UNEP Documents Palestinian Territories' Eco-Crisis

GENEVA, Switzerland, January 27, 2003 (ENS) - A United Nations assessment team has found "alarming" evidence of environmental degradation in the Palestinian Territories, and has made 136 recommendations for protecting the environment there. After studying the region at the request of the UN Environment Programme's Governing Council, the so-called desk study team issued an advisory report on Thursday.

The desk study details how population pressures coupled with scarcity of land, weak environmental infrastructure, inadequate resources for environmental management, and global trends such as desertification and climate change, are degrading the region's fragile natural resources.

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Palestinians approach an Israeli checkpoint. (Photo courtesy The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights)
Keep the environment out of the conflict, is the team's top recommendation. The occupation, policies of closure and curfew and incursions of the Israeli military "have had significant negative environmental impacts," the team writes. Calling many of its findings "alarming," the assessment team says the environmental degradation needs to be addressed "immediately." But the absence of even minimal cooperation between the parties is "worsening the situation on a daily basis, with impacts not only on the environment but also on human health," the team reports.

Their study identifies critical environmental issues that, despite the current political difficulties, should be addressed urgently in order to preserve natural resources and establish a safe environment for future generations, said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in his forward to the team's report.

Toepfer expressed the hope that the study would "contribute to the peace talks, and that cooperation on environment could serve as a confidence building tool between the parties."

Over 120 countries and 90 ministers participated in theUNEP Governing Council last February that requested the study, including observers from the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel. "The unanimous decision of the Council was motivated by the alarming reports related to the pollution of water, dumping of wastes, loss of natural vegetation and pollution of coastal waters in the region," Topefer writes.

Cooperation made the UNEP study possible. Last July, Toepfer visited the region hosted by the environment ministers of both sides, and met with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, both of whom offered their cooperation to support the desk study.

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Pekka Haavisto headed the UNEP Palestinian Territories Desk Study Team (Photo courtesy Nordic Council)
The desk study team of eight impartial environmental experts was formed early last autumn. Chaired by former Finnish Environment Minister Pekka Haavisto, the team visited the region between October 1 and 11, 2002. Haavisto heads the UNEP Post Conflict Assessment Division, and finds that both the conflict related issues and the long term environmental challenges found in the Palestinian Territories were also found in all previous post-conflict environmental assessments carried out by UNEP.

Issues related to the conflict include land clearing, obstacles such as curfews and closures to the transport of waste, difficulties in obtaining spare parts for environmental facilities, and collateral damage to environmental infrastructure caused by military action, the team reports.

Longer term problems include pollution of groundwater resources, lack of proper waste management, and shortcomings in environmental administration and legislation.

By sometimes splitting up into five different groups, the team said they were able to visit many sites - solid waste dumps and wastewater treatment plants, rangeland rehabilitation projects and sites where there has damage to environmental infrastructure caused by the conflict.

The team stayed in Jerusalem (Al Quds) and in Gaza, and was also able to visit Bethlehem, the Emek Hefer area, Halhoul, Hebron (Al Khalil) and surroundings, Jenin, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv.

Heading the UNEP study team's list of improvements that should be made immediately is "intensified participation of the Palestinian Authority not only in all regional environmental cooperation, but also in all relevant Multinational Environmental Agreements."

"The international community should do its utmost to give the Palestinian Authority full access to these processes," the team advises, saying that as a first step all administrative obstacles should be removed, to ensure the successful participation of Palestinians in these meetings.

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Waterfall in Nahal David at Ein Gedi, Israel. The Ein Gedi reserve, on the eastern edge of the Judean Desert, is fed by four springs. (Photo courtesy Palestinian Facts)
The report raises "serious concerns" over the degradation of water quality in many areas, as well as the issue of "unsustainable overpumping of water from aquifers." In environmental terms, water quality and water quantity and linked, they observe. According to the Oslo II Accord, issues related to water rights will be negotiated in the permanent status negotiations, and the team stresses that any statements it makes on water issues, "should not be seen as taking any position on these permanent status negotiations."

The Palestinian and Israeli authorities issued a joint declaration in September 2002 in which they pledged to keep the water infrastructure out of the cycle of violence. Still, the desk study team found "cause for alarm" over the drinking water quality and the quantity of water used, as well as the "contamination of the aquifers from wastewater, landfills and hazardous waste."

To preserve water and other natural resources for present and future generations, the team recommends an increased level of co-operation between the parties. "The model of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Water Committee, which continued to meet throughout the conflict, should be extended to other joint environmental bodies."

But the team's report acknowledges that "many long term environmental solutions cannot become reality without a peace process for the region."

Efforts to coordinate donor funding and information flow in the environment sector should be continued, the team concludes, and underlines the need to "urgently resolve obstacles to implementation of projects already approved."

There are growing emergency humanitarian needs in the Palestinian Territories, the team acknowledges, and recommends that environment projects" not be neglected," but integrated into emergency response measures, as "further environmental degradation will aggravate the humanitarian situation."

"Cooperation to prevent freshwater pollution and protect shared water resources will avoid near irreversible damage," the team advises. "Also, degrading of the water supply from wells and springs will reduce the amount of available drinking water available to villages not connected to the water supply, and will increase dependency on tanked water," and long term sustainable solutions to these problems will become more costly to implement, the team predicts.

To get cooperation on environmental protection, the team recommends reactivatation of the Joint Environmental Experts Committee established by the Oslo agreements, to work as an Israeli-Palestinian expert committee for acute environmental problems.

"Both Israeli and Palestinian environmental administrations should have their representatives on the committee. It should identify environmental hot spots that affect both sides, and recommend and plan realistic remedial actions with a clear schedule. In the beginning, an independent third party could facilitate these meetings, if needed," the team advises.

A better exchange of information is "acutely needed," the team observes. "Regular and open exchange of information would enable environmental experts, scientists, authorities and NGOs to seek timely and cost-effective solutions to environmental problems and to make reasonable plans for regional environmental management."

Coordinate environmental laws and regulations regionally, the team recommends. There is a role for the World Bank Group's Global Environment Facility, it suggests, and this funding agency could "seek ways to continue supporting the Palestinian Authority in its efforts to improve its preparedness to implement international environmental agreements."

The Palestinian Authority needs a scientific and clearly prioritized plan to work with the most acute environmental problems. This work plan can be developed from the existing National Environment Action Plan, the team says.

The dozens of other recommendations include strengthening the capacity of the Palestinian Water Authority. "The quality of water is rapidly deteriorating, and proper protection measures have to be implemented as soon as possible," the desk study states.

There should be immediate action to repaire and rehabilitate leaking and damaged water supply systems, the team urges. "Water is currently misused, and leaking networks can also cause dangerous cross-contamination with wastewaters and wastes, leading to negative hygienic and health effects."

There are only a few wastewater treatment facilities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and due to the conflict and/or inadequate management most of them are not functioning properly, the team reports. "This is an alarming issue since the untreated wastewater is polluting the aquifers and the seashore in Gaza."

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Group of swimmers at Gaza beach (Photo courtesy Palestina)
Even with measures in place to save water, new sources of freshwater will be needed, the team acknowledges. Desalination projects to obtain freshwater from the sea, drawing on renewable sources of energy where possible, the study recommends.

The construction of wastewater networks and wastewater treatment plants "must be given the highest priority," the team advises. The possibility of establishing joint Israeli-Palestinian wastewater treatment plants and infrastructure should be explored, says the report, and only if this is not feasible should separate structures be planned and constructed.

On an urgent basis, studies must be conducted on industrial sites that are potentially generating highly hazardous wastewater effluent, the study warns.

The 18 effluent pipes discharging wastewater into coastal waters and onto Gaza beaches "must be closed," the team urges. "A plan to reduce the number of effluent pipes, as well as to upgrade the effluent to acceptable standards for reuse or discharge to natural watercourses must be initiated. The current discharge into the sea has negative impacts on human health and also threatens seaside recreational and tourism development in Gaza."

There are more urgent problems that must be addressed immediately, the desk study found. The Beit Lahia wastewater treatment plant and its sewage lake is one of the major environmental “hot spots” where urgent remedial action is required.

The problem is a political one where the parties have shown little willingness to make compromises in the interests of environmental protection and to minimize potential risks to human health, the team reports, and recommends that a mobile wastewater treatment plant should be installed right away to treat the effluent from the existing overloaded treatment plant.

All actions to improve the situation depend upon an easing of restrictions on motorized transport within the region such as curfews, and roadblocks, the desk study concludes, and on the easing of import restrictions on spare parts and necessary new and replacement equipment. "Without these measures, any upgrading and improvement of the situation will be very difficult."

The desk study will be presented to the Governing Council of UNEP in February.The Governing Council decision also calls for UNEP to follow up the findings and recommendations of the study and assist the Palestinian Ministry of Environmental Affairs in its efforts to address its urgent environmental needs.