Israel Isn’t Coming Through on Its Pledge to Help Risk Groups Beat the Heat

Three and a half years ago the Social Affairs Ministry was instructed to help the poor, ill and elderly cope with extreme weather, but little has been done

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Construction workers in Tel Aviv during Israel's heat wave, on Monday.
Construction workers in Tel Aviv during Israel's heat wave, on Monday.Credit: Hadas Parush
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Three and a half years ago a government report said longer and more-intense heat waves “appear to be our country’s most problematic issue,” but the ministry tasked with tackling the problem has come up short, sources say.

As a result, many of the poor, ill and elderly are suffering because of the failure to implement the plan, the National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change.

“During exceptional climatic events, the employees of the Social Affairs Ministry must be in daily contact with all the people in risk groups ... whether a telephone call or home visit,” the plan says. “If necessary, these people should be evacuated to hospitals or air-conditioned public places. Responsibility: Social Affairs Ministry.”

The Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry was also tasked with monitoring mortality by “developing an action plan for preparedness for heat waves, cold waves and floods.” It was told to establish a “computerized system to monitor in real time” at-risk Israelis and the chronically ill.

But sources say the ministry has no answer for helping members of these disadvantaged groups during the climate crisis, many of whom may not have an air conditioner or can’t afford to use it.

The Social Affairs Ministry thus hasn’t been distributing water or fans, or directing people to cool public spaces. It hasn’t been monitoring their situation during the August heat wave, as has been done in a number of countries that have sweltered in recent months in North America and Europe.

Finance Ministry officials say the Social Affairs Ministry has never asked for a budget for the plans to aid the disadvantaged groups.

A woman crosses the street in Jerusalem during Israel's heat wave, on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“Social Affairs plans to handle the climate crisis? We’ve never received from the ministry any instructions to prepare for heat waves, floods or anything related,” a senior welfare official said. “As far as the ministry is concerned, there’s no climate crisis, everything is normal.”

She said families living in poverty can’t afford to pay their high electricity bills because they’re using so much air conditioning.

The Social Affairs Ministry, for its part, said it is working on “a plan with operative recommendations,” but this is a “great challenge” that requires a special budget and the recruitment of new employees.

People who work outside are also at risk during heat waves. For example, on Wednesday, 19-year-old Rashid Abu Moyes from a West Bank village near Jenin died of heat stroke while working in his agriculture job. Many laborers have no choice but to keep at it.

A unit at the Environmental Protection Ministry that was established as part of the cabinet’s decision three and a half years ago is in charge of integrating the ministries’ work. It says every ministry must craft “a preparedness plan in which the matters under its responsibility receive a response in the best way …. Recently the Social Affairs Ministry has begun taking action to prepare a readiness plan for climate change, as required.”

Alon Zack, a senior official for natural resources at the Environmental Protection Ministry and the head of the country’s climate change administration, says “the climate crisis is here.”

“This week we’ve been hit by another heavy and long heat wave, and these extreme events will continue to call on us in the future. Proper preparation in time will make the climate crisis in Israel as minor as possible,” he said.

A construction worker drinks water in Tel Aviv amid the heat wave, on Monday.Credit: Hadas Parush

“It’s clear that the Social Affairs Ministry must help the disadvantaged populations also during extreme heat waves. The administration and Environmental Protection Ministry are unable to step into the shoes of the various ministries.”

The top 1 percent pollute more

The eastern Mediterranean, meanwhile, is seeing a particularly rapid pace of climate change.

In Israel, the meteorological service declared in 2016 a “significant and clear” increase in the frequency of heat waves. For the past three decades, extreme heat waves have been three times as frequent compared with the 20th century. Recent research forecasts heat waves in Israel with temperatures topping 50 degrees Celsius.

Meanwhile, richer people are mainly responsible for the emission of greenhouse gases, but they can protect themselves to a much greater extent.

“Every change, even the smallest, has significant implications on the health and quality of life of the most vulnerable,” said Maskit Bendel, a lawyer for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. She said one reason is the high cost of electricity and gas.

For example, research by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute shows that carbon dioxide emissions by the top 1 percent is twice as large as that by the poorest half of the world’s population.

Jerusalemites take refuge from the heat under umbrellas, on Wednesday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

In Israel, Prof. Dan Rabinowitz of Tel Aviv University has found that the per capita greenhouse-gas emissions from household electricity among the top 10 percent is 24 times that of the bottom 10 percent, with per capita emissions from the use of cars 27 times as high.

Karni Krigel of the research unit for studying poverty, environment and society at Bar-Ilan University said: “The burning heat of this past week reminds us once again that it’s hardly taken into account that in the climate crisis – as in other crises – the disadvantaged groups are the first to be harmed.”

Nothing can be done? Think again

Tami Barsheshet, who chairs the organization of welfare-service mangers at local governments, notes that “the disadvantaged live in old houses that can’t withstand the current climate and aren’t properly maintained, and this affects them during heat waves and rainy days.”

Some places around the world already have disadvantaged groups in mind. Athens, which is suffering even worse heat than Tel Aviv, has appointed an official to adjust the city to heat waves; for example, by planting trees, expanding the city’s green areas, and rebuilding roads and buildings while taking into account the construction materials.

Moreover, during the heat wave in New York in June, the municipality sent text messages urging residents to take care of older people and members of other risk groups. The city has also published a list of public spaces where New Yorkers can cool down.

The Social Affairs Ministry added that “in 2019, the ministry became part of the climate change administration, whose members are relevant government ministries.

“The Social Affairs Ministry is one of the ministries that have recently joined the climate change administration, but is one of the first to put together a plan while acknowledging the importance of the issue and that populations aided by the ministry are the most vulnerable to climate-change damage.”

According to the ministry, since it joined the administration, “relevant work teams have been set up. Plus, the ministry’s emergency division is taking into account scenarios including floods, brush fires and tsunamis, and is working to increase preparedness for other scenarios as well.”

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