The politicians who have held the post of minister of the environment have often said, in confidence, that this is a portfolio that will, in the future, be accorded the same importance as education and security. This, they said, would be reflected, for example, in the ministry's political status and the budgets that would be placed at it disposal.
The years went by. The Israeli economy underwent changes (growth followed by recession), but one thing hasn't changed, the paltry and shameful budget given to the Environment Ministry. The draft budget now before the Knesset provides the ministry with less than NIS 200 million in 2004, which cuts the budget of last year by more than 10 percent.
An examination of the ministry's budget clauses illustrates the size of the cut in the ministry's most basic activity, which is supposed to protect the public from serious health risks and other hazards, such as noise and dirt, which account for a serious deterioration in the day-to-day quality of life.
According to the draft budget distributed to MKs, the Environment Ministry will receive about NIS 5 million for activity to encourage the recycling of waste - down from NIS 34 million in 2003. The budget for preventing water pollution will amount to NIS 10 million - a cut of nearly 50 percent.
Environment Minister Yehudit Naot (Shinui) has said that when she took office, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told her that he wanted to take her for a helicopter ride and show her how dirty Israel was. The Environment Ministry intended to address this problem with special means, such as a fund to deal with construction refuse - but very little of this fund remains.
The budget to monitor air pollution has been cut in half, while the budget for environmental education, which was ridiculously low this year, too (NIS 2.9 million), will be NIS 700,000 next year. This is a budgetary item that serves a clear-cut social purpose. The ministry used it to hold summer day-camps for thousands of children from underprivileged neighborhoods, and also organized informal educational groups in more than 1,000 schools in these areas.
It goes without saying that the budgets earmarked to assist public organizations, animal welfare societies and environmental units in local governments have been slashed significantly.
These cuts will sharply undermine the essential means to monitor the causes of environmental pollution. It will be impossible to carry out surprise checks at contaminating factories, and it will be difficult to conduct complex and expensive laboratory tests, which are the only ways to detect materials that may be carcinogenic or affect the mental development of children.
In the view of the Finance Ministry, more money should be invested in the activities of government ministries and less in personnel (salaries); but Naot bitterly claims that to date, the monies for activities and operations have constituted the major part of her ministry's budget. Now the proportion will change; because the manpower budget is rigid, the cuts will be made in activities.
In addition to being a harsh blow to the environment and to public health, the slashing of the Environment Ministry's budget is an economic blow, too. Preventing environmental hazards such as the contamination of water sources or air pollution translates into large financial savings in the long term. Prevention of this kind saves the costs of medical treatment for those who fall ill due to environmental pollution, as well as the expenses involved in rehabilitating extensive polluted areas that the state will want to utilize for various needs in the years ahead.
Even more absurd is the fact that the Environment Ministry does not require anywhere near the size of the budgets allocated to the big ministries. Doubling its present budget to NIS 500 million would be enough to significantly increase its operational capability, provided it maintained high professional standards.
Naot points to one ray of light - the approval she received to upgrade temporary ministry employees from manpower agencies, many of whom have professional training, to the status of tenured ministry workers. But this ray of light flickers and fades when one reflects on Naot's general description of her ministry as one that has excellent people, but doesn't have the money that would allow them to put their talents to good use.
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