SPNI report finds open spaces threatened

Government, private development initiatives could turn Israel's open spaces to built-up areas.

hermon site building threat 248 (photo credit: courtesy of SPNI)
hermon site building threat 248
(photo credit: courtesy of SPNI)
There are 81 threats facing the country's open spaces in 2009, according to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's (SPNI) second annual report, which will be released on Monday morning. The threats range from macro projects such as new communities and infrastructure programs, to micro threats such as the establishment of isolated farmsteads in open areas. "In general, planning has gotten better over the last few years, but it is nowhere near enough," Nir Papai, head of the preservation of environment and nature branch, said Sunday during a press conference at the organization's Tel Aviv offices ahead of the report's release. "Three years ago, the Interior Ministry passed National Outline Plan for Development 35 [until 2020], which actually recognized the need to protect open spaces. However, the problem is that the other ministries, government agencies and local authorities actually plan developments which contravene the national plan," Papai said. "There's a strong element of private wealth from special interests influencing the government to approve plans at the expense of the general public," added Itamar Ben-David, SPNI's chief planner and the report's author. Israel's open spaces are constantly threatened because of an exploding population and increasing urbanization. According to Papai, the built-up areas of the country are expected to double in the next 20 years as Israel becomes the most crowded developed country in the world. The biggest threats come from 17 new planned settlements and 16 new transportation projects. Geographically, the North had the most endangered open spaces (27), with the Sharon and Center region next (21). There were 19 in the South, nine in the Jerusalem area and five in Eilat and its environs. The government's development plans posed the biggest threats to open spaces, but private real estate endeavors could also disrupt the continuity of nature, Ben-David said. Aside from the obvious natural beauty of open spaces, according to the report, such spaces preserve the wide variety of species Israel hosts. They also serve two other essential functions - improving the quality of ground water, and reducing global warming, as plants consume carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. The report highlighted specific projects in a variety of areas. For instance, new settlements such as Kidmat Gefen near Beit Shemesh, or Mitpze Iron, or the new settlements in the eastern Lachish region were all planned on open spaces. Ben-David also noted that the expansion of existing cities by creating suburban areas was also cause for concern. The report listed 17 cities with plans to push their municipal boundaries outward. SPNI expressed grave concern over the planned new international airport in the North near Megiddo, among other transportation projects. It also objected to the next stage of Highway 6 from Yokneam northward. SPNI and other local organizations have proposed upgrading the existing highway network rather than building the new fast highway. Papai stressed at the press conference that SPNI's preferred modus operandi was to suggest alternatives or alternative routes rather than object out of hand. Even the planned desalination plant in Sorek and the alternative energy power plants planned for the Golan and the Negev were listed as potential threats. According to Papai, aside from their environmental concerns about desalination in general, SPNI considers the spot chosen for the Sorek plant problematic. He pointed out that SPNI had successfully lobbied for the existing desalination plants to be located in industrial areas or by power plants, rather than take up valuable coastal spaces. The emergence of vast fields of solar panels or wind farms also presented a threat to open spaces, he said, and care should be taken to plan them in a way that uses the least amount of land. Papai acknowledged the necessity of alternative energy, but cautioned against reckless expansion. On a micro level, the report said allowing isolated farmsteads to spring up in the Galilee and the Negev amid otherwise pristine nature sites was deplorable. In order to get the public involved, SPNI has put together an interactive map on its Web site (www.teva.org.il), which shows all 81 threats and provides information about them. Based on Google Earth's interface, one can zoom in on specific spots or browse the length and breadth of the country to get a sense of the overall threat.