storm - AP - December 27 2010
Storm-damaged Bat Yam. Photo by AP
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Nir Kafri
Fire-ravaged Beit Oren Photo by Nir Kafri

The fire followed by the heavy rainstorm that hit the Carmel region in recent weeks demonstrated the need for appropriate planning, not only by the fire service and insurance companies. The country's planning committees at various levels also have a decisive role to play. Two of them are already at work on planning the rehabilitation of the areas affected by the blaze, with safety considerations in mind when it comes to built-up areas.

In the case of the Carmel Forest, a special committee coordinated by the Environmental Protection Ministry is working on rehabilitating the situation on the ground. It will need to deal with revising the planning of all locations where residential areas abut forest and other woodlands. One aspect to be examined is the consequences of the proximity of woodlands and forests to residential areas and populated sites such as the Damon prison and Carmel Forest Spa resort, both of which are situated deep in the Carmel Forest. It is already clear that this proximity made it difficult for firefighters to prevent the flames from spreading into built-up areas.

Ecologists engaged in forest research have recommended several times in recent years that firebreaks, with sparse vegetation, be established between residential areas and forests so that forest fires don't spread as readily to built-up areas. The head of planning at the Jewish National Fund, Pinhas Kahana, says there are no legal barriers to creating firebreaks: "Most of the area of the Carmel is national park and it is possible to promote areas of low-density vegetation there."

The debate over the relationship between communities and adjoining forest land could also include owners of isolated farms in forested areas such as the Judean Hills. Some farm owners have been arguing for years that allowing their sheep and cattle to graze on forest lands would help thin out ground vegetation. Reduction of ground vegetation is also possible through the seasonal grazing of Bedouin flocks, which avoids the permanent presence of an individual who might later seek possession of the land to build on it.

Another front on which planning authorities must take the interaction between nature and real estate development into account is along Israel's coast. The powerful rainstorm that hit the coast two weeks ago and damaged coastal buildings, as well as archaeological sites at Caesarea and Ashkelon, demonstrated the urgency of the issue. Of primary importance is preventing the collapse of the coastal cliffs on which many buildings have been constructed.

The task of preserving the cliffs is currently the responsibility of an inter-ministerial team being led by the Prime Minister's Office. The team is to present a plan to the government within two months that was developed by several government ministries and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. That plan identifies the most vulnerable areas of coastal cliff, and calls for various means to protect sections of the cliffs that have been built upon.

Galit Cohen, deputy director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, said this week that the team is pursuing a number of different approaches. One of its concerns is that local authorities would try to promote plans within their jurisdiction without considering the consequences on other jurisdictions. A structure in the sea to protect the cliffs at one location, for example, could block the natural flow of sand up the coast, making the adjoining area even more vulnerable to waves and storms.

"The possibility of establishing a special division in the Prime Minister's Office to deal with the issue is being looked at," Cohen noted, adding: "Another possibility is creating a government corporation or a consortium of cities. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan supports establishing an entity such as a government corporation that would operate within his ministry."

The primary problem, of course, is finding the necessary funding to protect the cliffs. Costs could reach half a billion shekels - NIS 23 million per year for two decades. Cohen says: "It is now clear to the Finance Ministry that the state must spend money, and the [burden of] funding it cannot all fall upon the local authorities."

It is also fairly clear, however, that the preferred method of protecting the cliffs would involve installing various kinds of breakwaters in the sea rather than directly protecting the base of the cliffs. Installations at the base of cliffs have been tried at several locations and proven destructive to the surrounding areas. Cohen notes in particular the case of the Ashkelon coast, where cloth sheeting filled with sand was installed. It did prevent further damage to that section of cliff, but the waves that washed off the sheets took sand with them from adjoining beaches, causing the cliffs there to collapse.

The relevant agencies therefore face a list of tasks. It now remains to be seen whether the authorities manage to complete the necessary work before the next natural disaster strikes.