Beachgoers in danger from collapsing cliffs as authorities drag feet — report

State Comptroller: 9 years after government approved defenses plan, few solutions implemented, disagreements over which bodies are responsible remain unresolved

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A collapsed section of coastal cliff in Ashkelon, southern Israel. (Courtesy,  the Mediterranean Coastal Cliffs Preservation Government Company/Dr Roni Nehoray, GIS Director)
A collapsed section of coastal cliff in Ashkelon, southern Israel. (Courtesy, the Mediterranean Coastal Cliffs Preservation Government Company/Dr Roni Nehoray, GIS Director)

Despite numerous injuries and at least two deaths caused by unstable coastal cliff conditions in Israel over the past two decades, and despite a government decision nine years ago to fund, plan and implement protections against such dangers — little has been done on the issue, and the government company established to deal with the problem has spent less than a tenth of its budget. So says a state comptroller report issued Tuesday.

The 45 kilometers (28 miles) of coastal cliffs between Hadera in the north and Ashkelon in the south are suffering from natural erosion as well as human-induced changes such as buildings and marinas. Cliffs in Ashkelon, on the southern coast, for example, have retreated by 22 meters (24 yards) over the past 20 years. Climate change is expected to spur already-rising sea levels and an increase in storms that will batter the cliffs.

All of this is particularly worrying where it poses a threat to human life: buildings and infrastructure, highly valuable real estate, national parks and archaeological sites. It is also a concern in its capacity to pose a threat to local authority efforts to carry out development, the report said.

Terrestrial measures to protect cliffs can include covering them with a grid, stabilizing them with vegetation, adding drainage, building concrete buttresses or drilling steel pins into them. Sea defenses include breakwaters and submerged geotubes which break the force of the waves before they hit the cliff.

In 2010, the government was told that the initial estimate of potential damages was between NIS 250 million and NIS 800 million (then roughly $65 million to $210 million), not including damage to human life. In that year, it passed a resolution to deal with the issue.

In 2011, the government decided that it would fund, plan and implement coastal defenses at sea and that the local authorities would be responsible for fortifications on land. It budgeted NIS 500 million (then roughly $147 million) for the first stage, of which NIS 360 million ($105 million) was earmarked for sea defenses.

But that figure appears to be inadequate, the report indicates. The estimated cost for building 12 breakwaters and feeding beaches with extra sand in Netanya alone is NIS 474 million ($138).

A section of collapsing coastal cliff in Ashkelon, southern Israel. (Courtesy, the Mediterranean Coastal Cliffs Preservation Government Company)

During the nine years that have elapsed, hardly any of the solutions have been implemented, the report goes on, and basic disagreements between ministries and between the government and local authorities over responsibility for funding the land defenses remain unresolved.

None of the bodies involved were able to produce either a comprehensive implementation plan, nor full and up-to-date cost estimates.

The government approved two outline plans for the implementation of urgent defenses and even set up the Mediterranean Coastal Cliffs Preservation Government Company to carry them out. But the company spent only NIS 26 million ($6.75 million, or 8.6 percent) out of a total budget of NIS 303 million ($78.7 million) on implementation of plans between 2013-2018, failing to implement many of the initiatives in its own work plans, which include urgent marine defenses. Neither its board nor an inter-ministerial steering committee examined why it had spent so little.

A landscaped section of cliff in the coastal city of Netanya, on top of which there has been extensive development of buildings and a promenade, on February 12, 2019. (Isaac Harari/Flash90)

Most of the local authorities involved have failed to carry out the immediate steps needed to protect the public, the report went on. The only marine defense to have been put in place is in Ashkelon, with Hadera, Emek Hefer, Netanya, Herzliya, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Bat Yam and Gan Raveh still largely unprotected from the sea.

Netanya has built land defenses along some areas of the cliff and is monitoring changes to ensure that it can keep the public safe, the report continued. In Herzliya, some measures have been taken to keep the public away from the cliff face but — along with the local authorities of Emek Hefer and Ashkelon — the council has not yet conducted surveys to identify the most dangerous spots.

In Hadera and Gan Raveh, large rocks were supposed to have been placed into the sea as breakwaters, but that has not happened. Emek Hefer was supposed to add extra sand where needed, but has not even examined the subject. In Tel Aviv, plans were made but not carried out, and in Bat Yam, discussions are still at the planning stage.

View of the marina and buildings behind in Herzliya, on December 12, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash 90)

Pointing out that a lack of authorizations has created obstacles to implementation, the State Comptroller recommended that the government, the government company and local authorities get together to find out where the problems are, remove obstacles and take all steps needed to protect the public from the dangers of cliff collapse.

A statement to the Times of Israel from the Mediterranean Coastal Cliffs Preservation Company noted that while the company was established in 2013, initial staff recruitment was only carried out in 2015, the outline plan according to which it could advance planning was only approved in June 2015 and government agreements on the budget were signed only in January 2016.

From 2018 to 2019, the company successfully built protections in Ashkelon, the statement said, including installation of a marine geotube and the import of massive quantities of sand. By the end of the year, it will begin to build the 12 breakwaters in Netanya and to renovate existing ones in Ashkelon and Bat Yam. Long-term plans are underway for other dangerous parts of the cliff, it said.

The company added that it “went through an important learning curve during the years of examining how to deal with the collapse of coastal cliffs. [We] learned from leading international bodies, and [are] today a professional body that is ready for [these] important challenges.”

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