Israel's Environmental Quagmire

Recent figures from planning bodies and researchers show that development and construction are encroaching on open land.

Only 5.5% of Israel's land is built-up (11% north of Be'er Sheva) but recent figures from planning bodies and researchers show that development and construction are encroaching on open land.

The worst affected areas are sand dunes and wetlands along the coast, in the Negev and in the Arava.

An article in Landscape and Urban Planning describes a study of wetland ecosystems in Israel.

The researchers, Noam Levin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem with Eldad Elron and Avital Gasith of Tel Aviv University, used maps, aerial photographs and other sources of information to examine the present state of wetlands, mainly marshes and winter water pools compared with the past.

Sources show that 192 swamps and rain pools were present during the 19th and 20th centuries, compared with only 35 today. The decline was caused directly by draining the water for construction on or around the land.

The scientists also listed 69 smaller water pools about which information is available only for the last few decades.

They then calculated the remaining area of all the water pools and concluded that their area had contracted from 27 square kilometers to 2.4 square kilometers.

Israel today has only 14 swamps and winter rain pools in protected areas. The scientists are urging the government to include more water pools in the embrace of national parks, and to continue to build artificial wetlands, which can serve among other things to purify wastewater, a function that the natural swamps had fulfilled in the past.

Master plans, such as National Master Plan 35, are supposed to ensure the situation doesn't deteriorate, by directing development towards urban areas.

The story of Dora, a pool in Netanya, is a good example of the fragile state of Israel's bodies of water. The municipality and Israel Lands Administration did acknowledge the importance of preserving the pool. But they are still allowing extensive construction nearby, impairing rainwater from getting in the pool.

Development will also destroy the natural habitat of the rare iris atropurpurea, a crimson flower that grows on a hill near Dora.

Two residents of Netanya and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din) motioned the Tel Aviv District Court to stop the construction plans, but to no avail. Judge Michal Rubinstein rejected their plea. They appealed to the Supreme Court, which halted construction on the site a month ago until a final ruling is handed down.

Among other things, the Supreme Court will have to weigh Rubinstein's ruling that Dora doesn't fall into the category of national planning. It's a local issue, she ruled, so there was no need to examine the effect of construction at the national level.

The threat to Israel's sandy areas was also brought into sharp focus last month, at a conference on the state of dunes in Israel. The meet was initiated and organized by Pua Bar, a professor at Ben-Gurion University who specializes in the dynamics and management of Mediterranean ecosystems.

At the conference, people from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority described what lies in wait for the biggest continuous strip of sand in Israel, in the western Negev by the border with Egypt. It turns out that there too, far from the areas where most Israelis choose to live, there is a significant threat from development.

Three new towns are being built for people evacuated from Gush Katif, on 10,000 dunams of land. Cultivated land is expanding threefold. Add in growing military activity and the plan to build a great solar energy plant in the area, and the great sandy area may soon find itself shrinking by a lot.

The biggest sandy area surviving along the coast is Nitzanim, between Ashdod and Ashkelon. A study presented at the conference, by Tarin Paz of Ben-Gurion University, looked at the region's history and the struggle to save it.

Much of the area is earmarked for development, again for evacuees from Gush Katif and for a resort. To assuage the umbrage of green organizations, the government agreed to recognize the rest as a nature reserve.

However, the development of the resort will badly damage the natural texture of the region, argues researcher Oded Cohen.

To one side of the sandy area there's the Mediterranean Sea, he explains, while on the other side, the area is already scarred by quarrying, construction and military activity.

"This is the last ecological corridor for animals," he says.