There’s no excuse for the lack of preparedness

Once again, we were reminded that there is something terribly wrong with our long-term planning for man-made and natural disasters.

December 6, 2010 02:06
3 minute read.
Fire rages in the Carmel, Thursday

Carmel fire 311. (photo credit: Israel Police)

Last week began with the big story about more than 250,000 secret US documents published by WikiLeaks, continued with the 12-hour collapse of the Cellcom network and ended with the tragic Carmel fires.

In the case of WikiLeaks, while one cannot help reading with glee what statesmen and diplomats are reported to have said off the record, and while “open diplomacy” has been viewed as an ideal to which the democratic world ought to strive since the Congress of Vienna in 1815, one can’t help wondering whether a situation in which there are no secrets is really desirable, and whether any fearless anarchist ought to be able to call the shots.

In the case of the Cellcom collapse, the absolute panic of many customers and the disruption caused to their daily lives proves that in a relatively short 15 years people have become totally dependent on modern communications technologies which simply didn’t exist before. Yet the world turned and life flowed before mobile phones and their derivatives were invented; the excessive dependence on them today cannot be a healthy development.

IT IS, however, the third story which is most unsettling – not just because of the tragic loss of life, the wasteful loss of property and the devastating damage caused to nature, but because, once again, we were reminded that there is something terribly wrong with our long-term planning for man-made and natural disasters.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has already called for a committee of inquiry.

But what for? There is really no need for a committee of inquiry, just as there was no need for the recent State Commission of Inquiry on the Water Economy, and there is no need for additional inquiries into preparedness for earthquakes. It’s clear that sooner or later, we will experience a major earthquake, just as it has been clear for several decades that we (like our neighbors) have a severe water shortage, and that the climate makes large parts of the country prone to major fires.

In the latter case, public negligence on the one hand, and arsonists – whether politically motivated or mentally ill – make the prospect all the more likely.

Whether we are talking about earthquakes, water or fire, all the facts and potential scenarios are known, as are the measures that must be taken.

Unlike many Third World countries, we can afford to do what needs to be done. We can afford to introduce and implement standards for the construction of new buildings and the fortification of old ones that will minimize the effect of an earthquake; we can afford plants for desalination and the treatment of sewage water to ensure that our water requirements will always be fulfilled; and we can afford to have properly trained and equipped fire-prevention and fire-fighting services.

The greatest problem is decision making: Until a catastrophe actually occurs, clear-cut decisions are rarely taken at government level, and even if decisions are taken, the Finance Ministry is constantly blocking or slowing their implementation – as happened in the case of our fire-fighting services.

Though the opinion of the Finance Ministry should be taken into account whenever a major expenditure is involved, it is finally the experts who must determine what measures should be taken, and we are not short of experts.

The second problem is the inclination to privatize public services. Though there is room for private initiative, and the private sector is a pillar of any healthy economy, it is the government that must take responsibility for social and education services, and for preparedness to contend with any potential war or natural hazard.

While one cannot but admire the dedication of the various forces involved in fighting the fire, and preventing additional loss of life after the initial tragedy (which was apparently caused by a mistaken evaluation of risks), and one must commend Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for not shying away from asking for international assistance, it is inexcusable that we were not prepared. At this point there is no need to waste time on finding someone to blame – the governments in recent decades are all to blame. What is needed is a change in approach. Are Netanyahu and his government capable of making such a switch?

The writer, a former Jerusalem Post columnist, was a Knesset employee for the past 16 years.

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