By Dr. Shiri Tzemach Shamir, School of Sustainability, IDC Herzliya
In the past month, we have witnessed waves of oil spreading all over the shores of Israel, from Ashkelon to Rosh Hanikra, causing large-scale damage to our biodiversity and marine ecosystems. Not only is this dangerous to our very fragile global ecosystem, but also has an economic effect on our society, the scope of which is still not completely clear.
The ecological disaster of tar pollution along the shores of Israel is chillingly reminiscent of the disaster of Exxon Valdez (Alaska) and BP disaster (in the Gulf of Mexico). The images of the dead turtles-full of tar-affect us all and witnessing the national mobilization to clean-up the beaches does provide a small source of comfort.
The consequences of the disaster can be examined in three main layers:
The economic level – ostensibly, apart from edible fish, there is no value to the biodiversity and the ecosystem services we receive from the sea. However, this claim is incorrect. A study conducted by the University of Haifa and the Institute for Marine and Lake Research (HIA) that was published in 2020 found that people attribute economic value to the ecosystem services the ocean provides. This takes the shape of supply services (food, medicine, etc.), regulation services (carbon absorption and conversion to oxygen, maintaining the stability of the ecosystem that also provides us with drinking water, etc.), and cultural services.
In this context, the study also found that humans attach value to the very existence of the sea and that its health is important to them, even if they rarely or never visit. One of the study authors’ conclusions was that Israeli residents are willing to pay NIS 1.5 billion in tax for a marine conservation and cleaning fund to maintain great biodiversity. For those residents living in closer proximity to the water, this number is even higher. These results correspond with the second layer – the nature conservation layer.
Another important economic aspect, which is also important from a political point of view, is water. Most of our drinking water comes from seawater desalination. Damage to marine life can cause significant damage to the marine ecosystem as a whole, including those who “maintain” the quality of the water we drink. Damage to the seawater itself by contaminating oil, tar, or any similar material may impair our ability to purify and desalinate water (and/or it may make the process a lot more expensive).
Nature Conservation Level – Following the Corona Crisis, we have identified an increase in public awareness and a perceptual shift regarding the importance of nature conservation at the national and global levels. With options to vacation abroad fairly limited, many Israelis traveled within Israel, leading to an even greater appreciation of the wonders we have in our own backyard. We are witnessing mass engagement via both traditional and digital media, raising awareness and public engagement for cleaning beaches, rescuing sea turtles, and more. It is not surprising that these disturbing images of sick and wounded animals have the potential to change public perception and hence priorities.
Though public awareness is important, it ultimately must influence governmental decision-makers, who have the power and mandate to enforce consequences upon those who cause such serious pollution. Only the combination of public pressure and governmental action can make a true difference.