Israel’s emergency management agency doesn’t think preparedness for heatwaves should be an immediate priority, saying it is currently studying how to address the waves which have killed hundreds of Israelis in the last decade

People in Jerusalem in July in 2021.
People in Jerusalem in July in 2021.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Lee Yaron

Jun 26, 2022 9:42 PM

Officials at Israel’s National Emergency Management Authority will not add heatwaves to the list of threats for which emergency authorities must prepare, alleging that they do not pose sufficient danger.

The stance of the agency, which is part of the Defense Ministry, runs counter to a statement issued by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg in November, which said it would be added to the list. The National Security Council also said that the increasing heatwaves, catastrophic byproducts of climate change that have caused tens of thousands of deaths around the world in recent years, should be added to the threat list.

A construction worker drinks water in 2020.
A construction worker drinks water in 2020.Credit:

Sources familiar with the details said that at private meetings in recent weeks, officials at the Emergency Management Authority have said they are not convinced that heatwaves pose a serious enough threat to be added to Israel’s national threat map.

They refrained from adding them to the list of situations the country’s security forces must prepare for, choosing to add fires and floods to the scenarios instead. During these private meetings, officials cast doubt on the scope of the threat posed by heat waves, saying that they are not “eruptive” or “clear,” like terror attacks or missile fire.

The climate crisis has increased the frequency and severity of heatwaves around the world. The Israel Meteorological Service has determined that the prevalence of heatwaves has increased and the phenomenon is projected to become more intense and prolonged in the coming decades.

In Israel a study conducted by the Environment Ministry and researchers at Tel Aviv University linked the deaths of hundreds of Israelis to heatwaves. Eight heatwaves between 2012 and 2020 were responsible for at least 363 excess deaths – meaning deaths in excess of the mortality rates in the three preceding years. In addition, Israel is warming at a pace that is twice as fast as the global average.

Despite this, the country has no plan or aid prepared for its citizens during heatwaves. The Health Ministry simply disseminates warnings, which include recommendations to drink water, stay out of the heat and not to undertake any unnecessary physical strain.

Government ministries have been holding internal meetings over past weeks to discuss the national lack of preparedness for these events. The Prime Minister’s Office and Environmental Protection Ministries believed that a number of measures must be taken to protect the more vulnerable populations. These include issuing explicit warnings to at-risk populations and monitoring data from hospitals about the harm inflicted during heatwaves.

Other measures included mapping out at-risk populations, such as the elderly and low-income communities; supplying cooling methods such as fans and appliances; and making efforts to ensure that people who work outdoors are not endangering themselves during heat waves, including soldiers. These measures, which some countries have already begun implementing, fall under the purview of the Health Ministry and the National Emergency Management Authority.

Sources at the National Security Council told Haaretz that they conducted their own examination of the dangers posed by heatwaves and recommended that the issue be added to the Emergency Management Agency’s preparedness plans. In internal deliberations, officials at the Environment Ministry and Israel’s Meteorological Service made similar recommendations.

Adding heatwaves to agency’s list would mean that emergency services like the Magen David Adom, the police and the military would need to add the scenario to their readiness plans, allocate funding for the matter, gather data on its effects on the public and to aid at-risk populations.

“After a number of extreme heatwaves in Europe over past decades, they prepared organized plans in the event of heatwaves, and these plans were utilized during the current heatwave,” Nir Stav, the director of the meteorological service, told Haaretz.

“We know that heatwaves cause a high volume of calls to EMTs, hospitalizations and excess deaths. We know that they cause record electricity consumption and challenge the capacity to provide an uninterrupted supply of electricity. We know that heatwaves also affect neighboring countries and the Palestinians, and as a result, a heatwave could also have implications on an international level. The time has come for us to be prepared for that.”

Despite this, the country has no preparedness plans or intentions to lend public assistance during the spells. According to current protocol, public awareness of heatwaves is limited to the Health Ministry’s statement to the public.

Responding to questions by Haaretz, the Defense Ministry said that the Emergency Management Authority and relevant government ministries are currently working on a plan involving various scenarios resulting from the climate crisis.

“In this work, the first emphasis was on fires and flooding, which have a high potential for damage to human life and property,” it said. “How the phenomenon of heatwaves should be addressed is still being studied and considered from the standpoint of expected damage and building up the needed means [to fight it]. When this research is completed, it will be decided how the matter should be addressed,” it added.