Environmental Disaster in Gaza
As thousands of civilians continue to die and millions suffer under the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, there is another horror that threatens the future of the Palestinian people and the future of our planet: The deepening environmental crisis.
Wars create environmental disasters. We witnessed this in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among others. The consequences of these wars for the environment are well documented. Toxic weapons and the destruction of civilian infrastructure have created long-lasting pollution of the air, land and water sources. Millions of people continue to suffer long after the bombs stop.
Today we are witnessing yet another bombing of Gaza as an escalation of the long-running siege by Israel. On October 26th the Municipality of Gaza City issued a warning that the city is witnessing an environmental disaster due to the accumulation of garbage. The bin crews cannot service the city because of the ongoing Israeli airstrikes. This can cause serious health and environmental problems. More than 2,500, including 1500 children, have been reported missing and may be trapped or dead under the rubble. Gaza Municipality officials warn about the serious health risks this is creating for the people.
However, the environmental crisis in Gaza is not new and Israel is responsible for it. The New Arab Newspaper puts it plainly: “By limiting what is fished, what comes in and out of Gaza, and routinely bombing civilian and agricultural infrastructure, Israel has contributed to Gaza’s barely liveable conditions.”
Israel blocks development
The ongoing blockade of Gaza has turned a water crisis into a humanitarian disaster. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) reported that “Water remains a key issue as people will start dying without water. Concerns over dehydration and waterborne diseases are high, given the collapse of water and sanitation services, including shutdown of Gaza’s last functioning seawater desalination plant.”
According to an Oxfam report, “Israel’s blockade of Gaza severely limits materials from entering, making it incredibly difficult to develop water and sanitation infrastructure to meet the needs of a growing population,”
A paper published in Environmental Epidemiology, titled “The destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure is exacerbating environmental health impacts” (2022) gives alarming evidence of the crisis.
“The Coastal Aquifer, which is the main source of fresh water in Gaza, is over extracted to compensate for the water shortage and believed to be irreversibly damaged because of contamination from sewage and sea water leakage. As of 2018, over 92.6% of the groundwater was deemed unfit for human consumption, shifting the reliance of drinking water to trucked water, which is 15 to 20 times more expensive than water from the network, in which people spend up to 50% of their monthly budget on water, compared with only 3.5% globally. Inflow of sewage into the sea and Coastal Aquifer has caused excess nitrate, nitrite, and chloride concentrations, resulting in nitrate concentrations of 300 mg/L, six-fold higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and less than 20% of drinking wells meeting the WHO standards. As a result, 26% of the diseases in Gaza were reported as water-related, with the most common diseases including acute bloody diarrhea, viral hepatitis, liver and kidney diseases, methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), and anemia”
A United Nations (UN) Factsheet in 2022 further exposes the level of crisis the Palestinians are facing:
- Only 39.5% of households have access to safely managed water. 66.2% in Westbank and only 4% in Gaza.
- 90,000 Palestinian households suffer from an acute lack of solid waste collection services.
- 25% of child morbidity cases in Gaza are caused by water-borne diseases.
Polluted land and seas
Gaza’s bees don’t escape the Israeli siege and destruction of the environment, either. Bee populations have plummeted. According to the Gaza Beekeeping Association, “the number of beehives in the Palestinian enclave has dropped dramatically, from 35,000 in 2000 to fewer than 20,000 in 2021, mainly as a result of Israel’s military incursions into farmland along the border.”
Gaza is also under a long-running sea blockade by Israel. As the conditions are worsening and freshwater resources are running out, the people of Gaza are washing in polluted seas. Humanitarian organisations are warning that deadly water-borne diseases will spread in the besieged strip if aid is not allowed in. According to environmental reports, inadequate sanitation infrastructure and electricity shortages cause the dumping of untreated sewage water into the sea. The Norwegian Refugee Council reported that the total shutdown of wastewater treatment plants in October has led to the release of more than 130,000 cubic metres of untreated sewage into the Mediterranean Sea daily, posing a grave environmental hazard.
Wafa Aludaini reports in the Middle East Monitor “Fishing along the blockaded coastal enclave is one of the most dangerous professions in the world, as fishermen can come under Israeli gunboat fire at any time. Fishermen are not allowed to travel beyond three nautical miles from the shoreline, even to feed their families. The Israeli occupation navy actively patrols the fishing areas in the sea lanes bordering Palestine, maintaining the blockade by sea as well as by land.”
4000 fishermen in Gaza are working under the daily threats by Israeli restrictions on how far they can go out to sea. The Gaza Documentary by Andrew McConnell and Garry Keane shows the worsening conditions of the fishermen in Gaza. Pollution reduces fish populations, and the siege is destroying one of the most important livelihoods of the strip.
From the river to the sea
The environmental destruction in Gaza and the related health crisis is well documented. The people of Gaza have been suffering from a long-running ‘environmental war’. The consequences of the environmental crisis will last for generations to come.
The struggle against climate change and environmental crisis needs to be linked to the struggle for freedom for Palestine. Environmental apartheid is a systematic occupation and exploitation of the environment in Palestine that dispossessed Palestinians of their land, water, and other natural resources while being disproportionately impacted by ecological damage caused by Israel.
Israel’s environmental apartheid harms the climate and violates the human rights of Palestinians. This is not separate from the system of apartheid imposed on Palestinians.
From the river to the sea, the land, air and water are being destroyed systematically. To stop this destruction, we must repeat our call: From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.