Gaza's Underground Water Supplies on the Verge of Collapse
NAIROBI, Kenya, September 17, 2009 (ENS) - 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.

The report calls for the aquifer to be "rested" and alternative water sources found.

"Unless the trend is reversed now, damage could take centuries to reverse. Since the aquifer is a continuum with Egypt and Israel, any such action must be coordinated with these countries," the report states.

Raw Sewage on Wadi Gaza Waters (All photos courtesy UNEP)

Long-term overuse, increased salinity from salt water intrusion caused by "over-abstraction of the ground water" is a key concern identified in the report along with pollution from sewage and runoff of agricultural fertilizers such as nitrites.

The report says pollution levels are so high that infants in the Gaza Strip are at risk from nitrate poisoning. High levels of nitrates can cause a form of anemia in infants known as blue baby syndrome.

There is concern that levels of nitrates in water may have perhaps become worse as a result of the recent hostilities.

UNEP estimates that more than US$1.5 billion may be needed over 20 years to restore the aquifer to health. Desalination plants may be needed to take pressure off the underground water supplies, the report recommends.

The report, "Environmental Assessment of the Gaza Strip: following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008-January 2009," was requested in February by the UNEP Governing Council, made up of environment ministers from 58 countries, including Israel and the United States.

"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 have generated 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.

The rubble of buildings after bombs hit the Gaza Strip

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.

Steiner, who initiated the assessment during a tour of the Gaza Strip in April, said the environmental situation there is precarious. "The assessments conducted and the findings presented here identify and document a serious challenge to the environmental sustainability of the Gaza Strip."

"The hard facts and figures, alongside the indicative investment estimates presented in this report, should assist all concerned parties to understand the gravity of the situation in order to provide transformative solutions," he said.

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:

"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."

Click here to download the UNEP report, "Environmental Assessment of the Gaza Strip: following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008-January 2009."

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.

Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.