A new environment minister is due to take the oath of office this week. MK Shalom Simhon (Labor), who will be the 10th person to hold the environment portfolio, had his heart set on the national infrastructure post, and it's likely that he will be somewhat disappointed at getting a small, budget-starved ministry.
However, in short order he will discover that the Environment Ministry is responsible for a number of spheres of key importance. For example, it wields extensive powers regarding air quality, in granting business permits and in overseeing hazardous materials. The ministry has also fomented changes of far-reaching effect, such as closing down pirate landfills, notably Hiriya, outside Tel Aviv.
A more recent change, albeit less successful so far, occurred in the handling of the severe pollution of the coastal streams, which has come to symbolize the environmental situation in Israel. Here, then, is a major challenge for the new minister: to continue the trend toward improvement and to become the environment minister who will hold a festive ceremony at the first rehabilitated stream.
The Environment Ministry published data this month about the scale of pollution of the streams. Three pollutants are largely responsible for the deterioration: organic carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. The data show that between 1994 and 2004 the pollution level declined between 52 percent and 83 percent, and the ministry is predicting that the next two years will see an additional improvement in 14 of the 16 streams for which data are available.
The main and almost only reason for this improvement is that communities and cities have been hooked up to sewage purification facilities, which afterward emit water with a lower level of pollution. The Sewage Authority in the National Infrastructure Ministry played a crucial role in this process, but it was the Environment Ministry that exerted pressure for action to be taken and saw to it that construction plans would not be authorized unless solutions were found for sewage disposal.
A salient example of the trend toward improvement is Nahal Soreq, a stream from which seven sources of pollution were removed in the past few years. Its main sources of pollution - the West Bank city of Qalqilyah, along with Kfar Sava and Ramat Hasharon in Israel - are now connected to sewage purification facilities.
However, even though the landfill sites that polluted the surroundings have been shut down, and it can be said that this problem has been handled, the situation with the streams has been only partially improved. According to the Environment Ministry data, some streams have experienced a rise in pollution levels in recent years.
A few weeks ago, Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research published a report based on the monitoring of the coasts and sewage from streams, which it prepared for the environment and national infrastructure ministries. The picture arising from the report is that the situation remains grave. Still, the report showed that the level of fertilizers in the streams, including nitrogen and phosphorus, fell in the past decade.
However, this is not a revolutionary change, as the report makes clear. "In general, in comparison with the sewage found in estuaries elsewhere, the concentration of fertilizers in most of the coastal streams in Israel is considerably greater, especially due to the combination of a meager natural flow and the injection of sewage," the authors say.
Other problems, such as the accumulation of years of pollution in the stream beds, appear to be even further from a solution. The examination of concentrations of toxic metals in the estuaries found no improvement during the past decade.
One of the problematic areas in this regard is the situation of the Arab localities, which in this sphere, as in many other infrastructure spheres, continually lag behind Jewish localities. The Environment Ministry report is replete with examples of Arab communities where the sewage system has not been connected to purification facilities, or of drainage systems into which sewage was injected. Here, then, is another opportunity for the new minister to reap political fruits in a sector that the Labor Party has neglected. After he presides over the ceremony at the first rehabilitated stream, he will be able to visit one of the large Arab cities and inaugurate its connection to a sewage purification facility.
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