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Those who are interested in calculating the extent to which they or the society in which they live affect the environment will have an opportunity this week to familiarize themselves with the ecological footprint index, which measures man's influence on the environment. The Environment Ministry and the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv will host Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, a researcher from California who co-developed the concept of the ecological footprint in the previous decade.

One can say without exaggeration that this concept has become one of the most influential in describing environmental problems and how to deal with them. It has been adopted by governments, cities, educational institutions and financial corporations. The basic idea behind the ecological footprint concept is that it's possible to measure the amount of fertile land (including bodies of water) necessary to sustain populations, individuals or various activities. If demand exceeds the planet's existing supply, that signals a deterioration in natural and environmental resources.

In Israel's case, the use of this method, in conjunction with local indexes, gives rise to particularly worrying conclusions. For instance, data from the Water Authority shows that over the last four years, beyond the amount of water that naturally fills the reservoirs as a result of rain, 1 billion cubic meters of water was used. It appears that the Water Authority has already lost any hope that setting a red line will have an impact on the situation. It recently decided to add a black line to the reservoirs, to warn of impending danger.

Meanwhile, land resources in Israel are disappearing wantonly. This manifests itself in several ways, one of which is through the broad expanses of land that are not being used at all because of pollution problems. These have been polluted by illegal trash sites, factories, toxic sewage and fertilizer materials.

A particularly prominent trend in recent years has been the construction of detached houses. A study recently completed by planner Motti Kaplan, which was written for the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, found that half the construction between 1998 and 2003 was low-density housing outside the cities - detached houses that take up a lot of land. This is taking place despite a declared planning policy that recognizes the "depletion of the land resource" and recommends concentrating construction in urban areas.

As Wackernagel and his partners note, an analysis of the ecological footprint must lead to a reduction of excessive exploitation. In Israel's case, failure to stop exploiting the natural water sources and continued construction of detached houses as though this country had the space available in Australia or the United States will become an existential threat that will prevent basic needs from being met and will endanger both nature and landscape. More than many other countries, Israel must adopt a model of economic growth and social welfare that does not stomp all over the environment.