Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Environmental Toll of the Gaza Siege

The Huffington Post
The Environmental Toll of the Gaza Siege

July 12, 2010

Hani Almadhoun

The siege on Gaza has many intended and unintended consequences. Three years under siege is a long time, but in those years the people of Gaza have learned to adapt with the frequent interruptions of their lives due to the circumstances imposed on Gaza. Every time you head to a Gaza market, you are reminded of those difficulties. If the price if your favorite item (i.e. fruit juice, potatoes chips, baby formula, and yogurt) is exceptionally high, the vendor is likely to blame the Israeli siege or the Egyptian authorities for a recent tunnel bust affecting supplies.

But humans are not the only ones paying a toll for the policies toward Gaza -- the ecosystem of this narrow strip of land is suffering too. Some of the effects of siege may have a positive impact on the environment, others not so much. Here are few areas where the Gaza siege leaves its footprints:

* Recycling Programs: Due to limitations on goods entering into Gaza, residents of Gaza now recycle pretty much anything and everything. Plastic bottles, scrap metals, plastic chairs, soda cans, pots and pans, electronic appliances and pretty much anything made of plastic. On any given day in Gaza, it would be hard to miss those animal pulled carts with scruffy looking men using a bullhorn asking young boys and girls to bring them anything to recycle for few cents. Once they collect enough material, those traveling recycling scavengers head to the nearest recycling plant and sell their collection to be recycled. Much of the plastic collected comes out as plastic trays sold to serve food on. Organizations like ANERA initiated a program to clean farm land from plastic bottles. Those plastic bottles came out as water bottles and electricity pipes. Schools collect the books by the end of the year and hand them out to the next class. While it's true that Palestinians have been recycling those items long before the siege, it's safe to say the siege allowed for the expansion of those recycling programs and participation in them.

* Landfills: Since Gaza is a very dense area, the option of using landfills is limited. With limited space the accumulation of landfills are often strongly oppose by surrounding residents due to health hazards and the smell. The other challenge is to find a landfill that won't contaminate arable land and groundwater--an increasingly important commodity. Many Gaza farmers get rid of their garbage by bury the perishable byproducts, which also helps by fertilizing the ground. Others who live in urban settings prefer to burn their trash--another health hazard.

* Solid Waste processing: Solid waste in Gaza consists of household waste, building debris, agricultural industrial waste, and car workshops. German aid agencies took the lead on this project and they hired a number of Gaza engineers and workers to collect scrap metal in Gaza and recycle it. In the aftermath of the Israeli offensive of 2009, the UNDP launched a project where they would collect home debris and rubbles and use them to sustain the Gaza sea port. Other Gaza workers collect scrap metal and stones to sell them to make cement, the most famous banned item by Israel. Other items the Gazans have been recycling are car batteries, shoes and bags to give them a second life.

* Electricity: It has been a long time since residents of Gaza can remember a full day in which they had electricity. Due to shortage of fuel, political gridlock, and the siege, there are frequent power outages. While most people have adapted their lifestyle (perishable food, visit with family, do homework...etc.), this might be method to promote more efficient use for electricity. On the downside, Gaza businesses and few homes own diesel operated power generators. Those generators are further contributing to the pollution problem. Not to mention that a dozen of people have either lost their lives or were injured by power generator related accident.

* Sewage water in your beach: Gaza beach goers can easily spot barrel size pipes pumping treatment water into the Gaza beach few meters away from where little boys and girls take a dip in the sea. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Gaza the water authority in the Gaza Strip has been unable to import the parts necessary for the maintenance and repairs at water and sewage pumping stations. According to a July 2009 report WHO, Gaza seawater samples collected during three month period by the Gaza public health laboratory were contaminated with fecal bacteria. The Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights noted that, consuming seafood fished in areas with considerable quantities of raw sewage water poses a serious threat to human health, because marine environment contaminants can be transferred through the marine food chain. It's not surprise that Gaza hospitals see a surge in patients with various skin complications during the swim season.

* Low grade fuel: Another thing the Israeli military gets to decide how much fuel makes it to Gaza. Needless to say, Gaza smugglers started smuggling Egyptian fuel to make up for the shortage. But even if Israel allows all the needed fuel into Gaza, it seems like a better business decision to buy the Egyptian fuel that comes heavily discounted due to subsidies and inferior quality. While the Gaza taxi drivers are cheering the cost saving fuel, the Gaza eco system disagrees. Needless to say the smuggled fuel represents a heavy burden on the Gaza. In a hot day, you can easily see the smog and the black smoke emitted from those Gaza cars and do not think to wear a light color shirt on your walk.

Israel has announced that they will ease the Gaza siege in the wake of the flotilla massacre late May. If those announced measurements are true then those steps should help reduce the toll on the Gaza ecosystem. I know I certainly hope residents of Gaza and Palestine will continue to see the benefits of recycling materials to reduce the carbon footprint. This would be a tough challenge in an area where the human livelihood is assaulted on daily basis, and people scrape to make a living. But I am hopeful as the people of Gaza even, those with the means, continue to shun air conditioning and instead chose other natural means to keep cool in besieged powerless Gaza.

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