Israel’s environmental challenges


Located in southern Israel on the Ketura Kibbutz in the Arava Valley, 30 miles north of Eilat, an environmental education and research program is tackling the region’s environmental challenges through a unique collaboration of Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians. This program, Arava Institute for Environmental Studies (AIES), which is affiliated with Ben-Gurion University, incorporates sustainability, interdisciplinary diversity and regionalism in its mission to create a world-class environmental teaching and research institute.

David Weisberg, executive director of Friends of the Arava Institute (the fundraising arm of AIES), talked with the Jewish Light about Israel’s environmental challenges and AIES’ programs to solve them.

What are Israel’s environmental issues?

One of the biggest issues is water. There’s simply not enough water to go around for Israel and its neighbors and the water isn’t clean. These four scenarios demonstrate this issue:

1. Every river in Israel is contaminated from industrial waste. This is not a problem Israel can solve alone. The rivers that flow through Israel don’t start in Israel; they start, for example, in the West Bank or Jordan. So if Israel’s neighbors don’t figure out a way to cooperate to clean up the rivers then there’s no chance of solving this problem.

2. Israelis marginally have enough water to drink. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) minimum standard for water consumption is 100 liters of water per capita per day. Israel has 120-150; the USA has around 600. In the Palestinian territories it’s 70 liters per capita per day. There’s a much bigger demand than supply. Most Palestinians and Jordanians only get water turned on once a week.

3. There are hotels that were built on the banks of the Dead Sea so guests could walk right out to water. Now hotels have to use trams to take guests to the water’s edge because the sea’s water level is decreasing at a rate of one meter a year. The Jordan River, which is the primary source for the Dead Sea, is now this little trickle because of the demands on it by the growing population and climate change.

4. One of the three primary sources of water for Jordan and the West Bank is the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret). This water is distributed and monitored by the national water carrier. The water carrier has set a level below which the sea should not go, however, when the sea dips below this line, Israel simple changes the line and lowers it.

The water situation is such that the countries must work together; it’s not something any one country can solve alone even though Israel is a leader in several areas like desalination and treating grey water. Currently, Israel has three desalination plants and two more should be up in a couple of years. It uses 70 percent of its waste water which is the highest percentage in world with the next being Spain which is a far second at 15 percent usage of waste water.

What is causing this water shortage?

It’s a combination of climate change (less rain), growing populations and agriculture that uses heavy amounts of water. As the population grows, the demand for water for personal use obviously increases as does the need to feed the population, which in turn impacts water usage for agriculture.

Israel’s population has grown because of hundreds of thousands of immigrants; birth rates are high for Palestinians and Bedouins.

What is being done to address this water problem?

In scientific and academic circles, such as AIES, there’s a recognition that all parties need to work together. Israel and the Palestinians have a joint water commission that was formed from the Oslo Accords. This joint commission is supposed to be working on matters such as infrastructure and water allocation. As part of the peace treaty with Jordan 15 years ago, Israel is required to provide water for Jordan.

There’s at least one massive project under consideration that would provide cooperation between Jordan, Israel and the Palestinians it would create a Red Sea to Dead Sea conduit.

There is a tremendous drop in elevation between the two seas so this conduit would create hydroelectric power, which would be used to run a desalination plant that would split Red Sea water for drinking water for the Palestinians and Jordan. The remaining heavily salted water would go to the Dead Sea to raise water level.

However, there are many considerations involved in this project, including the environmental impact. The World Bank asked for a feasibility study to examine the environmental impact assessment. Without a project like this Jordan will run out of its own water sources in about 20 years. The Jordan River isn’t much of a river anymore. It only has one internal source of water, which is a fossil aquifer that doesn’t replenish itself.

What are the other environmental issues?

Air quality is an issue. AIES has done some significant studies on this. It just completed a study on a small particulate matter that’s not healthy. We’re tracking the patterns of this matter between Jordan and West Bank.

This matter comes from industry in particular. Since nature knows no borders, being able to track this matter can give policy makers on all sides of the borders the information they need to make decisions.

Israel doesn’t have environmental regulations to the extent the USA does. And Palestinians have very little regulations on treating their waste water.

Sustainable agriculture is another issue for which we’ve done a tremendous amount of work. Not only do we provide training in Israel and our neighboring countries on this topic but we also do training in Morocco on how to domesticate plants in a desert environment.

What is the environmental movement like in Israel?

It’s a fairly recent development. Having a lack of clean water is providing more recognition of the green movement.

We’ve been working with students to do a project to clean up the beaches but people couldn’t understand why that was necessary. The environmental movement is an evolution.

For more information about the Arava Institute or its fundraising efforts in North America visit these sites:,