Text size

Tel Aviv and Jerusalem will today join a number of large cities around the world in celebrating International Earth Day - a kind of giant festival for environmental awareness. In a symbolic display of energy conservation, streetlights and the lights in public buildings will be dimmed for an hour this evening and Israeli citizens and businesses have been urged to join the initiative.

These, unfortunately, are merely symbolic gestures from a country that sorely needs to conserve its resources. Even when conservation measures are decided upon, they are not properly applied. One case in point is the government's decision to impose taxes on vehicles that pollute the air, a decision which has yet to be implemented. Another is the decision by the Water Authority, determined four years ago, to impose stringent regulations to save water; it too has not been implemented.

The new minister for environmental protection, Gilad Erdan, said at a conference this week: "In Israel, so far, the governments have not shown the political will to deal with and change the environmental situation. If I do not succeed in recruiting them, I won't be able to get much done." The conference was also attended by the director of the United Nations Environment Program.

The environmental situation in Israel is constantly damaged by over-consumption of resources and the accompanying pollution. Electricity use has grown over the past few years, sometimes by as much as eight percent a year, leading to the emission of more hothouse gases. Meanwhile, various countries around the world are working to draw up a binding international agreement for the reduction of hothouse gases.

In recent years, domestic water consumption has also risen by as much as four percent per year despite the fact that Israel's water sources are drying up. This growth was curbed only in the past year, thanks to the sense of emergency the Israel Water Authority succeeded in imparting on the public. Dan Perry, an adviser to the authority, said of the situation in Israel: "We don't know how to manage any demand - for water, for electricity or for transportation."

A government commission of inquiry, headed by Judge Dan Bein, has been tasked with examining the way the water economy is conducted. The commission posed questions to the water authority's head, Prof. Uri Shani, who responded this week. "In recent years, there has in fact not been a mechanism for active enforcement," Shani wrote. "The last indictments for violating the regulations on saving water refer to the years 2001 to 2003. In practice, fines were imposed, but if they were not paid, no active steps were taken to enforce them." Shani added that steps had been taken recently to make the enforcement mechanism more effective.

In the energy sphere, too, decisions have remained largely on paper only, according to a report published this week by the green organizations' Koalitiziat Hadrachim Lekayamut (Coalition of Paths to Sustainability). "The government adopted a plan last year for streamlining energy resources in the economy that would lead to a reduction in the emission of hothouse gases," the report stated. "However this is a very general plan and it is significantly under-budgeted. In our assessment, it is not likely to bring about the required change."

More private vehicles

The number of private vehicles has been increasing from year to year in Israel. The Transportation Ministry, in the past two years, declared its intention to curb the number of private cars in use, but according to the transportation coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Arik Tapiero, the ministry is also actively involved in promoting the building of new roads. "Why do they have to develop more roads in the Tel Aviv area if they intend to set up a system for mass transportation?" he asks. "The Transportation Ministry continues to budget for new roads but when it comes to public transportation, it mainly talks but doesn't budget."

According to Tapiero, Israel has the ability to encourage public transportation and change the present situation - in which some 70 percent of all transportation is carried out in private vehicles. This means that only about 30 percent of rides are taken via public transportation; three decades ago, the reverse was true. The use of bicycles for transportation is so marginal at present that it was not even included in the calculation.

While the squandering of environmental resources continues apace, the government is taking pains to save on the expenditures of the environmental protection ministry. In recent years, its insufficient budget has stood at less than NIS 300 million. Meanwhile, over the past few years, there has been a steady erosion of the professional job slots available to the ministry. To this must be added the fact that, to this day, the ministry does not possess law-enforcement authority in many fields. Thus it can be understood why the ministry heads are so concerned every time there is private legislation in the Knesset that obliges them to deal with additional tasks.

The plight of the ministry has also affected the country's industrialists, who are actually supervised and often restrained by the ministry. "The ministry gets instructions from the treasury to employ external advisers instead of its own professional forces," says Yossi Aryeh, a senior member of the Manufacturers association and director of the Energy and Environment Institute in Tel Aviv. "But these are specialists who are working for the ministry now but tomorrow may work for the industrialists - and that is problematic."

The Clean Air Law is due to go into effect in the next few years, he says, but in order to implement it, the ministry must first get dozens of new job slots in order to employ the necessary manpower for carrying out pollution assessments in the factories. "If there is no professional manpower, they will not give the factories permits stating how much pollution they can emit," Aryeh adds. Without these permits, the factories will not be able to obtain work licenses and may find it difficult to establish a legal basis for their activities. "That constitutes an economic threat," he says.

The ministry's weakness is notable in its limited ability to enforce the law. The ministry has just 12 inspectors tasked with supervising all of Israel's beaches, and fewer than 20 inspectors who are supposed to oversee close to 1,000 factories that contain hazardous materials. Toward the end of his tenure, the last environmental protection minister, Gideon Ezra, managed to slightly improve the situation by conscripting more than 10 inspectors to a unit that deals with the illegal disposal of construction waste. This is a significant improvement in terms of the human resources available to the ministry.

Erdan said this week that the prime minister had promised to consider strengthening the ministry's authority and beefing up its budget, if Erdan could demonstrate how this would lead to economic benefits. While it is clear that Benjamin Netanyahu understands economic affairs, Erdan said, he is apparently not up to date on the connection between environment and the economy; the economic value of saving resources such as energy and water has already been proven in many countries, especially the United States. The U.S. Clean Air Act brought about much greater efficiency in industry and huge savings in expenditure, in terms of damage to health.

Erdan should remind Netanyahu that even modest additions to the budget could strengthen the ministry. Last week, the Zalul environmental association organized a tour of the beaches. Ran Amir, head of the ministry's beaches department, told participants: "I want to share an amazing figure with you. Our assessment is that a mere NIS 3 million is needed a year in order to clean up all the country's beaches, those that are officially recognized and those that are not."