How Long Will It Take to Earthquake-proof Israel's Smaller Cities?

Ranit Nahum-Halevy
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Ranit Nahum-Halevy

Almost all projects for reinforcing residential buildings against earthquakes have been located in a short list of cities led by Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan, Haifa and Ra’anana, according to a new report released by the Interior Ministry. Outlying cities have been shunned since the program launched in May 2005.

National Master Plan 38‏, a program to motivate builders to reinforce structures not complying with current earthquake-proofing standards by granting them the right to add additional units atop the buildings, started out slowly but appears to be gaining steam now: 119 requests for building permits were submitted under the plan in 2009, rising to 161 requests in 2010, 324 in 2011, and 556 in 2012. In all, 1,415 applications have been made since 2005 to implement the plan, with 880 approved by planning authorities.

The program’s main advantage − or drawback, depending on the location − is the economic feasibility at particular locations. Builders are flocking to areas offering lucrative rewards − where land values are high − while shunning cities where land values are lower.

Tel Aviv has seen 181 applications approved, followed by Ramat Gan with 149 and Haifa with 83. But cities like Be’er Sheva, Eilat, Dimona, Kiryat Shmona, Tiberias, Beit She’an, and Safed have seen no interest at all. According to research by the Housing and Construction Ministry, 810,000 homes in Israel are in need of reinforcement, including 70,000 in high-risk areas.

“By any practical measure the program is a failure,” says Ohad Danus, head of the Real Estate Appraisers Association in Israel. “The moment that the reinforcement of buildings in Israel was privatized, responsibility was dumped on the public. The government is betting the lives of its residents − particularly in the northern and southern regions where there is concern for a high level of seismic activity," according to the report.

“The state relies on statistics indicating that earthquakes occur once every hundred years,” Danus continues. “The right thing for the state to do would be to devote an interest-free loan fund to this matter, or extend grants to strongly encourage the plan’s implementation, especially in areas that aren’t economically worthwhile. However, it doesn’t seem that the 2013 state budget, with the enormous cuts under discussion, will take this important matter into account.”

However, Dr. Avi Shapira, director of the Inter-ministerial Committee on Earthquake Preparedness, believes the government is “on the right track, but can’t rest on the laurels of the preliminary report, which shows that the master plan [Tama 38] is proceeding nicely. Therefore, we are also looking into various ways to see how it can also be implemented in areas where it’s less economical.”

The implementation of Tama 38 contributes strongly to urban renewal and significantly adds to the number of new housing units in desirable areas. More than 50,000 new apartments will be built under the plan in Bat Yam, Rishon Letzion, Ramat Gan and central Tel Aviv in the next few years. These plans have already been approved and construction is underway.

The report data at this stage, though, is less encouraging. Since 2005, only 3,855 new units have been built in this context.

In light of the delay, the office of State Comptroller Joseph Shapira has examined the performance of local authorities in implementing Tama 38. “Most earthquake experts believe the occurrence of an earthquake disaster in Israel is almost a certainty,” then-State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss wrote in a 2011 report on the resilience of buildings and infrastructure in the event of an earthquake.

“Unfortunately, the office of the comptroller has found itself issuing warnings for about 20 years in a long series of reports on the failure in preparing for earthquakes in Israel,” the report continued. “Years of under-budgeting and budget cuts have taken their toll. The warning arising from this special report poses a ‘red flag’ for the prime minister and Israeli government, pointing to a serious and ongoing failure at the hands, first and foremost, of the government.”

A renovation in Ramat Gan based on National Master Plan 38. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum