‘This is like a slow death’: Environmental toll of Gaza war laid bare in first UN assessment

‘This is like a slow death’: Environmental toll of Gaza war laid bare in first UN assessment

Families forced to burn plastic to cook food. Raw sewage spilling onto beaches, and over 107 kilograms of debris for every square metre.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP)’s first assessment of the war in Gaza details the “unprecedented” environmental impacts of Israel’s onslaught over the past eight months.

Published yesterday, the preliminary assessment responds to an official request from the State of Palestine in December last year.

“Not only are the people of Gaza dealing with untold suffering from the ongoing war, the significant and growing environmental damage in Gaza risks locking its people into a painful, long recovery,” says Inger Andersen, UNEP Executive Director.

More than 37,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to its Health Ministry, after  Hamas-led militants killed around 1,200 Israelis and took 250 people hostage on 7 October.

“We urgently need a ceasefire to save lives and restore the environment, to enable Palestinians to start to recover from the conflict and rebuild their lives and livelihoods in Gaza,” Andersen says.

What did the UN’s environmental assessment of Gaza find?

Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment in an area west of Rafah city, 28 May 2024.
Displaced Palestinians inspect their tents destroyed by Israel's bombardment in an area west of Rafah city, 28 May 2024. - Jehad Alshrafi/AP

Since it is not safe for UNEP to undertake field-based work, the report is informed by remote sensing surveys as well as data from Palestinian and multilateral partners.

“While many questions remain regarding the exact type and quantity of contaminants affecting the environment in Gaza, people are already living with the consequences of conflict-related damage to environmental management systems and pollution today,” Andersen adds.

“Water and sanitation have collapsed. Critical infrastructure continues to be decimated. Coastal areas, soil and ecosystems have been severely impacted. All of this is deeply harming people's health, food security and Gaza's resilience.”

Here are seven key takeaways from the preliminary assessment.

7. The conflict undoes recent environmental progress in Gaza

Gaza’s ecosystems had already been under decades-long pressure from recurring conflicts, rapid urbanisation, political conditions, and the region’s vulnerability to climate change.

But there had been some limited progress on its environmental management systems. Water desalination and wastewater treatment facilities had been developed, solar power was rapidly growing and the Wadi Gaza coastal wetland was benefitting from new flows of investment.

The war has unravelled all of that.

6. Around 39 million tonnes of debris have piled up

For each square metre in the Gaza Strip, UNEP estimates there is now over 107 kg of debris. This is more than five times the quantity of debris generated from the 2016-2017 conflict in Mosul, Iraq.

Debris jeopardises human health and the environment - from dust and contamination with unexploded ordnance, asbestos, industrial and medical waste, and other hazardous substances.

Human remains buried beneath the debris must be dealt with sensitively, UNEP says.

Clearing the debris will be a massive and complex task, it adds, which needs to start as soon as possible to enable other types of recovery and reconstruction to move forward.

5. All five of Gaza’s wastewater treatment plants have shut down

Water, sanitation, and hygiene systems are almost entirely defunct in the enclave. As a result, sewage is contaminating beaches, coastal waters, soil, and freshwater with a host of pathogens, nutrients, microplastics, and hazardous chemicals.

UNEP warns that this poses immediate and long-term threats to the health of Gazans, marine life, and arable lands.

Displaced Palestinians cool off during a heatwave at Khan Younis beach, southern Gaza Strip, 20 May 2024.
Displaced Palestinians cool off during a heatwave at Khan Younis beach, southern Gaza Strip, 20 May 2024. - Saher Alghorra/AP

4. The solid waste management system is severely damaged

Five out of six solid waste management facilities in Gaza are damaged, the report calculates.

By November 2023, 1,200 tonnes of rubbish were accumulating daily around camps and shelters.

“We’ve never lived next to rubbish before,” Asmahan al-Masri, a displaced woman in Khan Younis, told the UK’s BBC. “I cry just like any other grandmother would over her grandchildren being sick and having scabies. This is like a slow death. There is no dignity.”

A shortage of cooking gas has also forced families to burn wood, plastic and waste instead, endangering women and children in particular.

This, coupled with fires and burning fuels, is likely to have sharply lowered Gaza’s air quality, though no open-source air quality data is available for Gaza.

3. Munitions containing heavy metals and explosive chemicals remain

These toxic weapons have been deployed in Gaza’s densely populated areas, contaminating soil and water sources, and posing a risk to human health which will persist long after the war ends.

Unexploded ordnance poses especially serious risks to children, the report warns.

2. Destroyed solar panels leave a toxic legacy

Solar power has been vital to Gazans, as a means of bypassing Israel’s control of the centralised electricity sector. Gaza may have had the highest density of rooftop solar systems in the world, according to experts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Much of this infrastructure has been destroyed in Israel’s ongoing bombardments - and it could lead to a wider environmental problem.

Destroyed solar panels are expected to leak lead and other heavy metals, UNEP cautions, causing a new kind of risk to Gaza’s soil and water.

1. Hamas’ tunnels could become dangerous ruins

Hamas’ tunnels system and Israel’s efforts to destroy them may further contribute to environmental damage, UNEP says.

Depending on the construction standards of the tunnels and the extent to which water is being pumped into them, the report warns of long-term risks to human health from groundwater contamination and to buildings constructed on potentially unstable land surfaces.

Can Gaza’s environment recover?

Resolving environmental challenges in Gaza is key for its people’s health and must be woven into recovery and reconstruction plans, the authors find.

They say a full environmental analysis - taking into account contamination from weapons and other conflict-related pollution - must be an integral part of these plans.

Rebuilding of Gaza should also address chronic environmental issues that were there before the war, UNEP adds.

As soon as security conditions allow and access is granted, the UN organisation plans to start a field-based assessment of the extent and type of environmental degradation, building on this preliminary assessment.

Solutions will be developed in tandem with Gaza’s scientific community, public and private sector experts and civil society - including women and youth.