Plan could keep money issues from getting in the way of cleanup.
By Zafrir Rinat | Apr.17, 2013

Many Israeli waterways are still polluted despite the billions of shekels that have been spent on sewage treatment plants in the past few years, according to a study commissioned by Zalul Environmental Association. The reason, says Zalul, is a failure to repair damaged or malfunctioning waste treatment systems. In some cases, the nongovernmental organization notes, even relatively inexpensive repairs are held up by bureaucracy or, in the case of some of the poorest local governments, by a lack of funds.

Gadi Rosenthal and Dana Gabay of Kivun Strategy and Economics evaluated pollution events in Israeli streams and responses to them. According to the report they issued last week, each year the Environmental Protection Ministry’s hotline receives between 300 and 350 reports of waterway pollution. More than 80 percent are the result of problems originating in the pipes or pumps of a wastewater treatment plant operated by a local government.

While wealthier communities generally fix significant malfunctions within a few days, poorer local authorities, especially in Arab communities, often cannot address the problems for months on end. As a result, waterways are heavily polluted and serious environmental damage occurs.

For example, last year sewage flowed into the Yehiam stream, in the Galilee, for three months before the malfunction causing the problem was fixed. A similar situation occurred in the Iron stream, due to a malfunction in a pumping station in one of the area’s Arab towns.

The report cites a few outstanding examples of pollution in recent years. These included repeated problems with the sewerage systems in Upper Galilee towns that caused serious damage to the Nahal Beit Hakerem nature reserve, as well as malfunctions in the system at Jisr al-Zarqa that polluted the nature reserve around the Taninim stream, the only stream in the coastal area through which wastewater does not flow.

The Water Authority responds to waterway pollution by issuing a repair order requiring the responsible entity to fix the problem, at its own expense. But the report notes that in many cases the responsible party is a local government or water utility that lacks the funds for the repair, even though the average cost of such work is around NIS 31,000.

In other cases the delay in making the repair is due to bureaucratic complications, as when more than one party is responsible for the problem.

Kivun’s solution, which Zalul plans to promote, calls for creating a sort of superfund that could be used to repair waterway pollution events within a few days of reporting. The Water Authority would collect payment from the responsible party at a later date.

“We have to deal with these malfunctions the way we deal with putting out fires,” explained Kivun’s Rosenthal at a meeting last week of environmental groups and government representatives to discuss the report. “First you deal with the fire and then you deal with covering the cost of the damage.”

He noted that the total cost of these repairs would be about NIS 11 million annually, far less than the cost of cleaning up the streams when repairs are delayed.

Most of the meeting’s participants supported the idea of an immediate-response mechanism. But some stressed that at the same time there must also be a way to ensure that the local authorities and water corporations continue to invest the funds necessary to prevent the malfunctions in the first place.