The National Emergency Authority at the Defense Ministry has published, for the first time, a reference scenario for extreme heatwaves, warning that preparations must be made for days reaching 49 degrees Celsius (117F) and that during such heatwaves, mortality will exceed monthly averages by 8.5%il.

Israelis take part in a protest against climate change during an event in Tel Aviv, Israel September 27, 2019.
Israelis take part in a protest against climate change during an event in Tel Aviv, Israel September 27, 2019.Credit: \ AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Lee Yaron Mar 27, 2023

The National Emergency Authority at the Defense Ministry, along with the Meteorological Service, have published a first of its kind contingency plan for extreme heat waves resulting from the climate crisis. The Authority warns that the summer months – June to September – may see two severe heat waves per month, lasting three to four days, and reaching temperatures of up to 49 degrees.

During a heat wave, the authority warns mortality may exceed monthly averages by some 8.5 percent. The average daily number of hospitalizations due to coronary and vascular ailments during heat waves is also expected to exceed the daily average by at least 10 percent. The Defense Ministry further warns of disruption to the regular power supply, as peak power consumption is expected to increase by 10 percent during heat waves. The contingency plans published on Sunday refer to the years 2030-2050.

The Defense Ministry explains that “global warming and climate change have already caused an increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves observed since the 1950s. This trend will continue with greater intensity in coming decades. Israel, too, has seen an increase in the frequency of heat waves in recent decades.” According to National Bureau of Statistics data, some 4,000 people die in Israel per month, so according to Defense Ministry estimates, each heat wave is expected to cause an additional 340 deaths. The importance of the document is that government ministries and the various authorities must prepare for heat waves based on the guidelines in the document. These include the IDF, Israel Police, firefighting forces, the health, transportation, finance and welfare ministries, the Union of Local Authorities and Magen David Adom.

The Defense Ministry cited some 55,000 deaths in a heat wave in Russia in 2010, and 30,000 who died in the European heat wave of 2003, saying that the high prevalence of air conditioners in Israel prevents many deaths, but that Israel can also “suffer from indirect and direct mortality related to heat waves, especially as relates to vulnerable populations – populations that work outdoors (especially in physical labor), street dwellers, poor populations unprotected by air conditioning, as well as infants and the elderly population.”

Extreme heat waves have caused millions of deaths worldwide, according to World Health Organization data, as well as increased incidence of heart disease, strokes and risks to pregnant women. Despite this, Israel has not prepared for heat waves. Following Haaretz documenting of the excess deaths of some 150 Israelis in conditions of extreme heat in May 2020, the Environmental Protection Ministry conducted a study which showed that an average of 45 Israelis died in every heat wave in the past decade.

Last January, Haaretz revealed that despite tens of thousands of people having died around the world due to extreme heat in recent years, the National Emergency Authority (NEA) – the Defense Ministry agency entrusted with coordinating emergency agencies – did not view heat waves as a severe enough threat to include them in Israel’s map of threats. After a series of reports in Haaretz and the heat waves that struck Europe last summer, the Defense Ministry decided last July to include heat waves in the “threats map” and prepare an emergency plan requiring security agencies to prepare for extreme heat waves.

Now, following half a year of work, the contingency plan for heat waves in Israel has been published. The Defense Ministry said on Sunday, “The contingency plan for heat waves is a binding document and serves as a basis for the preparation of government ministries, planning bodies, and operative agencies.”

A heat wave is defined as one impacting large parts of the country’s population or territory, causes disruption in daily routine in the country and significant economic damage, up to harm to human life.

According to the contingency plan, the eastern valleys will usually see the most extreme conditions and the mountaintops will usually see less severe conditions. The head of the NEA, retired Brig. Gen Yoram Laredo, said, “The contingency plan being disseminated these days to government ministries presents the implications of an event defined as ‘severe/likely.’ The document states that the rise in mortality has been calculated in reference to the likely severe incident, but not the most extreme incident.”

In addition, the document lists the extreme dry heat (“sharav” or “chamsin”) and heat waves Israel has seen in the past century, along with the health implications of these heat waves. The document further states that when a heat wave creates prolonged periods of extreme dryness in the mountains, this creates conditions for wildfires. The danger of wildfires, therefore, may be particularly great toward the end, and even immediately following, heat waves.

According to the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change report last August, in the current climate, which is 1.1 degrees Celsius warmer than the pre-industrial period, extreme heat waves, which previously took place once a decade on average, now take place 2.8 times more frequently.