[News] Palestine - Environment Emerges as a Major Casualty
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
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
"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
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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