Nature’s Ability to Support Humanity in Israel Is Declining

A national assessment finds that ecosystems that provide humans with things like food and flood regulation are under serious threat

Zafrir Rinat
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A forest in the Jerusalem Hills.
A forest in the Jerusalem Hills.Credit: Emil Salman
Zafrir Rinat

Ecosystems provide a number of critical services to humanity, such as pollination, flood control and the regulation of agricultural pests. These systems are under threat in Israel as a result of development, contamination and drying out of natural water sources. With the expected increase in population and the consequences of climate change, these trends are liable to worsen in the future.

These are a few of the main conclusions of Israel’s National Ecosystem Assessment, presenting the services and benefits that Israelis receive from the country’s ecosystems with the latest report published Wednesday. Another important finding in the report is that Israel extensively exploits ecosystems in other areas. It imports 80 percent of the services provided by ecosystems, such as agricultural land (mainly food and wood and paper products). An area almost 1.5 times the size of Israel is needed to produce these goods.

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The assessment analyzes six ecosystems: the Negev and its desert ecosystems; the Mediterranean-climate region, including groves, planted forests, scrubland and coastal sands; inland aquatic systems, including springs, rivers and the sea of Galilee; the marine ecosystems of the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Eilat within Israel’s jurisdiction; and urban and agricultural ecosystems. The researches examined 33 types of services provided by these ecosystems.

Ecosystem services comprise everything nature contributes to the physical sustainment of humanity to the protection from damage created by nature itself, but also the enjoyment derived from spending time in nature. In addition to providing food and raw materials for various industries, these services include regulation, such as regulating heat with vegetation, regulating flooding with soil that can absorb the water and with vegetation that can slow the flow of water. There are also cultural ecosystem services, including recreation at the beach and other leisure activities in nature.

The experts participating in the program – academic researchers and employees in the relevant government agencies – note that it isn’t always possible to assess the ecosystem services, due to large gaps in data in various fields. Nevertheless, they are highly certain that five types of services are in a state of deterioration. The assessment that five other types of services are deteriorating rests on a lesser degree of certainty. Eight types of services showed improvement; regarding the remainder, there was either no change or insufficient information to assess their situation.

The main reasons for the deterioration are contamination of natural water sources or pumping of water for other purposes; significant construction in open areas and farming on land that had previously been undisturbed. Population growth accelerates these processes: Israel’s population density is the 31st highest in the world.

The results of climate change are expected to create additional heavy pressure on local ecosystems. Invasive plant and animal species are harmful to the marine environment. The jellyfish that reach Israel’s shores every summer, for example, severely impair swimming and enjoyment of the sea.

Ecosystems also provide an important medical service. In the desert environment there are 20 plant species known to have medicinal properties, and drugs based on substances extracted from them are in various stages of development.

The marine environment consists of bacteria species and minute to microscopic creatures, which can break up land-based pollutants, reduce the risks to bathers and help clean the water brought to desalination facilities.

Israel’s agrosystems provide more than 70 percent of the demand for vegetables and fruit. About 350,000 dunams of the agricultural areas used for crops require pollination by insects. This service is provided by honey bees and wild bees. For instance, wild bees provide more than half the pollination needs of the watermelons grown in the Judean plain.

Among the seriously deteriorated services is the ecosystems’ ability to moderate floodwater flow in areas where the soil and shrubbery slow down the water flow and absorb it. Constructed areas accumulate floodwater that isn’t permeated in an annual estimated scope of 40 million cubic meters.

The services provided by insects that fight natural pests are also in decline. This is because of the use of pesticides and damage done to natural terrain. The services provided by natural water in streams and springs, such as shrubbery and fish as food sources and recreation and tourism services, have been going downhill for many years. This is because the amount of natural water has lessened significantly and in many cases has been replaced by treated sewage fluids.

The pollination of plants used to grow food, a vital service, has been damaged due to the decline in pollinating insects and bees. In addition, the amount of fertile soil in Israel has decreased due to erosion as a result of intensive cultivation and plowing.

The services that have improved consist of recreation in nature and research and education activities associated with nature. The demand for these services has increased in recent decades. Field crops and plantation areas have increased, as has the breeding of honey bees.

The assessment was led by HaMaarag, Israel’s National Ecosystem Assessment Program. The program operates under the auspices of The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History at Tel Aviv University. Other main partners are the Environment Protection Ministry, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Jewish National Fund.

The research was spearheaded by Profs. Uriel Safriel and Eran Feitelson of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was conducted by Dr. Alon Lotan of Haifa University.

Feitelson says the project was intended to “create a basis of knowledge that would help managers and policy-makers assimilate the value of ecosystems’ services and the biodiversity involved in the planning and managing procedures of state lands.”

The Knesset debates about extending the activity of the planning committee for large housing plans failed to take into consideration the damage this construction causes agricultural areas and the services they provide, he says.

Israel has so far failed to rehabilitate streams, protect a considerable part of its natural systems from construction and prevent blocking wildlife passages. However, it has taken a few steps intended to deal with the damage caused to ecosystem services.

The assessment notes that contamination of seawater with land-based pollutants has been significantly reduced in recent years. Recently the authorities have started to gradually return a small part of the water to streams and springs. This was made possible after the water shortage was alleviated by desalination plants.

The planning administration is preparing a strategic plan to preserve the open areas in the country. Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said on Thursday that the ministry was preparing a national plan to preserve biodiversity. However, this is a promise environmental protection ministers have been making for the past decade.

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