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The underground water supplies that 1.5 million Palestinians depend upon for drinking and agricultural uses are in danger of collapse, finds a new report by the UN Environment Programme’s Post-Conflict Assessment Branch on the environmental condition of the Gaza Strip after weeks of hostilities last December and January.
Requested in February by the UNEP Governing Council, the report – “Environmental Assessment of the Gaza Strip: following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008-January 2009,” – calls for a joint action by the three countries – the Palestine Territories, Israel and Egypt – which share the underground water reservoir to tackle the problem and reverse the situation.
According to the findings, the crisis is due to long-term overuse, which has increased salinity from salt water intrusion caused by over-abstraction of the ground water, along with pollution from sewage and runoff of agricultural fertilizers such as nitrites.
Pollution levels are said to be so high that infants in the Gaza Strip are at risk from nitrate poisoning, which can cause a form of anemia in infants known as blue baby syndrome.
Restoration estimates are set at more than US$1.5 billion over a 20-year-long time span. Desalination plants may be needed to take pressure off the underground water supplies, the report recommends.
“The international community has indicated its willingness to assist with providing technical, financial and diplomatic assistance in order to turn environmental restoration into an opportunity for cooperation and restoration,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
The report finds that strikes on buildings and other infrastructure during the December 2008-January 2009 fightings in the Gaza Strip might have originated 600,000 metric tonnes of demolition debris, some of which is contaminated with asbestos. The removal and safe disposal of rubble is calculated at over US$7 million.
An estimated 17 percent of cultivated land, including orchards and greenhouses, was severely affected. The report estimates the costs in terms of damage to farmers’ livelihoods alongside clean-up measures at around US$11 million.
Other impacts include sewage spills as a result of power cuts to treatment facilities. Some of the sewage is likely to have percolated through the Gaza Strip’s porous soils into the groundwater, the report finds.
There has also been an increase in the build-up of hazardous hospital wastes at landfill sites generated in part as a result of the numbers of people injured.
Refuse collection services collapsed as a result of the hostilities, increasing pressure on existing landfill sites. Decommissioning existing landfills and establishing new solid waste management facilities is estimated to cost over US$40 million.
The fieldwork phase of the assessment was carried out by a multi-disciplinary team of eight experts from UNEP’s Post-Conflict and Disaster Management Branch. They spent 10 days in Gaza from May 10 to 19. The main sectors under investigation were waste and wastewater, the coastal and marine environment, and solid and hazardous waste management, including asbestos.
Traveling extensively across the Gaza Strip, the UNEP team undertook walkover inspections of 32 sites to assess environmental impacts and collect samples for laboratory analysis. Sites visited included residential areas, schools, industrial areas, sewage facilities, landfills and the coastline, where detailed sampling of water and sediments, bio-indicators, asbestos and waste water was conducted.
Samples collected on the ground were analyzed by an independent international laboratory, UNEP states.
The team also collected data for an economic evaluation of the cost of rehabilitation and restoration of the environmental damage in Gaza.
Their report recommends:
· The provision of safe water for infants and the carrying out by the UN of a comprehensive study on blue baby syndrome.
· The development of alternative water supplies using desalination of sea water.
· An entire restoration of the current water supply network to reduce losses from leakages equal to over 40 percent of the water being pumped.
· Improved measures to control sources of contamination to the underground aquifer from sewage, agricultural runoff and stormwater runoff.
· The establishment of one or two new and modern sewage treatment plants able to handle nitrates so that effluent can be used for agriculture alongside treating and composting facilities for sewage sludge.
· Until new treatment works are in place, all sewage should be disposed of at sea in suitably deep and far offshore locations.
“Many of the impacts of the recent hostilities have exacerbated environmental degradation that has been years in the making,” the report states, “environmental degradation that does not end at the borders of the Gaza Strip but also affect the health and welfare of those living beyond.”
Since 1999, UNEP has conducted post-crisis environmental assessments in the Balkans, Afghanistan, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, Sudan, Ukraine and Rwanda, as well as the countries affected by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. In 2009, environmental assessments also will be undertaken in such countries as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria.