troubled waters

Pekka Haavisto describes how environmental cooperation, particularly over shared water resources, could aid the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

The long-lasting Israeli-Palestinian conflict, combined with the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, has affected the territories’ freshwater supplies and environment in many ways. There have been direct impacts, caused by military activities; indirect impacts, caused by the war-like situation; and an overall environmental degradation due to a lack of administrative management and public awareness.

Many of the most direct impacts have resulted from military actions. Sewage systems, water supply lines and other infrastructure have been destroyed as part of collateral damage. Destruction of buildings has also led to the release of hazardous materials such as asbestos.

The indirect impacts have exacerbated these. Curfews and roadblocks, for example, have prevented people from using designated landfills. The waste collection system has collapsed. As a result, wastes are often burned in the middle of towns during curfew periods.

Declining environmental quality
These immediate and acute consequences of conflict occur alongside the long-term degradation of environmental governance. In times of conflict, few resources are available for developing environmental management systems or for educating people about how to take better care of the environment. This leads to an easily visible general decline in environmental quality in many parts of the West Bank and Gaza, where landfills are not being properly managed, groundwater is not being protected from the many sources of contamination and sewage is flowing directly to the sea.

The fight over land use is yet another critical aspect of the conflict. Israeli settlements have their own roads and other infrastructure and manage their wastes and water supplies separately from those of their Palestinian neighbours. Each side has made many claims that the other is permitting pollution to cross their borders. The settlements are accused of not handling their wastes properly, while some Palestinian dumpsites (where open burning of wastes is a normal practice) are located very near Israeli settlements.

UNEP has conducted a Desk Study on the Environment in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to try to produce an objective assessment of the situation and to facilitate cooperative action; UNEP’s 22nd Governing Council in February 2003 unanimously requested UNEP to implement the report’s 136 recommendations. Both parties in the region made critical comments about some of the recommendations – but they also recognized that environmental cooperation is essential.

Common interest
Building bridges between the two partners where they have a clear common interest can make a constructive contribution to the peace process. Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories share the same aquifers, for example: protecting them is essential for people living on both sides of the border. There is already an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that keeps water issues out of the conflict. We can hope that this kind of thinking may soon apply to all environmental topics.

UNEP is now preparing for the implementation of the 136 recommendations according to the mandate given by its Governing Council. This will involve close cooperation with both the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel. The UNEP Governing Council has asked to see a progress report when it holds its next regular meeting in February 2005.

There must be a common understanding of the scientific data when environmental issues are discussed. The UNEP Desk Study, therefore, is addressing the need for high-quality water modelling of the shared aquifers. Currently there are two serious environmental threats to these groundwater resources. The first is over-pumping – the water levels are clearly falling. The second is the quality of the groundwater which, especially in the Gaza aquifer, is worsening rapidly. Agricultural chemicals, pesticides and open burning in landfills are all having serious consequences for freshwater resources.

A first step
Modelling how the aquifers function would be the first step in gaining better understanding of all the environmental risks facing the water supply. Such a study should be followed by stricter protection measures of the region’s invaluable groundwater resources.

Environmental degradation and problems with groundwater in the region do not just concern the people living there today. They will also affect future generations. Environmental cooperation could be a valuable tool in the Middle East peace process and is vital for safeguarding the environment for the future

Pekka Haavisto is Chairman of UNEP’s Desk Study on the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

PHOTOGRAPH: Rana Abou Housseh/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | World Environment Day | Water is life | The water century | Taking it at the flood | Renewing the commitment | Waterless cities | Keeping pollution at bay | People | At a glance | Changing agenda | Nor any drop to drink | Bridging troubled waters | Books & products | Getting there | Sinking fast | Waste not | Water – the poor’s priority | Atomic power

Complementary articles in other issues:
Pekka Haavisto: Legacy of Conflict (Disasters) 2001
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Freshwater, 1998

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Freshwater wetlands
Mangroves and estuaries