Growing Population Is a Pressing but Touchy Subject in Israel

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A Haifa beach on a hot day. May 27, 2015.

This week experts from different fields assembled at the Weizmann Institute of Science to found an academic forum that would generate professional and public discussion about the relationship between population growth and the social and environmental situation in Israel. This is part of a growing trend on the part of scientists to increase their public involvement. Another forum, on sustainable nutrition, has already been established.

Among the leaders behind this initiative are Professor Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Dr. Eyal Rotenberg of the Weizmann Institute. They deserve credit for the courageous attempt to promote discussion of the subject, which environmental organizations and politicians shy away from due to social and religious sensitivities. But they also seem a bit taken aback with their own boldness: At the meeting this week, Rotenberg asked that they not get into political and religious issues. Problem is, to a large extent, these are just the factors behind population growth in Israel.

Population growth creates a heavy burden on the state’s infrastructure and natural resources, and the new forum’s first discussion focused on the effect this will have on food security in Israel in the coming decades, primarily in relation to land and water resources. The topic was presented by Dr. Efrat Hadas, an expert on agricultural planning. Hadas recounted the findings of a study she conducted with Dr. Yoav Gal, designed to understand how Israel could feed a population of 15 million in 2050.

In the coming four decades, population growth will lead to a continuous increase in water consumption and demand for land for residential purposes. The amount of land that is built upon will double at least, and this will lead to a reduction in agricultural lands. This, in turn, will make it difficult for Israel to supply its own food needs, and dependence on imports will rise. The country will apparently be able to cope with water issues, thanks to the desalination plants and extensive use of treated wastewater for irrigation, but it will be costly. For example, the need to improve the quality of the treated wastewater will require major financial investment.

There's an increasing presence of illicit money in Israel's real estate industry.Credit: Nimrod Glickman

Hadas noted that the Finance Ministry’s standard response to the anticipated decrease in food production capabilities is that whatever is needed can be imported. But, she says, in the coming decades economic crises and climate changes may create a situation in which it isn’t always possible to supply all the food that is needed, and a long-term food security plan must be formulated to address potential instability. The plan should ensure that agricultural lands are preserved and are economically made use of. For instance, urban density could reduce the extent to which agricultural lands are lost to construction needs. Also, on existing lands, the soil should be improved to maintain its long-term fertility.

Another measure that could help is a shift to growing crops suited to a vegetarian diet. Cattle-breeding requires a large quantity of water and land to produce food for the animals. Such a transition is currently recommended throughout the world, and has health benefits as well as environmental ones.

Population growth will not only test food security, it will also test the country’s ability to maintain a certain level of quality of life as the amount of built-up areas continues to expand. This aspect was addressed by Prof. Avital Gazit, an ecologist from Tel Aviv University. She sought to rally support for the battle to preserve the area in Ramat Hasharon that Israel Military Industries is due to vacate. Gazit and another participant in the meeting, Prof. Amotz Zahavi, a founder of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, say this is a critical “green lung” not just for ecological reasons but to meet the social need for outdoor leisure areas.

If the new forum is to continue its activity, its members would do well to emulate the boldness demonstrated 20 years ago by Dan Perry, then director general of the Israel Parks and Nature Authority. In a brief article he wrote on population growth, Perry criticized the planners who take this growth as a given and don’t think about proposing any measures to reduce it, such as halting various economic incentives for having children and re-examining the basic assumption that limitless immigration must be absorbed.

“If we wish to sketch out a scenario in which the country’s rate of population growth is reduced, it would require us to put forward binding changes in the Law of Return and in social legislation, and to undergo a revolution in our thinking toward encouraging small families,” Perry wrote. “Such a comprehensive move would entail acknowledgement of the fact that we have a very small country capable of carrying a limited human load.”

The forum members could also be bolstered by a paper written a year and a half ago by economist Tamir Shaabi about the crisis in land reserves for housing. In it, he argued that in addition to making efficient use of these reserves, a policy is needed for oversight and regulation of population growth that would bring it in line with the housing capacity of the land reserves. But such a policy, he said, “runs counter to the national ethos of encouraging a high birth rate, with all its political and social implications.”

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