Assessment reveals that environmental degradation is threatening the viability of the West Bank and Gaza.
A long-awaited UN Environment Programme report into the state of the environment in the Occupied Palestinian Territories was published with little fanfare in May. In this blog, Doug Weir reviews its main findings, which collectively paint a bleak picture for public health and for the ecological sustainability of the West Bank and Gaza.
This is not the first time that UNEP has undertaken an assessment of environmental conditions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Studies in 2003, 2005 and 2009 had already documented environmental degradation linked to the occupation, and to recurring periods of hostilities. Each made a number of recommendations but as the new report notes, there have been few signs of improvement, and in most cases degradation and its drivers have continued to intensify.
The latest report has its origins in 2016, when a resolution calling for an assessment was tabled by Morocco and the Arab Group at the second UN Environment Assembly. The resolution proved highly controversial, and led to chaotic scenes in the Assembly’s closing plenary after Israel broke with its consensus model by calling for a vote. The resolution fell. Now published four years later, this report represents a compromise between the parties involved. Some of this delay has been down to prolonged negotiations with Israel over access.
In a sign of its continued sensitivity, neither @UNEP or @UNEP_WestAsia tweeted about its publication last month, and there is little evidence of media attention for its findings. The full 186-page State of Environment and Outlook Report for the occupied Palestinian territory 2020 is available here. Some of its findings are summarised below.
Water and climate
Israel and Palestine are in a water stressed region that is already feeling the effects of climate change. The report notes that temperatures are projected to increase by between 1.2°C–2.6°C by 2050, and by up to 4.8°C by 2100. At the same time, average monthly precipitation may fall by 8–10mm by the end of the century. This will exacerbate current threats to the availability of water. These include population growth, poor water management, pollution, barriers to technological transfers, and the legacy of an inequitable “temporary” water sharing deal dating from the Oslo Accords.
The contamination of the aquifer that Gaza relies on with pollution and sea water continues to accelerate. Only 4% of the 180m m3 extracted from it each year is potable. Water in the West Bank is also under strain. Half of the wells owned by Palestinians have dried up over the last 20 years. The report also finds that water harvesting and wastewater recycling are underutilised, and that institutional arrangements to manage shared aquifer systems are insufficient.
Not only is water scarce, and inadequately managed, it also under threat from pollution. Both water courses and groundwater in the West Bank and Gaza are being polluted by waste from Palestinian towns and villages, and from Israeli settlements.
Pollution and solid waste
The report finds that the OPT face serious health and environmental threats from pollution. Its solid waste management systems are inadequate, with an estimated 800 tonnes of solid waste disposed of daily in poorly controlled dumpsites. Gaza also faces the legacy of debris generated by recurrent periods of conflict. Meanwhile marine ecosystems, human health and Israeli desalination plants are all threatened by the 110,000m³ of untreated wastewater and sewage that flows from Gaza every day.
Raw and untreated wastewater is also a threat to soils and agricultural areas. These also face contamination from dust and slurry from stone quarries and the stone and marble industry, and the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. The report confirms that soil, air and water are also being polluted by unregulated e-waste, used vehicle processing and other industries. E-waste comes from Israel for processing in Palestinian villages. While the 60,000 tonnes processed each year supports jobs and generates US$28.5m, it has also led to health problems on both sides of the Green Line. Active burn sites have been found to emit toxic smoke that includes benzene, dioxins, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls.
Israeli industrial complexes located in the West Bank, and industrial activities in settlements are poorly regulated. This has led to uncontrolled discharges to air and soils. Quarries under both Israeli and Palestinian ownership have also been found to be sources of pollution.
Biodiversity and land use
Although small, the OPT is ecologically diverse, and Gaza’s 42km long coastline is one the Mediterranean’s most productive. Gaza’s marine environment is threatened by pollution, and overfishing by industrial trawlers beyond the fishing limit imposed by Israel. Meanwhile the OPT’s terrestrial ecosystems face a range of pressures. These include habitat fragmentation, desertification, land degradation, rapid urbanisation and soil erosion caused by over-grazing. The removal of rocks for construction, the uprooting of trees, invasive species, pollution and climate change are also threatening habitats and species.
Security measures linked to the occupation also harm habitats. The construction of the separation barrier led to habitat destruction and fragmentation over a wide area, damaging biodiversity and ecosystem services. And although a number of protected areas have been established in the OPT, the enforcement of biodiversity legislation is limited. This is due to a lack of experienced staff, the financial and technical capacity of responsible departments, and unclear enforcement procedures.
Conflicts invariably disrupt environmental governance. This is also the case for occupations, even where they are long-lasting. The absence of effective governance prevents actions to address environmental threats.
The report identifies three components to the governance deficit in the OPT. Firstly, cooperation mechanisms between Israeli and Palestinian institutions are ineffective. Secondly, governance is complicated by the different institutions involved, the simultaneous application of different legal and administrative frameworks, and by limited Palestinian access to parts of the OPT. Finally, the Palestinian institutions tasked with environmental governance face internal challenges, these relate to resources, capacity and the situation in Gaza, where Hamas follows its own path. A further overarching issue is the lack of the data collection necessary for governance.
As an occupying power, Israel is obliged to protect those whose territory it occupies, this includes from the health and societal risks stemming from environmental degradation. As many of these risks care little for man-made boundaries, measures to address them would also protect its own citizens. Allowing effective environmental governance is key to this, and environmental protection is a vital component of sustainable development. To emphasise this, the report notes the opinion of the UN Country Team, which in 2016 observed that “the ultimate accountability for Palestine’s ability or failure to reach the global Goals articulated in the 2030 Agenda” – including those relating to the environment – “remains with the Government of Israel”.
Environmental measures are now critical
In her foreword to the report, UNEP’s Executive Director Inger Anderson argues that to “protect people and the environment, it is now critical to put in place sound environmental management practices across the occupied Palestinian territory.” The report makes a number of recommendations to this effect, for implementation by 2023, 2025 and 2030.
The most urgent, and which should be implemented by 2023, are priority interventions on severe pollution from e-waste and other hazardous waste, and the scaling-up of efforts to harvest, preserve, treat and reuse water. Investment is also needed in natural resource-based livelihoods that promote climate resilience and for land restoration initiatives, and gaps and shortcomings in the collection of environmental data should be addressed. Furthermore, environmental and climate-related priorities should be incorporated into strategic plans.
The report makes clear not only the severity of the environmental problems faced by the people of the West Bank and Gaza but also the trajectory of the degradation still to come. None of these problems will be resolved by inaction. But with the toxic politics of the occupation, there will inevitably be a temptation to see solutions as being too politically difficult, too complex or too time-consuming. However, shying away from these problems will rob the Palestinians of their environmental human rights, and any opportunities they might have for sustainable development. And, as is already the case with marine discharges and air pollution from waste processing, these environmental threats will spill over into Israel.
Doug Weir is CEOBS’ Research and Policy Director