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September 27, 2009, Sunday

Gaza on the verge of humanitarian and environmental disaster

It has been over eight months since the Israeli operation Cast Lead came to an end on Jan. 18 of this year. During the first month following the end of the operation, the world media and both governmental and nongovernmental organizations were interested in the aftermath of the operation.

However, with the passage of time and the emergence of new issues, that interest has almost evaporated, save the continuous interest and attention of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN and its various organizations.

Both of these organizations try to highlight the severe humanitarian and environmental problems and the plight of the Gazans by issuing detailed and comprehensive reports on the post-operation situation in the Gaza Strip.

In this respect, the ICRC issued its latest report in June. The UN, through its Environment Programme (UNEP) earlier this month, tried to draw attention to the worsening humanitarian and environmental disaster facing Gaza.

The 97-page report, which is titled “Environmental Assessment of the Gaza Strip,” is the most detailed and comprehensive report on the current environmental situation in Gaza.

First of all, it says the most obvious impact of Cast Lead is the large quantity of demolition debris that was generated in Gaza. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimates that the total quantity demolition debris produced during the operation was close to 600,000 tons.

However, available data from various UN organizations do not distinguish between residential buildings and industrial or commercial buildings. So it is difficult to evaluate how many of these locations may contain hazardous materials. Nevertheless, there is a high probability that most building rubble is contaminated to some degree, including from residential buildings, where household hazardous materials such as disinfectants, medicines, solvents and other chemicals are present.

The second important environmental and humanitarian problem created by the Israeli operation is to do with the farmland, which is the main living means of most Gazans. In this respect, the report states that the operation led to the large-scale destruction of farmland, including orchards, greenhouses and open fields. The movement of large military vehicles, such as tanks and armored carriers, over agricultural land affected the texture and quality of the soil. Before the start of Cast Lead, the total cultivated area in Gaza was recorded as 170,000,000 square meters. According to an agricultural survey conducted by the UNDP/the Program of Assistance to the Palestinian People (PAPP), 17 percent of the total cultivated areas of Gaza were completely destroyed during the operation, including 17.5 percent of the orchards and 9.2 percent of the open fields.

With regards to the third problem, the ICRC report says that the water system in Gaza is on the verge of collapse due to pollution that has been worsened by damage to infrastructure during the operation. Sewage contamination of the underground water table far exceeds allowable levels set by the World Health Organization (WHO), the report states clearly. The same report also notes that it will take more than 20 years and a billion dollars to rehabilitate the water system in Gaza.

This contamination, which led wastewater to penetrate the aquifer, led to some extent to a decline in the quality of drinking water. The decline is not directly connected to the operation but rather to prolonged over-pumping from the aquifer, but nonetheless the operation made things worse in this respect.

 So, as seen from the report, Gaza is on the verge of both humanitarian and environmental disaster. It is of course a big shame on the part of the international community to forget and not to have cared for Gaza and the Gazans for eight long months. The only statesman who reminded people of the plight is course Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who brought the plight to the attention of the UN General Assembly last Thursday. For that, I thank him and wish for others to remember Gaza and Gazans.

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