Environment Emerges as a Major Casualty in Palestine

Countless fruit groves across the Gaza Strip are now gone, entire farms bulldozed. The remains of thousands of destroyed homes emit toxic asbestos, while dilapidated infrastructure dumps raw sewage into the Mediterranean Sea. An already deepening environmental crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip has been further compounded by the recent war.

Throughout the three-week Operation Cast Lead, Israel targeted almost every aspect of the coastal territory's infrastructure. Homes, businesses, factories, power grids, sewage systems and water treatment plants were reduced to piles of rubble across the Gaza Strip.

According to a preliminary assessment of environmental and infrastructural damage made by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Israel's assault not only exacerbated Gaza's existing hazards, but created new ones by contaminating both land and urban environments and leaving unprecedented amounts of debris in its wake.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) announced last month it would send a team of post-conflict experts to the Gaza Strip in May to follow up on the issues that pose the greatest threats to the Gaza population.

Prior to the war, Gaza's infrastructure languished under three years of sanctions and a further 18 months of a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade that prohibits the import of all but "essential" goods into the Gaza Strip.

Many areas of Gaza, particularly the sprawling refugee camps, lacked proper sewage systems. Where they did exist, they often ran on generators or rationed electricity. A ban on materials required for their maintenance, including cement, steel and pipes, left them in a state of disrepair.

A report released by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) just ten days before the launch of Operation Cast Lead stated that at least 80 percent of the water supplied in Gaza "does not meet the World Health Organisation standards for drinking.

"Much needed maintenance is impeded by a lack of pipes, spare parts and construction materials. The resulting degradation of the system is posing a major public health hazard," the report reads.

Restrictions on materials and goods left at least 70 percent of Gaza's agricultural land without irrigation, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), while local authorities were being forced to dump approximately 70 million litres of raw sewage into the sea each day. Fuel shortages made garbage collection infrequent at best.

During the assault, Israeli bombs hit the already fragile sewage and water treatment systems, causing drinking water and raw sewage to mix across some of the most populated areas of Gaza.

Tank shells hit the strip's largest wastewater plant in the Sheikh Aljeen area of Gaza City, sending sewage cascading directly into neighbourhoods, farms and into the sea.

Forty percent of the rooftop water tanks in Khan Younis were damaged or destroyed, and four water wells were destroyed completely in Gaza City, Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya, according to the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) cluster group that works under OCHA.