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COLUMN ONE : Israel Pays the Price of Progress : After making the desert bloom, the nation confronts the results of rapid growth and urban sprawl. Public concern over air and water pollution is just beginning.

August 08, 1995|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KIRYAT TIVON, Israel — As a young boy, Shai Ashkenazi used to swim in the clear waters of Haifa Bay and play on its beach of golden sand.

That was 45 years ago, when Israel was a brand-new nation and its leaders were still fired with the vision of redeeming the land they believed was the patrimony of the Jewish people.

These days, the only Israelis bold enough--some say crazy enough--to jump into Haifa Bay are activists desperate to call attention to the damage inflicted on the water and the land since then. Members of EcoAction, an Israeli group that patterns itself after Greenpeace, did just that in June, protesting the daily dumping of sludge into the bay by the Haifa Chemicals Corp.

Haifa is one of the country's most heavily industrialized cities, and it is the most polluted. But environmentalists say Haifa is just an extreme example of the damage decades of poorly regulated industrialization have done to the entire nation. Rapid building has polluted Israel's scarce supply of drinkable water, fouled its air and produced toxic wastes and garbage that the government can't seem to get rid of.

"My children are experiencing a different Israel from the Israel I grew up in," said Ashkenazi, 49. "We are living inside an ecological holocaust."

The early Zionists drained the swamps, made the desert bloom and pulled what was once a backwater of the Ottoman Empire into the 20th Century. They created a vibrant, democratic state with a thriving economy, built the most formidable army in the region and fended off neighboring Arab armies in successive wars.

But now Israelis are looking at the environmental havoc that was wreaked along the way and asking: at what price?

Today, Israel is struggling with what government experts term multiple environmental problems--what environmentalists call multiple crises.

Experts focus on the continuing population growth and the accompanying urbanization. Immigration from the former Soviet Union is fueling a population growth rate of 2% a year, making Israel--with a population of about 5 million--the most rapidly growing industrialized nation.

"Israelis call it the Los Angelezatzia of Israel," said Alon Tal, founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, a public-interest organization that specializes in environmental law. "You don't build up, you build sprawled cities that are inefficient for public transportation. You gobble huge quantities of land and create pernicious air pollution.

"In California, with its huge quantities of land, it is not an intolerable situation. But Israel is so tiny, smaller than New Jersey. We are paving over the Holy Land and turning it into some sort of suburban nightmare."

Urbanization is aggravating environmental problems that began to accumulate almost as soon as the early Zionist pioneers began clearing farmland and building factories here at the turn of the century. Raw sewage, hazardous chemicals and other pollutants pour into the Mediterranean Sea daily. Only the Tel Aviv area has a modern sewage treatment plant.

Jerusalem, the Holy City, has a small, antiquated plant that provides little treatment to the city's sewage. Every day, tons of raw sewage runs off from Jerusalem's hilltops, through polluted streams, and either pours into the Dead Sea or soaks into the Judaean desert.

More than 400 poorly run garbage dumps are leaching pollutants into the fragile coastal aquifer, a critical source of drinking water for the most populous part of the country. Tests run by the Environment Ministry show that some parts of the depleted aquifer already are polluted by the seepage.

Just outside Tel Aviv, near the nation's only international airport, a 210-foot mountain of garbage, the Hiriya dump, is not only threatening ground water but also threatening airplanes landing at Ben Gurion Airport.

For 40 years, Hiriya has been the central dump for the densely populated Tel Aviv area. Flocks of birds swarm around the mound, drawn by the sight and stench of garbage. The Israel Airports Authority has warned that the birds could cause a disaster if one or more is sucked into the engines of a jumbo jet on its landing approach.

"It is a critical situation," said Yossi Inbar, director of the solid waste division at the Environment Ministry. "Every day that we wait to close the illegal dumping sites and build proper landfills, we are contaminating the ground water. We are at a state of emergency."

Household garbage is not the only waste threat. Hazardous materials continue to be illegally stored and dumped by businesses large and small. Traffic chokes the cities and highways, and air pollution is thought to be causing respiratory disease in children in the Haifa Bay area. Studies by the Ministry of Health have demonstrated a higher rate of such illnesses in children in Haifa than elsewhere in the country.

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