(photo credit: )
Eilat, with its beautiful beaches and hotel complexes, is Israel's most popular resort - both for locals and foreign tourists. Its underwater sea life constitutes a rare attraction, nothing less than a national treasure. One would therefore expect that extra care would be taken to maintain and protect assets which generate income and livelihood for an entire region as well as offer exceptional aesthetic enchantment to all Israelis.
Last weekend, however, belied any such expectations. At peak season, during the Succot holiday, all Eilat's guests were banned from the beaches which drew them there in the first place. The cause: massive sewage spillage. Was it avoidable? It was.
This costly environmental mishap only superficially differs from the environmentally triggered health hazards with which we dealt in our editorial just yesterday. Though the immediate concern here isn't air pollution from heavy industrial installations, the substantive bottom line in Eilat, too, is lack of foresight, prudence and contingency planning. Lackadaisical concentration on the short haul is the mother of all of Israel's varied environmental ills.
The Eilat case is particularly galling. The city's sewage system isn't antiquated and was, in fact, revamped and largely reconstructed just a few years back. Expense wasn't spared; lack of funds is not the issue here. What went wrong was the failure to anticipate malfunctions and to take heed of what cities without adjacent large bodies of water do in case of emergency. They obviously can't pump their waste offshore.
Sewage breakdowns occur everywhere, but in most systems backups exist to collect the waste while repairs are made. Auxiliary pipes are uniquely absent in Israeli sewage systems and the knee-jerk response is to clear out damaged pipes into the sea. This isn't only the case in Eilat. It recently happened in Herzliya, Netanya, Kiryat Ata and Acre. It's not unknown elsewhere along the Mediterranean and even in the Kinneret, where a similar problem presented itself in Tiberias.
Rivers and tributaries are no better off. Cash-strapped Arab municipalities in the Galilee habitually pipe sewage into small streams which then carry the pollution elsewhere. This is done despite Treasury cash outlays to these local councils for the express purpose of sewage treatment. Earlier this year, NIS 400 million was earmarked specifically for sewage projects in Arab townships.
The resort to dumping at sea when the need arises must be obviated. This should particularly apply to Eilat. A city which subsists on beach-derived earnings must not - even in the recesses of its collective mind - treat its one resource as a sinkhole for crisis situations. Eilat must consider itself, for infrastructure purposes, landlocked and come up with solutions that do not factor in the sea.
This week's crisis only proves the point. It all began with a moderate leak in the city's southern section. It wasn't a particularly problematic repair job, but the pipes needed to be emptied to facilitate the work. For that purpose, other sections of the system were drained out, as well, and the only place to which the sewage could be directed was the bay which sustains Eilat.
Environmental Protection Minister Gideon Ezra complimented himself and his staff yesterday on how closely they monitor the situation in Eilat. All he could promise was to "look for anyone who may be guilty of neglect" and apply punitive measures "in case of a severe slip-up." But that is a wholly erroneous approach. There needn't be a miscreant behind every instance of things going wrong. The pursuit after someone to blame can be counterproductive in situations where the underlying mindset is the problem. The perception of the sea as a great outdoor septic tank for unforeseen circumstances is at fault in Israel in general, and all the more so in Eilat where the ecosystem is the country's most delicate and hyper-sensitive in the best of days.
The giant fish cages, which were long ago slated for removal, are still operating without license in the bay and polluting it to no lesser extent than the raw sewage. Here, Ezra knows precisely who's to blame, yet nothing is done.
Eilat's commercial port is another major pollutant, which can be prodded to clean up its act. Everyone involved knows what needs to be done, but doing what's prescribed is quite another matter.
Meanwhile, Eilat's prestige has taken a licking this week, and the damage to the vulnerable coral reef cannot yet be evaluated.