Israel is known better for drought and long, hot and thirsty dry spells than for its umbrella sales. Yet even the occasional significant storm might go unnoticed – unless a) it creates such havoc that it causes urban planners and government experts to run hither and dither defending old policies or pronouncing new ones, or b) it reveals secrets of eras long gone as it turns the land asunder.
Both of the above were true in a storm that swept Israel last month. The damage extended from agriculture to infrastructure. Along the Mediterranean shoreline it exposed the yawning gaps in policy setting found in many arenas in Israel. At the same time it unearthed new archeological relics not seen since the Romans were here, specifically a 1.2-meter-tall statue of a toga-clad woman (though she had long lost her head).
The marble statue was revealed when a stretch of coastal cliff near Ashkelon collapsed (the same phenomenon occurred near Caesarea, yielding a British mandate-era cache of grenades and other weapons). The find might have been exciting, but the repercussions of why she emerged now, after some 1,700 years, are cause for serious concern.
JIIS' Environmental Policy Center and the Ministry of Environmental Protection in 2006 launched a multidisciplinary joint research project aimed at formulating a national policy on coping with the environmental-physical, economic-planning and legal aspects of cliff instability. (A Steering Committee, headed by the Prime Minister's Office, accompanies the project.)
The project's leader, Dr. Amos Bein, gives some context: Israel's shoreline extends for 190 kilometers, of which some 45 kilometers, bordering Israel's heartland, between Hadera and Ashkelon, consisting of coastal cliffs 10 meters or more in height. For most of that length, he says, there is a 50-meter-wide strip that by the end of the century will be in direct danger of collapse or present a safety hazard. The cliffs are in a process of retreat eastward due to the weakness of the strata, undercutting by waves at the base of the cliff and the infiltration of groundwater at the top. Moreover, this coastline is in the central area of the country; it is highly developed and in great demand for urban, residential, tourist and recreational land uses. Conflicts therefore arise between the natural process of cliff retreat (approx. 30-50 centimeters annually) and the need for stable conditions for future urban development, the stability of existing properties and the safety of intensive recreational activities along the coasts and the cliff edge.
Bein and the research team identified two principal lines of action that need to be taken to arrest the problem: 1. the construction of physical forms of protection for stabilizing the cliff; and 2. regulatory mechanisms through land use planning and property controls. If implemented, they claim, these measures would not only prevent severe damage to properties in the area at risk, but also provide wide and safe sandy shores for recreation and enable the realization of urban and tourist development potential in the coastal resorts. The policy paper, with its budgetary implications, was adopted by a government decision in April 2010 and its implementation is currently underway.
Romans may come and go, but Israel's Mediterranean coastline with its white sandy beaches and soft sunsets must be kept intact, for locals and tourists alike.