Some Good News for the Greens

After 15 years of activity, the Environment Ministry is following the lead of other ministries in the world and is publishing an analysis of the environmental situation in Israel and the changes that have begun.

After 15 years of activity, the Environment Ministry is following the lead of other ministries in the world and is publishing an analysis of the environmental situation in Israel and the changes that have begun. Together with the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, the ministry's chief scientist this month published indices of the state of the environment in Israel as of 2002.

The Israeli public, in general, is exposed to a range of reports on environmental disasters and pollution threats: the Kishon River, the Ramat Hovav area, the state of air and water aquifers in Gush Dan - all of these receive prominent attention.

The Knesset Subcommittee for Environmental Threats has also been convening a special session almost every week to discuss new environmental dangers and disseminate its worrisome conclusions.

A more complex picture is presented in the environmental indices and other data published by the Environment Ministry. There are many problems that are still a long way from being solved, but there have also been some significant achievements in removing pollution and environmental dangers.

The improvements can be illustrated by three prominent symbols of the wrongs Israeli society has inflicted on its environment. One of these is the Hiriya site, which has been changed from an active garbage dump to a transit station for transporting waste to a more modern site. And in the future, a recycling park will be built at Hiriya.

Another symbol is Nahal Soreq, which served as a sewer for Jerusalem for many years. Today, wastewater still flows into the stream, but only after being treated at a new facility.

The third symbol is the tar pollution at the beaches, which has almost entirely disappeared, thanks to a series of laws prohibiting pollution of the sea and enforcement of this prohibition.

In 1992, there were seven sewage treatment plants in Israel that processed over 500,000 cubic meters per year. Ten years later, there were 30 of these facilities. In 1993, there were 77 untreated dump sites (lacking measures to prevent ground and water pollution). Today there are none.

Ten years ago, the sea was a dumping ground for coal ashes from the Israel Electric Corporation, toxic waste from Haifa Chemicals and sewage by-products from the Shafdan facility. Today, only the Shafdan continues to send waste into the sea, and this is due to stop by 2008.

Two decades ago, large cities in Israel suffered serious pollution from sulfuric acids. The level of this pollution has been significantly reduced due to the transition to low-sulfur fuel at power stations and oil refineries. An additional improvement to air quality is expected with the transition to the use of natural gas at power plants.

On the other hand, the loss of open spaces in various regions and destruction of plant and animal habitats have continued unabated. There are still serious problems in Israel regarding the transport and maintenance of toxic materials. Pesticides that are pollutants are still in widespread use and only minor progress has been made in rehabilitating the country's streams.

Garbage is still taken to landfill sites, even if they are more modern, and only about 20 percent of garbage is recycled. Much of the waste does not undergo a sufficient level of purification and continues to pollute the environment and prevent the full rehabilitation of streams.

In recent years, new problems have also surfaced. The significant increase in the number of vehicles has turned transportation into the main and most dangerous source of air pollution. The expansion of construction during the past two decades has increased the amount of discarded building materials, which now constitute the most prevalent eyesore in open spaces. In addition, the Environment Ministry and Water Commission have discovered in recent years that gas stations are major polluters of the ground and aquifers, and this problem is only beginning to be addressed.

Quantitative goals could be set for the Environment Ministry, as customary in European countries, but it is also possible to choose several prominent symbols. The ministry, as well as other government offices, will be able to argue that Israel is on the right path to preventing pollution if during the coming years there is improvement in the condition of the coral reef in Eilat, the rehabilitation of the Kishon and Yarkon rivers is completed, and the air pollution from Ramat Hovav is stopped. The biggest achievement of all would be to halt the spread of construction to open spaces located outside existing urban areas.