Israel and the environment

By Gail Wechsler

June 19 at Tel Aviv Airport

I am starting on my journey back to the US. During my stay in Israel I learned a lot about exciting environmental initiatives here. I also had the opportunity at Siach to meet Israeli social justice activists working on issues including immigrant rights and rights of low -income residents to affordable housing. Look for a more in-depth report on the Israeli social justice movement in an upcoming op-ed in the Jewish Light.

June 17, 2012

In earlier blog posts I discussed the importance of water in Israel. Today I had the chance to see firsthand the nature of the water problem here and also to see the beginnings of a solution.

The Jordan River is unique in its natural and cultural wealth in the Middle East. However while it is clean and flows fully in its Northern end it is predominantly polluted at its lower end.This is due to excessive use of dams which divert the water and inappropriate development in the area. As my tour group at Siach moved South we saw evidence of this pollution and also evidence of how the river narrows and becomes stagnant as it flows South.

Enter the Peace Island project. This is an outgrowth of an agreement between Israel and Jordan that called on both nations to cooperate for the benefit of the river.

Entering with my group into Jordanian territory I saw the beginnings of the transboundary project to create a joint park with a ecologically rehabilitated river. Also envisioned is a destination for bird watchers. This same region is a twice a year haven for migratory birds.

While Peace Island is not yet a complete reality both countries are committed to its development. Hopes are high that in the future Israel and Jordan will share in the benefits of a cleaner better protected and more resourcefully used Jordan River.

June 15, 2012 Tiberius

Today the Siach conference began. The goals of Siach are to bring Jewish social justice activists from around the world together for conversation connection and collaboration.

One of the most interesting sessions today focused on environmental peace building in the Middle East. We heard from Amy Avizhor of Friends of the Earth Middle East which has had success creating collaborations among Israelis Palestinians and Jordanians on water-related projects.

Water is scarce polluted and crosses boundaries in the Middle East. As partners from the different groups realized they needed to work to rehabilitate the Jordan River together they put aside political differences. They realized that the environment was not a national issue. It is hoped this successful environmental collaboration will build trust needed to solve other problems connected to water scarcity in the region.

Morning of June 14, 2012 Tel Aviv

Spending my third full day in Israel in the city of Tel Aviv, I couldn’t help noticing the large number of bikers. Walking just about everywhere, I saw not only bikers but many stations with green bikes lined up in rows. Wondering what this was all about, I dug a little deeper and learned that Tel Aviv has gone Green in a major way, particularly in the last year, to reduce the number of cars on the road by encouraging more bicycling.

According to a recent article in Haaretz, fourteen years ago Tel Aviv didn’t even have one bicycle path. Now the city has more than 100 kilometers of paths, lanes and trails exclusively for bikers. Current Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai has made it a priority to encourage biking by building these extensive bike paths and also by creating numerous bike rental stations throughout the city.

A 2010 municipal poll showed that 38 percent of Tel Aviv residents own a bicycle. And, since creation of the Tel Olfan bicycle rental program last spring, those green bikes I saw all over town have logged in more than 280,000 separate rides.

By creating greater opportunities to ride a bike safely from home to work or play, Tel Aviv is doing thing right to keep cars off the road and reduce fossil fuel use.

Morning of June 12, 2012 Tel Aviv

The subject of water is very important here in Israel.  I hear talk wherever I go about the importance of conserving water because it is so scarce here. I also see efforts everywhere to encourage people to reduce their water use.

Also on the subject of water, yesterday I had the opportunity to visit probably the most significant body of water within Israel. This is the Dead Sea, which is located at the lowest point of dry land on Earth, 1373 feet below sea level.  Because it has a salt concentration of 32 percent, it is almost 9 times saltier than the ocean and no living thing can survive in it (hence its name).  The mineral-rich mud and waters of the Dead Sea are known for nourishing and cleansing the skin.  You will see many skin care products on the market enriched with Dead Sea minerals. 

Floating in the Dead Sea is a unique experience.  The Sea itself is gorgeous–a deep blue color surrounded by desert and dry mountains.

Unfortunately,  climate change is having an effect on the Dead Sea.  The Dead Sea’s main source of water is from the nearby Jordan River.  Due to changes in weather patterns (most likely caused by global warming) there has been much less rainfall of late in the area around the Dead Sea.  In addition,  a lot of the water from the Jordan River that previously would have flowed into the Dead Sea now is being diverted for drinking and irrigation (again due to less rainfall in the area).  As a result,the water level in the sea is receding.

Hopefully scientists and researchers will be able to find a solution to the environmental problem facing the Dead Sea.  In the meantime,  this problem speaks again to the need for those living here to be mindful of how much water they use for everyday activities.

June 11, 2012

Greetings from Israel! I am very excited to be here to attend the second annual conference of Siach: an environmental and social justice conversation. In a few days I will be meeting with approximately 100 other Jewish social activists from around the world to share best practices, engage in dialogue about the work we do to repair the world and discuss ways we can continue and expand our collaborations.  Until then, expect reports pre-Siach about things I have been learning about what is happening here in Israel.

While I’ve only been here 1 1/2 days, I already have learned some impressive things this country has done and is doing to reduce water waste and fossil fuel use. To name just a few:

  • Drip irrigation, the system of watering plants that reduces water use (as opposed to the use of sprinklers) was invented in Israel. 
  • Solar power is heavily used in Israel.  (The shower I use at my place of accommodations runs on solar power and I’ve had no problem with cold showers here!)
  • There is a large usage tax on automobiles in Israel.  The price of a car in Israel could easily be 3x the cost of a car in the US due to these taxes. This encourages households to buy smaller and more compact cars and to drive less. 

Looking forward to learning and sharing more of what Israel is doing right to make the Earth more more environmentally friendly place.