GOVERNMENT AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Research in environmental sciences is vital and urgent for sustainable urban, industrial and agricultural development. In Israel, where population density and rapid development are the norm, it is imperative that national decisions be based on the results of sound scientific research. Government support of science and technology is therefore a key component of national development.
Israel currently spends some $6 million1.2% of its total research and development budgeton environmental research. The main bodies which fund this research are the Ministries of the Environment, Agriculture, National Infrastructures (formerly Energy), Science, and Industry and Trade. The Environment, Infrastructures and Agriculture Ministries fund practical research intended to solve specific problems. The Ministry of Industry funds activities whose aim is to develop technology or final products related to the environmentwhether the development of a water filter for drinking purposes or wastewater treatment technologies. However, it also runs programs for the development of generic technology, in which consortia of academic and industrial researchers work together on pre-competitive research and development. Within this framework, it has supported the development of generic technology in such areas as high-temperature solar energy and biotechnology of algae which has major implications for wastewater remediation. The Ministry of Science, the "middle link" in this research chain, promotes the development of new generic technologies in priority areas in order to bridge the gap between basic research and applied industrial research. The Ministry of Science aims not to develop a specific product, but rather generic technologies relevant to a wide range of applications. Within this framework seven fields have been targeted for priority (see below).
Several of these ministries as well as other government bodies administer centers for environmental research in more specific fields. Thus, for example, the Ministry of Infrastructure’s Earth Sciences Research Administration operates three major research institutes and supports additional research through university grants and contracts. The Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research Ltd., with research centers near Haifa, Lake Kinneret and Eilat, promotes the sound use of Israel’s marine and freshwater resources through research on the oceanography of the Eastern Mediterranean and its ecosystem, economically viable aquaculture, marine biotechnology and marine pollution. The Geological Institute is responsible for the systematic investigation of the geology of Israel. The Institute for Petroleum Research and Geophysics surveys water resources and evaluates seismological risk.
Other research institutions include, among others, the Agricultural Research Organization – Volcani Center and the Hydrological Service of Israel which consolidate research on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Israel Meteorological Service which is operated by the Ministry of Transportation, the Israel Institute for Biological Research which conducts basic and applied research in public health and environmental subjects, the MIGAL Research Institute in Kiryat Shmona whose research programs largely focus on minimizing pesticide residues in the soil and Jordan River tributaries, and the Golan Research Institute and the Ramon Science Center which conduct ecological research on Israel’s northernmost and southernmost regions, respectively. Several non-governmental organizations are also active in environmental research. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, for example, operates 26 field study centers and seven research centers devoted to the protection and appreciation of Israel’s flora and fauna while the Jewish National Fund is well-renowned for its afforestation strategies and methods for reversing desertification.
Ministry of Science
A primary mission of Israel’s Ministry of Science is to support strategic research which is still too new, generic, high-risk and long-term for industry. This makes the Ministry of Science a crucial middle link in the research and development chain, stretching from academia to industry. Within the framework of its efforts to further precompetitive research in priority areas, the Ministry of Science has taken the lead in forming an Executive National Committee for the Development of Scientific and Technological Strategic Research whose 13 members represent the upper echelons of academia, industry and government. This so-called "Committee of Thirteen" is charged with: Identifying strategic research opportunities with high economic potential; Developing criteria for selecting priority areas; Crystallizing specific strategic plans for priority areas; Recommending these to Israel’s Ministerial Committee for Science and Technology.
To date, the Committee has selected seven major priority areas for funding, the most recent of which is environment and water. Based on the recommendations of a Steering Committee for the Development of Strategic Research in Environmental Quality and Water, the Ministry of Science has published tenders for the creation of clusters of research which will implement multidisciplinary research on water resource preservation and pollution abatement in the industrial, urban and agricultural sectors. Proposals for the development of large, multidisciplinary, multi-institutional research initiatives in these subjects are currently being assessed by a professional selection committee.
Ministry of the Environment
National environmental research is coordinated by the Ministry of the Environment through the Office of the Chief Scientist. In recent years, the Ministry of the Environment has accorded high priority to surveys and research which support the activities of the Ministry in such vital areas as water and marine quality, agroecology, air, environmental planning, noise, pests and hazardous substances. A representative sampling of research projects currently being carried out within this framework includes the following: formulation of principles for sustainable urban planning which does not harm groundwater; application of active noise control to reduce the noise of residential air-conditioners; environmental effects of electromagnetic radiation; temporal and spatial analysis of air pollution processes in Israel; and biodegradation of polyethylene waste by bacteria.
Methods and technologies for risk assessment, monitoring, treatment, utilization and remediation of wastewater are predominant in the list of research studies which have been approved for financing by the Ministry of the Environment. One study aims at assessing the usefulness of fish population parameters and fish health as indicators of habitat conditions in specific streams in Israel. Another is developing bacteria to break down toxic materials as a means of cleaning up soil and water pollutants. Yet another is developing a more efficient biological process for the removal of ammonium from wastewater or secondary treated effluent using a combined chemical-biological process.
Due to the scarcity of water resources and the importance accorded to effluent reuse, several studies are focusing on the use of reclaimed wastewater for irrigation purposes. One is investigating the suitability of bananas for irrigation by reclaimed wastewater because of this crop’s relative salt resistance, high demand for nutrients, irrigation using the drip system and absence of direct contact between water and fruit. Another is checking the effects of sub-surface trickle irrigation using treated wastewater for the irrigation of selected field crops. Still another will apply the results of a university study to the irrigation of olive trees in the environs of Sakhnin, an Arab settlement in the Galilee.
The Sakhnin project is especially ambitious. In this settlement, one of the first in the Arab sector to initiate a project for wastewater treatment and effluent reuse in agriculture, a regional center is being established for demonstrating environmental technologies, energy conservation and agricultural recycling in rural areas. The center is expected to serve as a model for inexpensive methods of wastewater treatment, effluent utilization in agriculture, use of solar energy, exploitation of biogas for the production of electric energy and heat, and the production of compost. The current wastewater treatment plant for the area serves 10,000 people, but is expected to expand to 25,000 within five years. Its expansion will be undertaken in consultation with experts and will integrate new technologies which can serve as a model for the development of similar systems in other rural areas in Israel and in countries which suffer from water scarcity. The results of an academic research study which aims to develop a high-rate integrative process for the treatment of olive oil mill wastewaters will play an important part in the practical application of new methodologies in the field.
Still another major group of studies which is funded by the Ministry of the Environment focuses on solid waste management in view of the magnitude of this problem in a densely populated country such as Israel which is characterized by limited land resources. Since a large component of Israel’s domestic waste is composed of organic wastes, several studies are testing the carrying capacity of land for organic waste and compost as well as the economic and environmental feasibility of agricultural utilization of municipal compost, including the application of compost onto the arid Negev soils. These investigations should lead to the development of appropriate technologies, potential uses and markets for compost utilization. Other studies are experimenting with sludge, effluent and sludge-derived compost to examine their effect on the transport of pesticides and heavy metals. The results will be used to assess the regulatory framework of land disposal of sewage wastes to provide environmentally safe disposal.
On the Global Front
While most of Israel’s environmental research is designed to help solve local problems, several studies are geared toward solving global problems as well. Thus, for example, major efforts are being invested to help reduce the use of methyl bromide, a chemical fumigant which has traditionally been used worldwide to destroy insect and nematode pests in the topsoil. As the world’s second largest producer of this fumigant, which has been targeted as a potential ozone-depleting substance, Israel appointed a task force in September 1993 to survey the status of methyl bromide use in Israel and worldwide and to present recommendations on means of reducing emissions and introducing substitutes. The recommendations of the National Committee on Methyl Bromide were published in February 1994 and include a wide range of suggestions on reduction of doses, use of alternatives, research and development on methods for adsorption, neutralization and recycling, and training and information. In the wake of the report, a team of specialists was appointed to prepare recommendations for safer methyl bromide use.
In the two years since publication of the report, the committee has continued research on such methods as use of impermeable plastic sheets and means of combining methyl bromide with other methods, such as soil solarization, to reduce methyl bromide emissions. To further advance the study of the subject, subcommittees have been established on such subjects as plastics standards, improved application methods, education and training, and strategies for research and development. The results of some of this research are already being implemented in the field with encouraging results. The use of impermeable plastic sheets has already succeeded in lowering doses and emissions by as much as 35%.
On another front, the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation has invited proposals for financial assistance under the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Program to carry out research and development on methyl bromide alternatives, emissions reduction (i.e., soil fumigation and quarantine fumigations), improved application techniques and/or containment technologies (i.e., pre-plant fumigation, soil, water and nutrient management, plastic containment, and/or effective dosage). The program will assist eligible US and Israel based entities that have entered into joint ventures to carry out research and development and commercialization of these areas.
The development of methods for preserving water quality, recovering wastewater, growing food products which are free of excess fertilizers and pesticides, proper treatment of solid waste and hazardous waste, protection of urban environmental quality and preservation of open spaces for population welfare is no longer a luxury in Israelit is a prerequisite for survival itself. To ensure sustainable development in Israel, it is imperative that additional funds be allocated by government for the implementation of critical research in all areas of environmental concern.