Damage to Gaza causing new risks to human health, long-term recovery – new UNEP assessment

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The environmental impacts of the war in Gaza are unprecedented, according to a preliminary assessment published on Tuesday 18 June 2024 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), exposing the community to rapidly growing soil, water and air pollution and risks of irreversible damage to its natural ecosystems. UNEP reiterates the call for an immediate ceasefire to protect lives and eventually help mitigate the conflict’s environmental impacts.

“Not only are the people of Gaza dealing with untold suffering from the ongoing war, the significant and growing environmental damage in Gaza risks locking its people into a painful, long recovery. While many questions remain regarding the exact type and quantity of contaminants affecting the environment in Gaza, people are already living with the consequences of conflict-related damage to environmental management systems and pollution today. Water and sanitation have collapsed. Critical infrastructure continues to be decimated. Coastal areas, soil and ecosystems have been severely impacted. All of this is deeply harming people’s health, food security and Gaza’s resilience,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.

“We urgently need a ceasefire to save lives and restore the environment, to enable Palestinians to start to recover from the conflict and rebuild their lives and livelihoods in Gaza.”

For decades, Gaza’s environment was facing degradation and pressure on its ecosystems, the consequence of recurring conflicts, rapid urbanization, high population density, political conditions, and the region’s vulnerability to climate change.

The  preliminary assessment finds:

The conflict undoes recent, albeit limited progress on Gaza’s environmental management systems, including development of water desalination and wastewater treatment facilities, a rapid growth in solar power, and investments in the restoration of the Wadi Gaza coastal wetland.

An estimated 39 million tonnes of debris have been generated by the conflict – for each square metre in the Gaza Strip, there is now over 107 kg of debris. This is more than five times the quantity of debris generated from the 2017 conflict in Mosul, Iraq. Debris poses risks to human health and the environment, from dust and contamination with unexploded ordnance, asbestos, industrial and medical waste, and other hazardous substances. Human remains buried beneath the debris must be dealt with sensitively and appropriately. Clearing the debris will be a massive and complex task, which needs to start as soon as possible to enable other types of recovery and reconstruction to proceed.

The water, sanitation, and hygiene systems are almost entirely defunct. Gaza’s five wastewater treatment plants have shut down, with sewage contaminating beaches, coastal waters, soil, and freshwater with a host of pathogens, nutrients, microplastics, and hazardous chemicals. This poses immediate and long-term threats to the health of Gazans, marine life, and arable lands.

The solid waste management system is severely damaged. Five out of six solid waste management facilities in Gaza are damaged. By November 2023, 1,200 tonnes of rubbish were accumulating daily around camps and shelters. A shortage of cooking gas has forced families to burn wood, plastic and waste instead, endangering women and children in particular. This, coupled with fires and burning fuels, is likely to have sharply lowered Gaza’s air quality, though no open-source air quality data is available for Gaza.

Munitions containing heavy metals and explosive chemicals have been deployed in Gaza’s densely populated areas, contaminating soil and water sources, and posing a risk to human health which will persist long after the cessation of hostilities. Unexploded ordnance poses especially serious risks to children.

Destruction of solar panels is expected to leak lead and other heavy metals, causing a new kind of risk to Gaza’s soil and water.

Hamas’ tunnels system and Israel’s efforts to destroy them may further contribute to environmental damage. Depending on the construction standards of the tunnels and the extent to which water is being pumped into them, the preliminary assessment warns of long-term risks to human health from groundwater contamination and to buildings constructed on potentially unstable land surfaces.

Limited by the security situation and access restrictions, the preliminary assessment is informed by remote sensing assessments, data from Palestinian technical entities, consultations with multilateral partners, previously unpublished material from UN field-based activity, and scientific literature.

The authors find that resolving immediate and chronic environmental challenges in Gaza is key for its people’s health and must be integrated into recovery and reconstruction plans.  An environmental analysis, including assessment of contamination from munitions and other conflict-related pollution, should be an integral part of recovery and reconstruction planning. Rebuilding of Gaza should also address chronic environmental issues that were there before the war.

As soon as security conditions allow and access is granted, UNEP expects to undertake a field-based assessment of the extent and type of environmental degradation. Remediation options will be developed in consultation with Gaza’s scientific research community, public and private sector professionals, and civil society, including women and youth.

This Preliminary Assessment responds to an official request from the State of Palestine in December 2023. UNEP is mandated to assist countries, upon request, with pollution mitigation and control in areas affected by armed conflict or terrorism. Pursuant to UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) mandates, including Resolutions  2/15, 3/1 and 6/12.

 

 

 

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