Palestine's underground water in danger of collapse: UNEP

Palestine's underground water in danger of collapse: UNEP

The underground water supplies, upon which 1.5 million Palestinians depend for agriculture and consumption, are in danger of collapse as a result of years of over-use and contamination that have been exacerbated by the recent conflict, the UN environment agency warns, Xinhua reported.
  
The warning is contained in a report released here on Monday by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) on the environmental condition of the Gaza Strip following the hostilities.
  
The report by the UNEP chief Achim Steiner calls for the aquifer to be "rested" and alternative water sources found.
  
"Unless the trend is reversed now, damage could take centuries to reverse. Since the aquifer is a continuum with Egypt and Israel, any such action must be coordinated with these countries," it says.  The report points to increased salinity from salt water intrusion caused by over abstraction of the ground water as a key concern, alongside pollution from sewage and agricultural run off.
  
Pollution levels are such that infants in the Gaza Strip are at risk from nitrate poisoning.
  
UNEP estimates that well over 1.5 billion US dollars 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.
  
These are among 20 plus recommendations made in Environmental Assessment of the Gaza Strip: following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008-January 2009.  The report, requested in February 2009 by UNEP's Governing Council-- the annual gathering of environment ministers - examines the direct impact of the recent conflict and its contribution to existing and persistent environmental problems.
   
"The assessments conducted and the findings presented here identify and document a serious challenge to the environmental sustainability of the Gaza Strip," said Achim Steiner, UN Under- Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, who initiated the assessment during a tour of the Gaza Strip in April this year.  "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,"Steiner said.  "The international community has indicated its willingness to assist with providing technical, financial and diplomatic assistance in order to turn environmental restoration into an opportunity for cooperation and restoration."  The report also assesses the likely economic costs of the hostilities and recommends levels of investment needed to secure rehabilitation, recovery and the longer term sustainability of the Gaza Strip.
  
According to the report, strikes on buildings and other infrastructure have generated 600,000 tonnes of demolition debris.
  
The removal and safe disposal of rubble, some of which is also contaminated with asbestos, is calculated at over 7 million dollars.  An estimated 17 per cent of cultivated land including orchards and greenhouses was severely affected.
  
The report estimates the costs in terms of damage to farmers' livelihoods' alongside clean up measures at around 11 million dollars.  Other impacts include sewage spills as a result of power cuts to treatment facilities-- some of which is likely to have percolated through the Gaza Strip's porous soils into ground water. 
There has also been an increase in the build up of hazardous hospital wastes at landfill sites generated in part as a result of the numbers injured.  This alongside factors such as the collapse of refuse collection services as a result of the hostilities and the way this has exacerbated pressure on existing landfill sites is also underlined.  The estimated cost of decommissioning existing landfills and establishing new solid waste management facilities is put at over 40 million dollars.  "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," Steiner said.
  
Several recommendations are outlined to deal with the long standing challenges and ones either exacerbated or caused by the recent escalation of hostilities.
  
The provision of safe water for infants and the carrying out by the UN of a comprehensive study on 'blue baby' syndrome. The development of alternative water supplies using desalination of sea water  An entire restoration of the current water supply network to reduce losses from leakages equal to over 40 per cent of the water being pumped.
  
Improved measures to control sources of contamination to the underground aquifer from sewage, agricultural run-off and storm water run-off.  The establishment of one or two new and modern sewage treatment plants able to handle nitrates so that effluent can be used for agriculture alongside treating and composting facilities for sewage sludge
  
The area receives 300 mm of rain annually of which 46 per cent of some 45 million cubic meters recharges the underground aquifer.  For many years now abstraction levels of some 160 million cubic meters annually have out-stripped the natural replenishment levels.  The situation is causing salt water from the sea to intrude into theses freshwater supplies and the report says salinity levels for most parts of the Gaza Strip are now above World Health Organization guideline limits of 250 micrograms per litre--in one case by as much as 700 per cent.  In addition, the nature of the soils in the Gaza Strip means that sewage,irrigation water and 'leachate' from overwhelmed and unsealed landfills can easily percolate down into the aquifer.  Tests at nine private wells found many with nitrate concentrations exceeding WHO guidelines of 50 micrograms per litre- -one tested as high as 331 micrograms per litre.  High levels of nitrates can cause a form of anaemia in infants known as'blue baby syndrome'.
  
The recent conflict has generated some 600,000 tonnes of construction and demolition waste of which over 200,000 tonnes is in Gaza city and 100,000 tonnes is in Rafah.  The report calls for the establishment of a new facility to handle the debris and maximize the re-use and recycling of the materials and the separation of those that may be contaminated.  Some buildings, such as the El Swaity Juice and food produce factory in the northern Gaza Strip caught on fire after being struck by munitions and there is concern that the burning may have generated hazardous pollutants such as furans and dioxins.  The report notes that demolition here and at other similar sites will require workers to wear personal protective equipment which is not readily available in the Gaza Strip.  It also underlines other forms of contamination in need of action such as those linked with fuels spilling into soils as a result of strikes which in turn has the potential to percolate into the groundwater.  An estimated 1,380 Palestinians were killed and more than 50,000 injured during the recent hostilities.  The UNEP team visited several landfills at found items such as needles and bandages that were openly accessible and a risk to children and adults scavenging off the tips at nearly every site.  The report recommends that a dedicated, hazardous waste management facility be established to deal with these waste streams.

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