complaints of respiratory disorders and heart disease. One Israeli child in five suffers from asthma and other breathing difficulties as a result of air pollution. Furthermore, the pollution results in economic damage costing over $77 million dollars a year in Israel, due to medical expenses for people suffering from associated illnesses, as well as additional insurance and other costs due to premature deaths.
Water shortages: Severe water shortages may become the most crucial problem that Israel will face, possibly threatening its very existence. Since the mid-1970s, demand for water has at times outstripped supply. Israel is a semi-arid country where no rain falls for at least six months a year. The country has been using increasing amounts of water, often for non-essential uses. Israel’s main water sources are expected to continue to decline, endangering drinking water quality, and raising the specter of insufficient drinking water.
Water pollution: All of Israel’s rivers, except those flowing through sparsely populated areas, are severely contaminated, much more polluted than rivers in Europe and the United States. The Kishon River has been especially hard hit because for more than 40 years Haifa Bay’s chemical industry discharged its raw industrial wastes directly into it. While the Kishon is probably the most polluted river in Israel, the Yarkon River, which runs through Tel Aviv, is also badly polluted. In 1997, four Australian athletes died when a bridge they were crossing during a pre-Maccabiah Games parade collapsed into the river. Two died from their injuries, while two more perished after swallowing and inhaling the contaminated water. This terrible tragedy raised public awareness of the toxicity of Israel’s rivers.
Israel ranked 88th out of 1” selected countries in terms of water quality, according to the ‘003 United Nations World Water Development Report. Water quality is higher in several Third World countries. A recent nationwide survey found that more than half of Israel’s drinking water wells are significantly polluted.
The need to conserve water resources is regularly considered in Israel, but insufficient attention is paid to the major threats to Israel’s water resources contamination from industry and defense installations, municipal sewage, agriculture, and other sources.
Waste disposal: Israel produces about 5.3 million tons of garbage each year an average of almost five pounds per person per day. More than 80 percent of this waste is buried in landfills an impractical solution in a small country with a high standard of living, increasing population, and insufficient land resources. Recently there have been improvements as recycling increases and older, inefficient, environmentally dangerous landfills have been replaced by facilities equipped with the latest technology and environmental safeguards, and there has been better enforcement of environmental laws.
Population density and open space: With more than 6.5 million people in a country the size of New Jersey, Israel is more densely populated than India. Insufficient planning and improper development is leading to accelerated suburbanization in Israel’s densely populated central region. Economic pressures for urban development are leaving towns with a scarcity of parks, gardens, and play areas that are essential to health and quality of life. Tel Aviv, for example, has far less green space per person than New York City.
Traffic congestion: Israel’s roads are very congested because of a very rapid increase in motor vehicles. There was over a hundred-fold increase in private car ownership from 1950 to 1998. At current rates, the number of cars will double every 10 years. This is occurring even though Israel has an extensive bus system and there have been recent improvements in rail transportation. Unfortunately, Israeli government agencies have given preference for many years to private transportation and therefore the development of roads, although Israel lacks open spaces and public transportation would be more accessible, less polluting, and more sustainable for an Israeli population that is mainly concentrated in metropolitan areas.
Richard H. Schwartz is the author of "Judaism and Vegetarianism," "Judaism and Global Survival," and "Mathematics and Global Survival."