Lets start fixing Israels environmental woes now

There’s the postcard version of Israel — knotty olive trees, pristine blue Mediterranean water, dramatic desert landscapes, snow-topped Mount Hermon.

And there’s the other Israel, the environmentally taxed nation — landfills filled with plastic bags, factories churning dark smoke into the heavens, the polluted Kishon River, poor sewage treatment in the West Bank.

I’ve been studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem for the past couple months. My class on environmental law and policy in the Middle East is teaching me about the destruction occurring in Israel. And whenever I’m in disbelief about what I’m learning, all I have to do is venture outside and see for myself — the littered beaches, the choking fumes from Egged buses, the trash-strewn streets.

Both here in Israel and back home in the Bay Area, I’ve heard lots of talk of love for the land of Israel. What’s not to love? It has a rich history, great people, delicious food and beautiful scenery. Love of the land, though, hasn’t translated into a widespread love for the land. And because of this (despite the good work of some Israeli environmental activist groups, such as the Arava Institute and Zalul), the environment is being trampled. Instead of a land dripping with honey, it’s a land oozing with pollution. Not too delicious, I’m afraid.

These problems have frustrated me on a day-to-day basis. For example, there are very few places where I can recycle my paper. And just like in many places in the United States, shoppers in Israel are always offered plastic bags when they purchase groceries or other items. Buy a melon, get a plastic bag. Whatever happened to canvas bags? Or carrying something by hand?

Most of these plastic bags, of course, are simply thrown away (but not always in a waste bin). The poorer neighborhoods of Jerusalem have litter strewn about everywhere.

But these are small things compared to other environmental issues befalling Israel.

Eilat’s gulf, shared with Aqaba, has beautiful and unique coral reefs. But bilgewater, oil and recreational diving activities have eaten away at the underwater tapestry. Today more than 70 percent of the coral reef is dead.

Fish farming also has done its part to destroy the reefs (the fish are fed antibiotics and hormones; when they expel their waste, the nutrients destroy the coral). Though the fish farming factories have been told to remove their farms from the coral, they have not yet done so. The reefs continue to disappear, and Israel is in danger of losing one if its primary draws to one of its most important leisure spots.

If only that were the extent of Israel’s water issues. The Middle East has been plagued with water scarcity problems for years. Now thanks to international climate change, water issues will get worse and could lead to increased levels of conflict between nations.

By 2030, Israel is projected to have about 10 million people — not including the residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Let’s face it: Israel is a small country, and that’s a lot of people and a lot of water — but where is it all coming from?

Water is seen as an essential right. Surely it is for survival. But we seem to believe we have the right to use water for other things besides drinking.

Last month there was a heat wave in Tel Aviv. During the peak heat of the day, the municipality decided to water the lawns. It wasn’t the wisest of environmental choices. What would be wise is to let the lawns turn brown and appropriate the water for better purposes.

The Jordan River no longer flows to the Dead Sea, which is shrinking, as is the level of the Kinneret. Lots of water is used for agriculture, which only makes up 2 percent of the country’s economy. More and more out-of-the-way housing developments are being built, creating the need to divert water to reach these developments.

I’m not trying to present a doomsday scenario; I’m just saying there are many reasons to be concerned — alarmed, in fact.

Israel’s got the right idea about several environmental issues: Almost every house has a solar heater that boils water; the country is a trailblazer when it comes to using desalination; and there is a pretty solid public transit infrastructure, with a Jerusalem-to-Tel Aviv train line in the works.

But for a truly secure future for the land of Israel (and the state too), there are many more problems that need to be tackled. I don’t have the answers myself, but I’m firmly behind the person who does.

Naomi Kaye grew up in Oakland and is an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.