While some ecological initiatives have been introduced in Israel’s urban areas over the last few years, the country is way behind its counterparts in the developing world.
By Daphnee Hacker

Israel’s notoriously hot summer began as humid as usual this year, but to the shock of many Tel Aviv residents, even the beaches could not offer any respite.

Three public beaches were closed down after the pipelines were allegedly tampered with and waste spilled into the city. Authorities were forced to shut down swimming areas due to the high concentration of sewage bacteria in the water.
Beach clean up

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan participating in a trash pick-up operation on Tel Aviv’s Tzuk Beach.
Photo by: Nir Kafri

The crisis may have temporarily alarmed some city residents, but apparently not enough to change their ecological mindset.

While the municipality has introduced certain ecological initiatives, such as its new bike-sharing system aimed at reducing the number of cars on the streets, there is a clear lack of environmental policy in a city where it is not even possible to find a recycling bin on every block.

The beach crisis was a perfect example of how Israel’s quick population growth and industrialization has put a strain on the country’s environmental sustainability, says Alon Tal, author of Pollution in a Promised Land. “More people are living here than ever before”, says Tal.

Such growth inevitably means a sharp increase in the use of water, electricity and automobiles, he said, but the country has not yet figured out how to contend with the adverse ecological affects of the daily utilities.

“One of the biggest issue today is also the garbage and waste in public spaces. We haven’t succeeded in educating the public on this matter,” said Tal, and environmental expert and senior Lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Most Israelis live in cities, he added, and municipal authorities have not yet succeeded in creating mass and accessible sustainable institutions within the urban areas.

Nearly a decade ago a stream of nationwide projects aimed at generating environmental awareness burst across the country, well after the emergence of such movements in comparably developed countries.

Finally, Israel learned what it meant to recycle and campaigns were launched to install plastic bottle disposal around cities. The campaigns were tried and tested, and the country’s recycling rate doubled from 7 percent to 14 percent over the last decade.

The increase in environmental awareness is encouraging, says Tal, but not sufficient to curb the trend of pollution. “Public institutions should be taking the lead in that regard,” said Tal.

Galit Cohen, director of policy for the Environment Ministry, believes legislative regulations and political encouragement could be just the key components needed to see more projects on the ground (following the trend, for instance, of a recent bill encouraging the use of solar panels).

The Israeli population is more and more committed to an alternative vision for Israel’s future, said Cohen. In the 2008 elections, 40 self-identified green politicians were elected to various government offices. But at the national level, she said, “defense and security are still the top priorities” and conservation efforts “take a back seat” to what state leaders consider more vital issues.

More funding needs to be invested to address the environmental deficits, Cohen said, so that Israel can join its counterparts in the developed world and move toward providing every household with recycling bins and dedicating money to local green projects.

Many environmentally minded people have left the city, choosing to live off the grid or in a permaculture environment to reduce their own ecological footprint.

While some environmentalists have chosen to live permanently outside the urban system, others do so temporarily and try to gain the necessary skills and experience to live sustainably once they return to the city.

Kibbutz Lotan, a small community just north of Eilat, is one of a few places in Israel that seeks to teach young people those skills.

“Creative approaches for integrating environmental awareness in our lifestyle are necessary,” says Alex Cicelsky, director of research and development at the center for creative Ecology in Lotan.

This tiny kibbutz is at the forefront of a new environmental drive, explained Cicelsky.

Lotan leads greening efforts by developing education programs, such as the 7-week Green Apprenticeship training.

During the program, apprentices learn ecological design building and sustainable technologies, such as how to use composting toilets, purifying water for daily use through grey and black water systems, and heating food and water in solar ovens.

Participants and eco-volunteers live in 10 dome-shaped apartments, made of straw-bale and earth-plaster. “This small eco-village provides an understanding of how we can all have a quality of life without abusing of our natural resources,” said Cicelsky.

The point is to educate these youth to have a visionary leadership for the future, said Cicelsky, “But grown-ups can also make a difference, just like the architects and engineers that come here to learn and go back home to make sustainable changes to their own specific environment,” he said.

Such programs are encouraging, but certainly not wide enough to educate the quickly growing city populations. Israel’s municipal governments need to work hand in hand with urban residents, to educate one another, and ensure that this year will be the last time a city beach is shut down due to pollution.