Israel’s increasingly at risk of overpopulation, but nobody’s taking it seriously.
By Zafrir Rinat | May 7, 2014

As it does each year just before Independence Day, the Central Bureau of Statistics released updated numbers regarding Israel’s population, and they show a dizzying growth rate.

Last year, Israel’s population increased by 157,000, a 2% increase, which is much higher than in other developed countries. Since its birth, Israel’s population has grown tenfold, and the CBS predicts that by 2025, 9.8-10.5 million people will live here. In 2035, this number is projected to increase to 11.3-12.7 million. If one adds the Palestinian population residing between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, within two decades there will be 15 million people in this small strip of land. In comparison, Holland, which is one of the densest countries in the developed world, saw a mere 4.7 percent increase in its population over a whole decade (2001-2010).

Population growth is unfamiliar territory to environmental groups in Israel. The topic is sensitive, raising religious and cultural issues. Anyone dealing with it gets caught up in a geopolitical mess involving an Israeli-Palestinian competition to achieve demographic dominance. Everyone realizes the topic’s importance but no one will say anything beyond the obvious, namely that this increase in population demands suitable environmental planning, and that not much more can be done.

This attitude is reflected in a document prepared by the Ministry for Environmental Protection and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. A document called ‘Sustainability Outlook for Israel 2030’ recognizes that the projected population growth will impact the environment, but lacks any proposed strategies to deal with the matter. The document states that “Israel in 2030 will be a state providing economic prosperity, social strength and personal safety within diverse communities. The state will foster innovation and development with vibrant urban life, demonstrating inclusiveness and accessibility of all segments of society to services and employment opportunities. Economic growth and rising consumption will be achieved without any damage to the environment. Living standards will be high, together with a preservation of environmental resources for future generations.”

This is indeed a lovely vision, full of promise, which, however, cannot be fulfilled in a society experiencing the current rate of growth. Only a combination of a consistent damping of population growth with a marked improvement in planning the distribution of built and open areas will enable a reasonable quality of life, along with the prevention of a total collapse of natural ecosystems, leading to the disappearance of nature reserves and parks. Since population growth cannot be stopped in the coming years, population density between the Jordan and the sea will be very high. The Palestinians will have to do their share, although at this stage there is little chance of their doing so. On the contrary, they, like Israelis, are obsessively trying to win the demographic struggle.

This scenario of a very crowded country will complicate the development of transportation infrastructure while the maintenance of open areas for leisure, as well as natural resources such as unique desert landscapes, coral reefs, the Dead Sea and Lake Kinneret basins. One cannot dismiss human ingenuity and improvisation, at which both Israelis and Palestinians excel. It is true that past gloomy forecasts regarding dense populations did not always play out. However, this one is not about adequate food and water supplies, which apparently will be available. This projection deals with incessant friction between groups vying with each other for available land, in a shrinking area in which assets are declining in quality.

The forecast relates to a chronic condition, not a one-time collapse. Different population sectors will be affected in different ways. Most of the population growth is in the ultra-Orthodox sector, which already lives in dense conditions, consuming less but more reliant on public transportation.

Some of the results of the increased stress on the environment will be a slowdown in development of transportation infrastructure. A shortage will be felt in light rail and fast, high-capacity buses. It will be hard to find areas for energy and environmental infrastructure, such as waste and sewage disposal, desalination and electricity generation from natural gas. There will be overcrowding in parks and leisure areas, leading to early closures after they fill. Overuse of all-terrain vehicles will prevent intimate, quiet vacationing. Open spaces will become disconnected, hampering connectivity between ecosystems and destroying natural habitats of many species.

Planning systems will collapse under the pressure of developers. There is currently an integrated national master plan guiding spatial development in Israel, called Tama 35. Government pressure intended to reduce housing prices has consistently breached the plan’s intention of maintaining open spaces and judicious urban planning. Environmental groups and planning agencies will have to find ways of dealing with Israel’s population growth through education and investment in employment opportunities, which will slow down the rate of growth. Incentives for additional children should be removed, in order to improve quality of life for families while assistung the environment. This is the only alternative to demographic chaos, although chances for success are slim.