UN says Gaza water supplies in danger of ‘collapse’ 14Sep09 September 17, 2009

UN News Centre -  14 September 2009

The Gaza Strip’s underground water system is in serious danger of collapse after recent conflict compounded years of overuse and contamination, a report released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today warns.

The UNEP report on the environmental condition of Gaza following Israel’s military operation in the region in late 2008 calls for the aquifer – supplying 1.5 million Palestinians with agricultural and drinking water – to be “rested” and alternative sources to be found.

“Unless the trend is reversed now, damage could take centuries to reverse,” said the environmental assessment report, which follows the hostilities in Gaza in December 2008 and January this year.

“Since the aquifer is a continuum with Egypt and Israel, any such action must be coordinated with these countries,” it stressed.

UNEP estimated that more than $1.5 billion may be needed over 20 years to restore the aquifer back to health, including the establishment of desalination plants to take pressure off the underground water supplies.

The key concerns contained in the report include a rise in salt-water intrusion from the sea caused by over-extraction of ground water, pollution from sewage and agricultural run-off, with toxic levels high enough to put infants at risk of nitrate poisoning.

“Many of the impacts of the recent hostilities have exacerbated environmental degradation that has been years in the making – environmental degradation that does not end at the borders of the Gaza Strip but also affect the health and welfare of those living beyond,” said Achim Steiner UNEP Executive Director.

The report examined the direct impact of the three-week Israeli offensive, which had the stated aim of ending rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups, and resulted in the deaths of at least 1,300 Palestinians and injuries to some 5,300.

It also assessed the likely economic costs of the hostilities – which reduced buildings and other infrastructure in Gaza to rubble causing 600,000 tons of debris – and recommends levels of investment needed to secure rehabilitation, recovery and the longer-term sustainability in the area.

The report calculates a cost of over $7 million for the removal and safe disposal of rubble, some of which is also contaminated with asbestos. It said another $11 million would be needed to cover the damage to farmers’ livelihoods and for clean-up measures, with an estimated 17 per cent of cultivated land – including orchards and greenhouses – severely damaged.

Other consequences underscored in the report include sewage spills as a result of power cuts to treatment facilities, a build-up of hazardous hospital wastes at landfill sites generated in part as a result of the numbers injured, and the collapse of refuse collection services. It puts the cost of decommissioning existing landfills and establishing new solid waste management facilities at over $40 million.

“The assessments conducted and the findings presented here identify and document a serious challenge to the environmental sustainability of the Gaza Strip,” said Mr. Steiner.

“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,” added Mr. Steiner.

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