Israel’s Mediterranean and Red Sea coastlines are among the country’s most valuable environmental assets. However, the demands of a rapidly growing population, urbanization, modern intensive agriculture, an expanding industrial sector, recreation and tourism threaten to compromise the quality of the marine and coastal environments.

The Mediterranean Coastline

Israel’s Mediterranean coastline stretches approximately 188 km from north to south. The coastline may be divided into high coast, where the coastal cliff is in close proximity to the water line, and low coast, where rivers and wadis interrupt the coastal cliff, forming broad sandy areas. Sand is carried by the current from the Nile delta northward, and deposited along Israel’s coast. Waves cast this sediment onto the beach, and winds carry it further inland to the coastal plain.

Wind is thus one factor affecting the coastal environment; others are the destruction and erosion of limestone, and weathering of clay and shale. Human activity, especially the construction of marine facilities, has impacted the sand balance, arresting the northward movement of sand and causing sand build-up toward the south.

Israel’s population is heavily concentrated along the Mediterranean coast. During the warm months (May to October), Israelis and tourists crowd bathing beaches up and down the coast. About 30 kilometers of the coast are designated as authorized bathing beaches; another 110 km are open to the public for recreation, and include nature reserves, national parks and archeological and historical sites. Other activities which affect the coastal environment in the Mediterranean are the industry, refining and commerce that take place in the ports of Haifa, Ashdod and Ashkelon, and power generating facilities along the coast which use Mediterranean waters for cooling. These facilities account for another 15 km of coastline. The remainder of Israel’s Mediterranean coast is closed to the public.

The Gulf of Eilat

The Gulf of Eilat, located at the northern end of the Red Sea, is the northernmost tropical sea ecosystem. Its oxygen-rich water has a constant temperature of 21-24C. The Gulf supports a dense population of more than 100 species of corals, 800 species of fish, and hundreds of species of crustaceans and molluscs in a fragile environmental equilibrium. Eilat’s coral reef was designated as a nature reserve in 1965.

Sea currents in the Gulf run counter-clockwise along the eastern shores of Saudi Arabia and Jordan, turning westward along the northern tip of the Gulf, then southward along the Israeli and Egyptian shores. Prevailing winds are north-northeasterly. The climate is a typical desert one: very low precipitation, and over 340 clear, sunny days a year. Winter storms affect the Gulf on rare occasions.

The natural resources and the climate of the Gulf of Eilat make the area very attractive to scientists, sport divers and tourists from all over the world. Many hotels and resorts have been developed there.

Eilat is an important port for Israel, with a major oil terminal, phosphate, potash and bromide export facilities, naval bases, marinas and pleasure boats, bathing beaches, and water sports. All these activities co-existing on a stretch of coastline of not more than 10 km place considerable stress on the delicate ecosystem of the Gulf. Chemical pollution from port loading facilities, microbial pollution and nutrients influx from municipal wastewater discharge, litter thrown from vessels or left on beaches, damage to the coral reef by anchors and sport divers, and minor oil spills from maritime activity and oil transport in the Gulf all threaten this marine environment.

However, the most serious and immediate menace to the Gulf of Eilat is the possibility of a major oil spill. Any spill, even a small one, would have serious impact on coastal activities and marine life. But a medium or large oil spill (over 200 tons), would have irreparable effects if left untreated: the oil would drive tourists away, hamper mariculture and impede the operation of industrial facilities along the shore; marine life would be smothered or destroyed; and fires could break out with devastating effects.

The extreme vulnerability and unique beauty of the Gulf of Eilat make its protection an urgent, if challenging, task.

Marine Pollution Prevention

In recent years, Israel has made significant progress in pollution prevention and protection of the marine environment.

The Marine and Coastal Environment Division (MCED) of the Ministry of the Environment is the national authority responsible for all aspects of pollution prevention and abatement: oil spills from ships or terminals, pollution from land-based sources, dumping of waste, airborne pollution and marine litter. It has adopted a multi-faceted working plan consisting of legislation, enforcement, beach and shore cleanup, international activities, and operation of a Marine Pollution Prevention Fund. The division employs 9 inspectors, and maintains a boat, vehicles and other equipment for monitoring and enforcement. It operates a marine pollution control station in the Gulf of Eilat. The MCED also distributes relevant technical material, and offers professional advice, encouraging potential polluters to develop or purchase their own treatment facilities.

Funds for combatting marine and coastal pollution and for cleanup operations are generated by the Marine Pollution Fund, totalling $700,000 in 1991. Income is derived from fees imposed on all oil terminals and all ships calling at Israeli ports, and from fines collected from violators of marine pollution prevention laws and regulations. The fund represents a realization of the "polluter pays" principle.

– Oil Spills

Dozens of reports on marine pollution by oil reach the MCED each year (40 in 1991), involving anywhere from a few liters to a few tons of oil. In most cases, response time is quick and treatment proceeds efficiently. While Israel is equipped to effectively combat small and medium-scale oil spills in the Mediterranean, the country currently lacks the capability to respond to large-scale oil spills. For smaller events, the strategy is to wait until the spill reaches the shore, and to clean it there.

There has been an enormous reduction in the amount of tar along Israel’s Mediterranean beaches from 3.6 kg per meter in 1975 to less than 20 gm per meter today. The decrease is attributable to a number of factors: improved maritime legislation and enforcement on the national level; implementation of international agreements, including the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL 73/78) by the majority of countries bordering the Mediterranean; better enforcement and inspection; technical developments in fuel container ships and coastal installations; a significant reduction in the amount of oil being transported along Israel’s coasts; and rapid action when spills do occur. The MCED patrols the coast and coastal waterways regularly, in order to detect environmental nuisances of all kinds.

Eilat’s capacity for marine pollution control was significantly improved, with the inauguration in 1991 of a newly expanded pollution control and response center. This center, the single most important contributor to pollution control in the Gulf of Eilat, is manned 24 hours a day by professional marine pollution inspectors. It serves as a logistical base for pollution control and prevention operations. It is located north of the coral reef, and is thus able to protect the reef by quick deployment of containment and recovery equipment when oil spills occur. The center, the only one of its kind in the area, is capable of dealing with spills as large as a few hundred tons. The use of older-type chemical dispersants is prohibited due to the ecological sensitivity of the area.

– Dumping of Waste

The dumping of waste into the sea from a vessel or aircraft is regulated through a strict permit system, which has resulted in only two types of authorized dumping: the dumping of coal ash by the Israel Electric Corporation, and of industrial sludge by Haifa Chemicals. Even when permitted, dumping must comply with detailed regulations specifying the maximum level of heavy metals in the residue, the distance from shore, the sea depth and rate of sedimentation at the dumping site, and the type of vessel used to transport the waste, as well as the implementation of a monitoring program around the dumping site. This permit system, which came into effect in 1984, imposes penalties for unauthorized dumping.

– Land-Based Sources

Major progress has also been made in the prevention of pollution from land-based sources, including domestic and industrial waste, agricultural runoff, and river discharges. Regulations entered into force in 1990 which prohibit the discharge of any waste or wastewater into the sea without a permit. In the last few years, an interministerial committee has reviewed requests for temporary permits from some twenty major land-based sources along the Mediterranean coast. Previously, wastewater discharge along the coast had been widespread; today only in two small communities in the north is sewage still discharged regularly into the sea, in accordance with a temporary permit issued pending the construction of suitable sewage plants.

Significant improvement has also occurred in the level of microbial pollution along the coast as a result of the successful operation of advanced sewage treatment plants. Moreover, much of Israel’s wastewater is now diverted for reuse after treatment.

Chemical pollution deriving from industrial effluents, port chemical terminals and ships transporting chemicals is carefully controlled. Significant reductions in the quantities of treated or partially treated industrial effluents reaching the sea have occurred since the 1990 regulations came into force. Handling procedures for chemicals shipped to and from Israel are designed to ensure maximum safety to the environment, thus preventing many chemical spill incidents from occurring. Furthermore, all tank washing activities are carried out according to regulations issued by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and no significant pollution from this source is expected.

– Litter

Pollution of coastal areas is also caused by solid litter (plastic bags, packaging material, bottles and plants). Twenty to thirty percent of this washes up from the sea; the rest is left behind on beaches by tourists and bathers. Local authorities are responsible for cleaning the bathing beaches. Special public cleanup campaigns are carried out twice each summer.

Legal Framework for Marine Water Protection

Laws enacted to implement the relevant international conventions and national environmental policy include:

* The Prevention of Sea Water Pollution by Oil Ordinance (New Version, 1980) forbids the discharge of oil or oily substances into territorial and inland waters from any shore installation or vessel, and makes any such discharge a criminal offense. Under the law, inspectors with police powers are appointed;

* The Prevention of Sea Pollution (Dumping of Waste) Law of 1983 requires that any dumping at sea by vessels and aircraft must be specially authorized by a committee headed by the director general of the Ministry of the Environment. Regulations contain a list of substances that may not be dumped under any circumstances, and describe the conditions for the issue of permits;

* The Prevention of Sea Pollution (Land-Based Sources) Law of 1988 forbids the discharge of any waste or wastewater into the sea or along the shore without a permit. Regulations under this law list types of waste for which a permit may not be granted. Where a permit is granted by a specially authorized permits committee, the law requires that the recipient report on the type and quantities of waste discharged. Contravention of the law constitutes a criminal offense;

* The Ports Authority Law of 1961 and the Ports Ordinance (New Version) of 1971 provide for the operation and management of ports in Israel. Regulations promulgated under these laws cover environmental matters like the collection of waste, bilge and ballast water from vessels;

* The Bathing Places Law of 1964, permits local authorities to formulate by-laws for maintaining the cleanliness of beaches. It empowers the Minister of the Interior, in consultation with the Minister of Health, to close bathing beaches for the protection of bathers.

Regional Cooperation

Israel is an active participant in the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP), which provides an important forum for regional environmental activities. The Plan was adopted in 1975 under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Program, and is widely acclaimed as a model of international cooperation. Israel has signed and ratified the Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution, and its four Protocols.

The planning component of MAP has two parts. The first is called the Blue Plan. In the initial stages, water resources, industrial growth, energy, health, population, land-use, tourism, economic relations in the region, transportation, communications, culture and environmental awareness were studied. Within the context of the Blue Plan, Israel prepared a national environmental scenario, analyzing current trends and predicting environmental conditions for the years 2000 and 2025. The final report of the Blue Plan, a synthesis of all the studies, was presented in 1988.

The second part of MAP’s planning component is the Priority Actions Program (PAP), which involves concrete development projects which place high priority on the environment, and are expected to yield immediate results. Israel has been an active partner in nearly all priority areas, and is contributing its expertise and experience to the program.

Monitoring and research are conducted through another arm of MAP called MEDPOL. Projects in the first phase of MEDPOL involved over 200 scientific groups from 84 institutions in 16 different countries. Israel was one of the first Mediterranean states to sign a long-term national monitoring agreement within the framework of MEDPOL, which requires annual microbial and geochemical surveys. Microbial data includes the detection viruses, faecal coliforms and other disease-bearing microbes in bathing water. The geochemical survey analyzes the concentration of heavy metal both in sea water and sediments, and the presence of mercury in various organisms in coastal waters. These surveys have shown that the level of pollution along the Israeli coastline is relatively low compared to industrialized countries in Europe. Haifa Bay, where higher concentrations of mercury and cadmium were detected, is the exception. However, all Israeli coastal waters meet international standards for chemical and bacterial pollution.

Israel’s research institutes take an active part in the research component of MEDPOL as well. This program is designed to provide a better understanding of the processes and phenomena involved in the complex mechanisms of pollution. Many of the research proposals presented by Israel (in 1991, 12 proposals were submitted) are approved. Recent projects cover a range of subjects, including bioaccumulation of heavy metals in marine organism organs (studied by x-ray microanalysis); the development of remote sensing methods for monitoring coastal water pollution; trace metal distribution along coastal rivers and estuaries; detection of pathogenic fungi on Israeli beaches; simulation of circulation and pollutants migration in the eastern Mediterranean; plankton bloom and jellyfish swarming; and correlation between bacterial indicators and potential fungi in sea water.

Through MAP and other institutions, Israel will continue participating in cooperative international efforts to safeguard the marine environment for present and future generations.