[News] Palestine - Environment Emerges as a Major Casualty

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Mon May 4 12:12:09 EDT 2009

MIDEAST: Environment Emerges as a Major Casualty
By Erin Cunningham*


GAZA CITY, May 4 (IPS/IFEJ) - Countless fruit groves across the Gaza 
Strip are now gone, entire farms bulldozed. The remains of thousands 
of destroyed homes emit toxic asbestos, while dilapidated 
infrastructure dumps raw sewage into the Mediterranean Sea. An 
already deepening environmental crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip has 
been further compounded by the recent war.

Throughout the three-week Operation Cast Lead, Israel targeted almost 
every aspect of the coastal territory's infrastructure. Homes, 
businesses, factories, power grids, sewage systems and water 
treatment plants were reduced to piles of rubble across the Gaza Strip.

According to a preliminary assessment of environmental and 
infrastructural damage made by the United Nations Development 
Programme (UNDP), Israel's assault not only exacerbated Gaza's 
existing hazards, but created new ones by contaminating both land and 
urban environments and leaving unprecedented amounts of debris in its wake.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) announced last 
month it would send a team of post-conflict experts to the Gaza Strip 
in May to follow up on the issues that pose the greatest threats to 
the Gaza population.

Prior to the war, Gaza's infrastructure languished under three years 
of sanctions and a further 18 months of a joint Israeli-Egyptian 
blockade that prohibits the import of all but "essential" goods into 
the Gaza Strip.

Many areas of Gaza, particularly the sprawling refugee camps, lacked 
proper sewage systems. Where they did exist, they often ran on 
generators or rationed electricity. A ban on materials required for 
their maintenance, including cement, steel and pipes, left them in a 
state of disrepair.

A report released by the UN Office for the Coordination of 
Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) just ten days before the launch of 
Operation Cast Lead stated that at least 80 percent of the water 
supplied in Gaza "does not meet the World Health Organisation 
standards for drinking.

"Much needed maintenance is impeded by a lack of pipes, spare parts 
and construction materials. The resulting degradation of the system 
is posing a major public health hazard," the report reads.

Restrictions on materials and goods left at least 70 percent of 
Gaza's agricultural land without irrigation, according to the Food 
and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), while local authorities were 
being forced to dump approximately 70 million litres of raw sewage 
into the sea each day. Fuel shortages made garbage collection 
infrequent at best.

During the assault, Israeli bombs hit the already fragile sewage and 
water treatment systems, causing drinking water and raw sewage to mix 
across some of the most populated areas of Gaza.

Tank shells hit the strip's largest wastewater plant in the Sheikh 
Aljeen area of Gaza City, sending sewage cascading directly into 
neighbourhoods, farms and into the sea.

Forty percent of the rooftop water tanks in Khan Younis were damaged 
or destroyed, and four water wells were destroyed completely in Gaza 
City, Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya, according to the Water, Sanitation 
and Hygiene (WASH) cluster group that works under OCHA.

"After the war, the major impact is being felt in the northern areas 
of Gaza, where most of the water networks were destroyed," says Najla 
Shawa, WASH's information manager in Gaza. "In Khan Younis as well, 
only 30 percent of the governorate is being served by a sewage network."

Ten million more litres of raw sewage is now being dumped into the 
Mediterranean Sea each day than was prior to the war, WASH says, 
posing a threat to coastal marine life and Gaza's fisheries.

Israeli missiles also targeted factories in urban-residential and 
rural areas, releasing potentially toxic chemicals into both the air 
and soil. The piles of rubble that continue to mark Gaza's landscape 
are said to contain large quantities of asbestos, a carcinogenic 
mineral fibre used commonly in construction.

"The demolition waste created by the latest hostilities potentially 
contain hazardous materials such as asbestos," a representative of 
the UNEP's Post- Conflict and Disaster Management branch told IPS on 
telephone from Geneva. "High levels of exposure to asbestos have been 
linked to lung cancer."

Over 20,000 buildings and 5,000 homes were destroyed, according to 
local authorities. Some 600,000 metric tonnes of rubble has yet to be 
cleared as a result of the siege, with much of the debris having been 
bulldozed into the soil by Israeli tanks.

Gaza's soil will also be affected in the long-term by Israel's use of 
white phosphorus shells throughout the war, says Sameera Rifai, 
representative of the International Union for the Conservation of 
Nature in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

"The soil of the agricultural land is now polluted by the weapons the 
Israelis used, particularly white phosphorus," Rifai told IPS.

White phosphorus, a chemical incendiary agent, can remain unchanged 
in soil sediments and in the bodies of fish for many years, according 
to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Samples of Gaza's soil tested positive for white phosphorus in 
February, according to studies done at Yildiz Technical University in 
Istanbul, Turkey.

The war weakened even further the capability of municipalities to 
collect rubbish, says Palestinian environmental activist and 
researcher for Friends of the Earth Middle East, Basil Yasin. Refuse 
and solid waste continue to line the streets of Gaza, and the strip's 
three major dumping sites are at full capacity, the UN reports.

As long as the blockade is in place, however, and Gaza is deprived 
the proper materials it needs to rebuild, environmentalists are 
sceptical much can be done to address the strip's increasing 
environmental problems.

"It is a continuous crisis, not just the one war, that is constantly 
preventing the Palestinians from developing sustainable projects," 
Shawa told IPS. "Mainly this includes a lack of access to materials, 
which prevents the water networks and sewage plants from being constructed."

"In the last two months, just two or three containers of water pipes 
were allowed into Gaza by the Israelis," she said.

Shawa also says the so-called "buffer zone" Israel has created 
unilaterally inside Gaza is hindering environmental clean-up and 
assessment in the post- war period.

"People just cannot access areas in the east and northern parts where 
most of the sewage plants are located," she says. "Municipal 
authorities are unable to reach areas to test the water or soil for 
sewage levels."

The UNEP says environmental stability is crucial to establishing 
long-term peace in any conflict.

"Significant progress in terms of the environment cannot be made as 
long as the borders remain closed," says Rifai.

"If we want to develop Gaza and sustain its natural resources, the 
closure should end and there should be free movement of people and 
materials," says Rifai. "Otherwise, there is no point."

(*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable 
development by IPS - Inter Press Service, and IFEJ -- the 
International Federation of Environmental Journalists.) (END/2009)

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