Israel's Defense Against Its Next Flood Disaster Is Three Students

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Credit: Ilan Assayag, Nir Keidar, Tomer Appelbaum and Rami Shllush
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Just last year, despite the usually arid Middle Eastern climate, Israel found itself drowning under an unimaginable deluge of rain. Major thoroughfares in Tel Aviv turned to raging rivers, hundreds of cars filled with water and seven people lost their lives.

Yet, even after that alarming winter, the only thing standing between Israel and another flooding disaster are three Hebrew University students. Working in shifts, with one (or sometimes none) on duty at a time, they get some help from the Israel Meteorological Service, and a manager – a worker at the Water Authority who was given an extra responsibility.

The students at least have a relevant background: They are studying hydrology and geography, but that is the sum total of their qualifications.

The system is expecting a small upgrade soon, yet the more significant upgrade demanded by the National Emergency Management Authority is facing obstacles at the Finance Ministry – despite the low cost and real impact it could have.

Israel's Lachish River Park during winter 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag
A flooded area of Tel Aviv's highway, winter 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

There is no shortage of reminders for how perilous this could be. The latest came with the widespread flooding that struck Germany and Belgium last weekend. Nearly 200 have died so far, hundreds are still missing, hundreds of thousands have been evacuated from their homes and the economic damage is estimated at hundreds of millions of euros. And all this happened in Europe, where there is high awareness of the implications of the climate crisis.

Warnings were issued ahead of time. The German National Weather Agency called a code purple (the most severe type of warning); the European Meteorological Infrastructure also warned of extreme weather and floods. From preliminary studies in Germany, it seems that the civilian emergency agencies did not understand the significance of the warnings. Though they had precise meteorological forecasts, local authorities did not understand that these quantities of rainfall required urgent evacuation of residents.

The European system and infrastructure are distant dreams for those on the ground in Israel. “We would be grateful for capabilities like those in Germany,” said a government source. “We can’t say if there’s going to be a flood in Herzliya or Ashdod tomorrow. Every winter that passes with only seven dead is a miracle. It’s a shame that Israel is just waiting for the next disaster and the fatalities of 2021.”

A flooded street in Tel Aviv, in 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Even if Israel had a more developed forecasting system, it wouldn’t be much help on the ground: Israel lacks a warning system and infrastructure that could prevent future floods
The forecasting center, created in winter of 2019, was meant to address the lessons learned from 2018’s Nahal Tsafit disaster, in which 10 students at the Bnei Zion pre-military seminar lost their lives.

The center has access to the information systems of the Meteorological Service, “but these don’t include flood forecasting systems that are calibrated to Israeli streams, and they don’t have any tools for predicting floods in urban areas,” another government source told Haaretz.

The seven fatalities of the winter of 2020 prompted the existing center’s “upgrade.” The students will soon be replaced by new workers, however, they won’t be permanent center employees, as in most developed countries. The employees won’t even be civil servants. Moreover, the center hasn’t been appointed by law and lacks a designated budget.

Floods in Nahariya in January 2020.Credit: Rami Shllush

How will it work? The forecasting center will be operated by a private company that won the bidding for a contract with the Water and Sewage Authority. It will have five workers, each manning their shift alone. The workers receive only two weeks of training.
Even after the upcoming “reform,” the situation at the center will remain quite bleak. Several government sources familiar with the details have told Haaretz that Israel is “naked” in face of the increasing danger of floods.

In Israel’s case, this is part of a plague of unpreparedness. Floods are just one climate threat that the state is not taking seriously enough. Experts warn that Israel is equally naked in the face of heatwaves and has yet to acquire a suitable computer to produce precise climatic warnings. Without preventative measures, the state faces a future disaster.

The new forecast

The term “extreme weather forecast” will likely be commonplace in the coming years. Not partly cloudy or a chance of rain, rather heavy downpours with a chance of clouds, perhaps a lone sunbeam.

Israel, like the rest of the world, expects increasingly extreme climate events: Storms, heavy precipitation, and worse. Urbanization also exacts a price in the era of the climate crisis. Rainwater has little possibility of draining into the soil and as a result it accumulates on the surface as a catalyst for floods.

A flooded Tel Aviv highway in 2020.

Israel is seemingly aware of the problem. Just two and a half weeks ago the State Comptroller published a special report on “The Defense Against Floods,” or more precisely, the lack-there-of. The report disclosed some disturbing findings, including the fact that the center is unequipped to forecast flooding in cities.

This is not expected to change any time soon. Sources who spoke to Haaretz confirmed that the outsourced workforce that will be manning the center this winter will not publish forecasts on urban flooding, even though such floods have the greatest potential for loss of life and massive economic damage.

We can’t accept the current reality where people drown in an elevator in Tel Aviv, are evacuated in rubber boats in Ashkelon and planes worth hundreds of millions are floating in a huge puddle at the Hatzor Air Base,” said Meteorological Service Chief Nir Stav. “This is what neglect looks like.”

Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that various authorities are taking on their own initiatives with the help of experts. After Dean Shoshani and Stav Harari drowned in an elevator during flooding last winter, the Tel Aviv Municipality turned to Dr. Amir Givati – an expert on climate change at Tel Aviv University’s department of environmental studies and former director of the surface water division at the Water Authority’s Hydrological Service.

“Together with representatives of the municipality we built an innovative and precise forecasting system,” he says, “a combined system that enables the city’s sewer managers to be proactive and prepare optimally for flooding in real-time on the ground and in advance. We also successfully operated a similar system during the last rainy season with the Ashdod and Nes Tziona municipalities.”

Flooding in Ashdod in 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

A precise warning

Municipal authorities shouldn’t be responsible for finding localized solutions. The Meteorological Service (which is under the Transportation Ministry) and the Hydrological Service (under the Water Authority) jointly established the forecasting center. They note that before they established the relatively modest center two years ago, Israel had no solution at all.

Acknowledging that far greater efforts are needed, the agencies hope to one day establish an improved forecasting center like those in other Western countries: with permanent personnel who have the experience to interpret the complex rain and topological information and predict floods that endanger human lives.

“It is important to internalize that predicting floods is a profession and not a hobby,” says Stav. “It’s a complex phenomenon that demands meteorological understanding, hydrological understanding and an intimate knowledge of the area. A precise warning saves lives, and a miss is liable to cost lives.”

For Stav it’s clear that the current system, despite the upgrade, is not good enough. “This task requires skilled manpower, with the proper education, training and experience,” he says. “Flood forecasters need the proper tools to provide precise warnings – cloud radar, computerized models, adjusted displays and automatic alerts.”

In the past few months, the National Emergency Management Authority at the Defense Ministry have finally granted the repeated requests to formulate a government decision-makers’ proposal for establishing a national flood forecasting center. Under the plan, at the national center there will be six slots for professional employees. The center will issue warnings about floods in both streams and cities. They will also be tasked with synchronizing the forecasts with rescue organizations – the pitfall that led to a huge loss of life in Germany.

The project’s requested budget is modest: 2.4 million shekels per year, yet the Finance Ministry is refusing to accept it. Officials are asking to cut back on expenses, according to sources familiar with the most recent debates.

The Finance Ministry said in response that it sees great importance in the project, but that due to the lack of a national budget in 2020 it could not have funded it. The ministry added, “The issue has been under budgetary discussion over the past month in order to assess the exact need and to prevent, heavens forbid, the waste of public money.”

The Water Authority said in response, “The Water Authority is working to continue to expand the flood forecasting center so that it will provide an answer in a time of need to the relevant organization.”

The Defense Ministry also issued a response: “The work is now in advanced stages vis-à-vis the relevant government ministries towards submitting it for approval by the government, in the context of the approaching budget deliberations.”

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