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Many experts and the majority of environmental protection groups view the loss of open spaces to building projects as the gravest environmental problem in Israel. The wide scale of the phenomenon can now be assessed more accurately thanks to a research study on the loss of agricultural areas in Israel. The study was conducted for the Agriculture Ministry's Planning Authority by a team from the Center for Urban and Regional Studies at the Technion in Haifa, led by Dr. Amnon Frenkel.

In the study, Dr. Frenkel and his team set out to estimate the expected demand for land use until the year 2020 and its impact on nonprotected land (referring to areas that are not reserves, forests or under the responsibility of the military). The land in question is defined as "agricultural" and encompasses more than 10 million dunams (2.5 million acres), or about 48 percent of the area of Israel.

Israel's built-up area today covers about 6 percent of the country's area - not including roads and rail lines. Byproducts of the loss of open areas are severe transportation overload, the loss of agricultural production capability and the diminished ability of the soil to absorb groundwater. In addition, the function of open areas as regulators of air pollution is reduced, and more areas of refuse and toxic materials hazards are created. Another type of detrimental effect is the destruction of natural habitats and the "dismemberment" of the landscape, which diminishes our ability to enjoy it.

The Technion researchers put forward two scenarios. According to the more optimistic of them, the national master plans will be implemented and most of the demands for building will be focused in or around already existing urban areas. In this situation, Israel will lose about 673,000 dunams, of which large parts will be farming areas that are today being worked. In a situation in which the existing trends of scattered suburban construction continue, a larger area will be lost.

According to the optimistic scenario, no significant damage will be caused: all told, 7 percent of the nonprotected areas will be lost on a countrywide basis. However, this is a misleading calculation, because the vast majority of the population is concentrated north of the Negev, and it will be exposed to the loss of open areas with all that this entails in terms of undermining quality of life and the environment.

In the central part of the country, which is home to the majority of the population, some 103,000 dunams of farmland will be lost by 2020, representing nearly a quarter of the agricultural areas in that region. An analysis of defined territorial units in the region shows that their character will undergo a radical change. The region that lies east of Petah Tikva and the southern Sharon region will lose half or more of their agricultural landscape.

There are other regions where the loss of open areas will be particularly high. Thus, in the Wadi Ara region about 60 percent of the farmland will be lost along with half of the grazing land. The area of the Nazareth-Tour'an hills and the Judean Hills will also experience a particularly high loss of open areas.

These findings lead to a number of conclusions. The first is that it is essential to cling firmly to the principle of concentrating additional building close to the existing built-up areas and to stop being so generous to residents in different regions who want to build homes with land attached at the expense of a rapidly dwindling public resource.

This also involves finding a solution that will at long last make it possible for Arabs and Bedouin to establish planned communities with a high quality of life, instead of scattering illegal buildings across wide areas and thus eliminating the open reserves of land in the northern Negev and Galilee.

The second, and more melancholy, conclusion is that even after the efficient implementation of master plans that support the preservation of open areas, such areas will continue to be lost on a large scale and the process will of course continue after the arbitrary date of 2020 set by the study.

In this state of affairs, Israeli society will have to cope with the damages caused by the loss of open vistas. This can be done by developing mass transportation systems and by the correct planning of construction, so that public areas remain even in built-up areas. New technologies can make it possible to prevent pollution and reduce noise levels. Above all, the environmental protection organizations will have to protect zealously the areas that have already been designated as protected zones in order to ensure that something of the original Israeli landscape remains for future generations, too.