Gaza’s Environmental Crisis: A Collateral Damage of Conflict

The UNEP report highlights the severe environmental impact of the ongoing conflict in Gaza, emphasizing the need for urgent scientific assessments and sustainable recovery plans to address water contamination, waste management, and the management of hazardous debris.

CoE-EDP, VisionRICoE-EDP, VisionRI | Updated: 19-06-2024 15:38 IST | Created: 19-06-2024 15:38 IST
Gaza’s Environmental Crisis: A Collateral Damage of Conflict
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The ongoing conflict in Gaza has not only wreaked havoc on the lives of its residents but has also severely impacted the region’s environment. A recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) highlights the extensive environmental damage caused by the conflict since its escalation on October 7, 2023. This preliminary assessment, requested by the State of Palestine, provides a stark overview of Gaza's environmental challenges.

Pre-Conflict Environmental Struggles

Even before the latest conflict escalation, Gaza’s environment was under significant strain. The Coastal Aquifer, Gaza’s primary freshwater source, was heavily polluted and over-extracted, leading to high levels of nitrates and chlorides. These contaminants pose serious health risks, particularly to children and pregnant women. The flow of untreated wastewater into the Mediterranean Sea further exacerbated marine pollution, impacting marine life and desalination operations.

Solid waste management was another critical issue. The region struggled with inadequate facilities, leading to the accumulation of waste in informal dumpsites. Often not properly segregated from non-infectious waste, medical waste poses severe environmental and health risks. Urban infrastructure, already damaged by previous conflicts, faced continual degradation. Intensive agriculture led to soil depletion, and pollution from agrochemical runoff further contaminated water sources.

The energy supply was equally problematic. Renewable energy projects partially mitigated Gaza’s reliance on a limited power supply. Solar energy installations aimed to provide more stable power, particularly for critical services like water treatment facilities. Additionally, efforts to restore critical ecosystems, such as the Wadi Gaza wetland, were underway, reflecting a significant but fragile progress in environmental management.

The Environmental Toll of War

The recent conflict has brought unprecedented environmental challenges. Water infrastructure has been severely damaged, reducing production capacity to less than 5% of normal levels. Destruction of wastewater treatment plants has led to the discharge of untreated sewage into the environment, contaminating beaches, soils, and potentially groundwater. This situation poses immediate and long-term health risks to the population.

Solid waste management systems have collapsed, resulting in the accumulation of waste in informal dumpsites. The situation is further complicated by the presence of hazardous medical waste. The massive destruction of buildings and infrastructure has generated over 39 million tons of debris. This debris is contaminated with hazardous substances, including asbestos and unexploded ordnance, posing severe risks to human health and the environment.

Hidden Contaminants and Long-Term Risks

Beyond the visible damage, the conflict has led to significant contamination of land, water, and air. The use of munitions and the destruction of infrastructure have released hazardous substances, including heavy metals and chemicals, into the environment. The extensive system of tunnels in Gaza, often used for smuggling and military purposes, has also been compromised. The construction, flooding, and destruction of these tunnels have caused land instability and further contamination of soil and water resources.

The debris from destroyed buildings, often mixed with hazardous materials, poses a long-term risk. Dust from the debris can spread contaminants through the air, impacting respiratory health. Rain and wind can carry these contaminants into soil and water, spreading the environmental impact far beyond the original sites of destruction.

Call for Urgent Action

The UNEP report underscores the urgent need for a detailed, science-based environmental assessment to address the conflict’s impacts. Such an assessment would help in planning effective remediation measures to minimize long-term environmental damage. There is also a pressing need to integrate environmental considerations into humanitarian response and recovery plans.

Restoring water and sanitation systems is crucial. Efforts must be made to rebuild and improve infrastructure to prevent further contamination of the Coastal Aquifer and other water sources. Managing the massive amount of debris sustainably is equally important to prevent new environmental problems.

Specialized assessments are required to understand the complex challenges posed by munitions debris and tunnels. Only through a comprehensive and coordinated approach can the environmental and health crises in Gaza be effectively addressed.

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