Israel Quickly Losing Open Land to Development, Government Report Warns

More than 17,000 acres of undeveloped land was allocated towards building apartments and businesses, a trend that will only hurt ecosystems and wildlife

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Sand dune next to Ashdod.
Sand dune next to Ashdod.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Israel is among the leading countries in the world for the rate at which it is losing open land to development, the latest State of Nature Report warns. In the last three years alone, Israel lost some 17,500 acres of forested and undeveloped land, the report says.

In recent years, a growing number of ecosystems have been fragmented and disconnected from one another due to development, the report shows. Additionally, the report found a 30 percent increase in the strength of artificial lighting (light pollution) in open areas over the last decade, which is disrupting the activity cycles of various animals.

Because of Israel's small size, the country feels the side effects of development directly. Open-area development and its disturbances can cause Israel's ecosystems to significantly deteriorate.

An examination of land development from 2017-2020 shows that 119 square kilometers of open land were converted into built-up areas or used for other types of infrastructure. A small percentage was used for agricultural use, meaning the land can be restored to its natural state.

Compared to other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, the loss of open land in Israel is especially rapid relative to the amount of open land available, the report says. Additionally, during 2017-2020, 2 percent of the coastal sand areas that were already at risk, were lost. That trend is likely to continue due to plans to develop south of Ashkelon and northern Hadera in the coming years.

Though not cited in the report, figures from the Agriculture Ministry show that in recent years, land dedicated to agriculture is also disappearing – about 65,000 dunams were rezoned for construction and another 50,000 for use by solar-power installations.

The report was prepared by HaMaarag – Israel’s National Nature Assessment Program, a national program for assessing the state of nature under the aegis of the Steinhardt Museum of Natural History, the Environmental Protection Ministry, Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority and the Jewish National Fund. Although the report is published every three years, this is the first time the issue of climate change was addressed. For now, the report mainly assesses the future of climate change rather than documenting existing damage.

The report includes references to the degree of fragmentation of the open areas due to power lines and similar infrastructure, fencing and construction – which reduces space available to wildlife and increases the risk of poisoning, poaching, and the danger of animals being run over.

An analysis by HaMaarag found that north of Be’er Sheva, 83 percent of open areas are less than a kilometer from the nearest road. By comparison, south of Be’er Sheva, the figure is only 29 percent.

Geographically and climatically, the Golan Heights is the largest contiguous area of natural open space in Israel. But, the situation there is due to change since the National Planning Council approved the construction of two new settlements. Other significant expanses, such as Ramot Mensashe and the Carmel, are surrounded by highways and therefore cut off from other natural environments.

The severity of the issue is reflected in the plight of deer – a large part of whose population is trapped in open areas surrounded by infrastructure and housing. One example is that of Holot Nitzanim Reserve, which is sandwiched between Ashkelon and Ashdod in southern Israel.

The impact of light pollution

Another important measure of human disturbances on nature is the intensity of light pollution. Largely caused by what's known as artificial lighting – which has increased 30 percent over the last decade – light pollution alters ecosystems' natural cycles of light and darkness and in term disrupts several biological mechanisms.

It can cause disorientation among sea turtles trying to make their way back to the surf and draw insect-eating bats to lamp posts – putting them at risk of colliding with vehicles. According to the new report, some two-thirds of the area north of Be'er Sheva is illuminated at night with intensities considered harmful to ecosystems.

The impact of light pollution is even visible in nature reserves, where a third of their total area is illuminated at night with far more than moonlight. In Eilat Bay, the city's light pollution endangers the coral reefs.

Environmental advocacy groups are trying to change this reality, but only with partial success so far. Last week, the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Nature and Parks Authority published a guide for maintaining nighttime darkness in open spaces. The guide includes recommendations for planning and the stationing of light installations to reduce their intensity, for instance, through the use of controllers that turn the light on only when necessary. Some recommendations have already been implemented at infrastructure firms’ facilities.

Not all the news is bad: First and foremost, there has been an increase in the scope of territories declared as nature preserves and natural parks. “We see two central and opposite trends,” noted Dr. Noam Ben Moshe, author of the new report. “On one hand, the threats are increasing. The increase in population density, and the accompanying urban development cause the rate of loss and segmentation of open spaces to remain high, especially in the country’s center and north. "

The impact of human activity is seeping into protected areas as well, manifesting, for example, in an increase in the frequency of wildfires and light pollution in nature preserves and woodland areas. On the other hand, the efforts to protect nature are also significant, and are seen in a significant expansion of nature reserve areas, including at sea, which until a few years ago was barely protected.

The impact of human activity is manifesting in an increase in the frequency of wildfires in Israel.Credit: Menahem Fried / Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Over the past six years, the scope of land nature preserves grew by almost ten percent. Over the past three years, the first two marine reserves were declared, at Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanese border and Rosh Hacarmel near Haifa. On the other hand, the planning administration at the Interior Ministry failed to promote the protection of open spaces as part of the government’s strategic plan to develop housing and employment by 2040. The planning administration’s proposal included declaring broad open spaces (other than reserves and national parks) as deserving of protection, including areas defined as ecological corridors. Due to opposition by the Israel Land Authority and the Construction and Housing Ministry, which seek to reserve as much open space as possible for future construction, this plan is yet to be approved.

“The State of Nature Report serves as a snapshot of the many challenges we must face in order to maintain Israel’s living spaces and ecosystem,” says Dr. Yehoshua Shkedi, head of the science division at the Nature and Parks Authority. “The state must create a national plan to protect biodiversity, protect the nature reserves, and ingrain principles of preservation and policy at all government ministries.”

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