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Urban Environmental Profile of the Gaza




An Executive Summary



By: Jonathan Ward and Iwona Roman



March 26, 2008



Sustainable interventions, like long term socio-economic growth in the occupied Palestinian territory, will require the fulfilment of the conditions laid down some time ago by the World Bank: unfettered movement of persons and goods to and from the outside world, including a freely operating harbour and airport, a link between Gaza and the West Bank, and resumption of access for Palestinians to the labour market in Israel.”

-Statement from the Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA, sourced from PMC 2005).

Illustration 1: Location of Gaza. Source CIA 2008


An Urban Environmental Profile (UEP) is a means to clarify environmental issues affecting cities, outline key actors, identify priorities for mitigation efforts, and provide recommendations for future action (von Einsedel, nd). Even though this profile is unlikely to incite political action or affect policy, the analysis of an Urban Environmental Profile should mobilize political actors to act on behalf of their urban environmental challenges. This UEP will attempt to demonstrate not only the interconnectedness between environmental indicators and collective well-being of the urban populations, but further highlight the state of the environment as vital to secure the future of the region.


There is great difficulty in planning or even monitoring an urban environment in an insecure and isolated region such as the Gaza Strip. However, the authors believe that by concentrating on the Gaza Strip’s urban environmental challenges, and in particular on sustainable use of resources, not only an improved urban environment can be created, but also solutions for peace can be found based on common environmental interests .


The Gaza Strip has endured occupation by different regimes and been the site of conflict (through both internal and external disputes) for over a century. The UNEP stated that 'the years of conflict have presented huge challenges to the Palestinians efforts to manage in a sound manner the environment and natural resources', a situation, which ultimately lead to the current 'alarming environmental situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories' (UNEP 2003, p. 6).


Most recently, in an effort to isolate the democratically elected Hamas party, actions such as withholding investments by the international community and illegal withholding of tax revenues by Israel (WASH 2006) have been counter-productive for the peace building process, and generally, for economic development. The result is a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip characterized by an explosion of poverty, food dependency, unemployment, access to basic and medical services, deterioration of environmental indicators and basic health (Amnesty et al., 2007).


It is worth mentioning that the human deprivation and constant struggle to survive has de facto increased popular support of Hamas in Palestine. Hamas is seen as a national liberation movement mobilizing people to resist the Israeli occupiers and protecting Palestinian rights (AWID 2008). Despite the popular support of Hamas in Palestine, the situation in the Gaza Strip is worse now than it was in 1967, when the Israeli military first took control of every aspect of Palestinian life.


Main Urban Environmental Issue: Water

The most pressing issue for the Urban Environment in the Gaza Strip, outside of the all too evident security situation, is the management, distribution, and sustainability of the water supply. Water resources have been a source of conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian people since the creation of Israel in 1948. Its relative water scarcity, much of it due to Israeli control of 82% of the shared coastal aquifer, has led to an intensification of difficult conditions for Palestinian people in fulfilling basic everyday needs, such as the maintenance of good sanitation standards and personal well-being.


The current crisis in water quantity and quality in the Gaza Strip is in need of immediate remedies and support of all parties. This situation carries serious long-term implications if the system and current practices continue ‘business-as-usual’. The approach to environmental problems and water management in Israel, which was and continues to be the de facto ruler of the Gaza region, has been described as 'schizophrenic' (Newman, 2004, p.2). Water has been 'a source of geopolitical contention' between Israel and Palestine for decades now (Shapland (1997) in Newman, 2004, p.13), a situation, which seriously undermines water availability in the Gaza Strip. This state of affairs is likely to continue until a peaceful resolution to the political and security crisis is found.


One idea, which has been suggested to the authors by Robert Johnson, a Middle East Conflict and Security Specialist, is to utilise a form of lateral thinking and employ the ideals non-violent, non-cooperation as a step towards economic empowerment. It is important to point out that this idea was particularly suitable to the water issues. The Gaza Strip being a downstream user and thus dependant on Israel for water quality and quantity is not subject to trans-boundary co-operation or management, despite the Oslo II accord (discussed in the profile). In the current political climate, no amount of agency and institutional expediency will allow effective sustainable management of the water resources in the Gaza Strip’s urban environmental situation. The solution therefore, may involve the Palestinian Authority, Palestinian Water Authority and the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) finding financial support to purchase shares in the main Israeli water company, Mekerot, which has control of the upstream coastal aquifer. This would not only allow some direct control, but would ensure the overall water management of the coastal aquifer and it’s water distribution is meeting international standards and is fair in meeting user obligations under the company charter. Placing resources under shared ownership, and establishing economic imperatives, as opposed to political or ideological ones, could ensure greater stability in the Gaza Strip’s region.

The existing CMWU body is semi-public and so the transition to a privately owned company under civilian control would not be complex. There is a concern that with the sole source of funding coming through user fees, insufficient funds will be collected to continue operation of the water system. This may lead to the collapse of the CMWU.


The Coastal Municipalities Water Utility structure is currently dictated by the World Bank, which emphasises markets and privatisation. It would be more realistic to establish a working and reliable system with a group of international donors with a plan to incorporate user fees in the long run. Investments are needed to ensure water efficiency and to reduce the waste of water through agriculture. The Palestinian Water Authority proposes the use of desalination plants, with currently six operating in the Gaza Strip in addition to other small-scale private plants. Experts are concerned however, about the viability and environmental impacts arising from desalination (Baalousha, 2006). One of the options, could entail a 'joint pumping plan [which] would involve Israel increasing its pumping in order to reduce the flow of saline water from the Israeli area to the Gaza Strip at the same time that the Palestinians would limit and even reduce pumping within the Gaza Strip' (Weinthal et al., 2005). This way, the 'saline ground water pumped by Israel will be desalinized along the border and then transported to the Gaza Strip' (Weinthal et al., 2005).


Expansion of water resources does not seem like a viable option in the current situation. However, Weinthal et al., suggests an interesting solution, albeit politically controversial. The authors propose the diversion of water from the Nile River in Egypt through El Arish to the Gaza Strip, but warn that 'while Egypt might agree to transfer water to the Gaza Strip, it is physically dependent upon the upstream users in the Nile Basin' (Weinthal et al., 2005). This solution could solve the Gaza Strip’s water crisis; however, in the opinion of the authors, the current political climate would not allow the implementation of such a project.


Urban Environment and Health

The provision of healthcare continues to be problematic, with emergencies particularly affected by the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that patient permits to leave Gaza have decreased from 89.3% in January 2007 to 64.3% in December 2007 (Amnesty et al. 2008). Health indicators continue to deteriorate, especially sanitation, water provision and basic nutrition. The most essential recommendation in the current circumstances is to lift the sanctions and punitive border controls, which restrict supplies and movement of key health provisions, fuel and food. It is important to mention here, albeit not surprisingly, that there has been a 100% increase in the number of Palestinian people attending mental health clinics, the majority of which are children (AFSC 2004, WHO 2005). About 50% of children report experiencing ‘conflict-related violence’ or have seen one of the family members directly affected by violent acts (WHO, 2005).


Impact of Military Incursions

Military incursions from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have affected and continue to affect the status of urban environment and infrastructure in a profound and damaging manner. The legitimacy of these actions is highly disputed. A UNDP report reveals that between June 26 and August 28, 2006, the Israeli military operations targeted important Palestinian municipal infrastructures (UNDP, 2006). Infrastructure such as bridges, water and wastewater lines, roads; energy utilities including electricity lines and power stations; agriculture including water wells, greenhouses, animals and crops; housing and public buildings (such as clinics and hospitals), and finally industry, is frequently destroyed. Due to Israel’s intrusion into the daily urban operations of the Gaza Strip, the infrastructure development trend tends to transition backwards not forward. Military offensives slow down economic progress and significantly downgrade infrastructures.


Economy and Governance

The Gaza Strip does not follow the Urban Environmental Transition Theory (UETT). Due to occupation and continuous military offensives, the Gaza Strip’s development is erratic. Some areas of the city are developed well for the level of GDP, such as the water distribution infrastructure (supplies 91% of the population), however due to lack of resources and military incursions, some infrastructure and services cannot be utilised. Economic development is regressive in the Gaza Strip, a trend, which has accelerated since the year 2000.


It is likely, considering the poor state of economic development and conflict hit infrastructure that the majority of Palestinian peri-urban agriculture is behind global standards for efficiency and sustainability, despite the involvement of NGOs in the region. The rationale behind this statement is that development in the economic sphere, as opposed to the environment and sustainability, currently occupies a much higher position on the governmental agenda (whether de facto or otherwise, and local or regional). Whilst conflict increases food pressure, current farming methods exacerbate the existing environmental challenges. A move to agricultural systems such as Permaculture, which is suited to urban areas and increases efficiency of resource use, would be highly recommended.


Governance routes to an improved urban environment in Gaza

The state of the environment in the Gaza Strip since occupation in 1967 ' has proved that the public can do nothing without official help or support' (Al-agha 1997, p.73). Al-agha believes that the key to environmental management policy in Gaza is the relationship between citizens and the authorities. In the light of weak institutions and ineffective monitoring (often due to lack of resources), Al-agha suggests citizens monitoring and identification of 'environmental changes and damage'. Such reports would be related to the authorities, allowing urban environmental issues 'to be solved and/or managed by the authorities and the public together' (Al-agha 1997, p.73). This stakeholder-participation technique could improve general environmental awareness as well as overcome institutional and resource deficiencies. It perhaps needs reiterating that 'disasters will continue unless a modern and effective system of environmental protection in the Gaza Strip is established' (Al-agha 1997, p.73).


Illustration 2: Government Effectiveness in the Gaza Strip. World Bank 2007.

Illustration 2 demonstrates the extreme ineffectiveness of governance and government in the Gaza Strip in the past decade. In addition, lack of rights to self-governance has prevented any ‘bottom-up’ development planning. It is important to note, that in the current isolation of the Gaza Strip, any organization working to develop or improve infrastructure conditions is only able to do so within the limited scope of available resources. Internal political infighting between the party of Hamas and Fatah, have been an additional challenge to the positive development of the Gaza Strip. The World Bank figures (World Bank, 2007) on governance for the Gaza Strip show a depressing trend in sustaining weak governance, poor accountability and high levels of corruption. To improve all aspects of urban governance, funding agencies should promote transparency, community accountability, and participation in the democratic process. These efforts will be paramount in affecting ‘bottom-up’ change within the current political climate.


In the Gaza Strip, the erratic education efforts due to conflict, and a dire state of environmental affairs, urgently call for public awareness initiatives in normative environmental values and environment education. It is imperative to instil an environmentally aware culture (Al-Agha 1997, p.76). The impact of the security situation on this predominantly young society, may lead to a situation where inherited societal values prioritise conflict over immediate and local socio-environmental concerns. Schemes run by Palestine Save the Children Foundation (PSCF, 2008) seek to tackle problems with 'water, solid waste and sewage works’ by educating women and children. Implementation and support for these kinds of projects is required and needs large-scale implementation


Concluding Remarks

As long as the Israeli authorities withhold tax revenues from Gaza exports and the international community refuse to acknowledge, or establish dialogue with, the elected Hamas government, funding will continue to remain an issue in the region. The election of Hamas has dealt a crippling blow to the economy as aid organisations and countries withdrew essential funding from an already weak budgetary affair.


In order to improve the current environmental situation, the primary issue remains establishing sovereignty for the Gaza Strip. In addition, freedom of movement and the enforcement of international laws (including existing UN resolutions) should be applied with urgency. Leading aid agencies describe the situation as a 'Humanitarian Implosion', which will continue to deteriorate until such recommendations are followed. It is clear that the poor and the environment carry the burden of the conflict in this urban region. There is a real danger of security eclipsing environmental priorities on the domestic agenda as the cycles of violence continue. The environmental crisis may overshadow any current efforts to remedy the humanitarian crisis through political means alone.


In the eyes of the Palestinian Authority “the fragility of the general economic situation and the Palestinian authority inability to provide the necessary funds for performing its daily activities and implementing different development plans and programs put the international support for Palestinian economy and development plans on top of all Palestinian priorities for a long period to come” (PNA 2008).




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