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War may cause 'irreversible' damage to Gaza's environment and health

Building debris may take US$647 million and 15 years to clean up. Around 800,000 tons might qualify as hazardous waste.

Some 39 million tons of debris could take 15 years to clean up (AN/PRCS)

The unprecedented scale and intensity of Israel's military offensive in Gaza is causing rapidly escalating environmental damage that risks inflicting "irreversible" harm to its natural ecosystems and public health.

The U.N. Environment Program's preliminary assessment on Tuesday, conducted at the request of Palestine, paints a devastating picture of Gaza on the brink of catastrophe after eight months of relentless bombardment.

"Significant and growing environmental damage in Gaza risks locking people into a painful, long recovery," said UNEP chief Inger Andersen.

The aerial assault on Gaza, the most devastating bombardment of an urban area in decades, has created 39 million tons of debris – more than five times the wreckage from the 2017 international military campaign against the Islamic State's final stronghold in Mosul, Iraq.

"Water and sanitation have collapsed," Andersen said. "Coastal areas, soil and ecosystems have been severely impacted. All of this is deeply harming people's health, food security and Gaza's resilience."

The enormous damage – enough to cover every square meter of Gaza with 107 kilograms of debris – unleashed unexploded ordnance, asbestos and medical waste, posing grave threats to human health.

The United Nations' environment agency noted human remains are buried in the building debris, which could take US$647 million and 15 years to clean up. Around 800,000 tons may qualify as hazardous waste due to asbestos contamination.

Munitions contain heavy metals and explosive chemicals that contaminate soil and water sources, UNEP found. Elevated levels of nickel, copper and lead were detected in bomb craters on farmland.

Destroyed solar panels may release another 1,675 kilograms of lead and other heavy metals into the environment.

A UNEP map shows the concentration of 39,200,978 tons of debris across Gaza.
A UNEP map shows the concentration of 39,200,978 tons of debris across Gaza.

200,000 buildings destroyed

All of the contamination puts Gaza's population at risk of chemical poisoning and increases its agriculture's vulnerability to desertification, UNEP said.

The Mines Advisory Group, a partner of the U.N. Mine Action Service, estimated in February that over 25,000 tons of explosives, "equivalent to two nuclear bombs," had been used in Gaza since the war began.

Reconstruction of 200,000 buildings destroyed in the strikes are expected to lead to carbon emissions comparable to the annual emissions of Sweden or Portugal.

The report relies on data from late 2023 and early 2024 that likely does not fully capture the current severity of the crisis. Since then, it has escalated into what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres called "a humanitarian hellscape."

With 84% of health facilities damaged or destroyed and the remaining facilities lacking enough power or water to operate, Gazans have little in the way of health care, medicine, or life-saving treatments.

"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," said Andersen.

Analysis of damage to tree crops, greenhouses and other agriculture in Gaza published by UNEP.
Analysis of damage to tree crops, greenhouses and other agriculture in Gaza published by UNEP. (Source: Damage analysis of 3-m PlanetScope imagery © Planet Labs PBC by Dr. He Yin of Kent State University)

Infrastructure on the brink of total collapse

Before the war, Gaza made strides to improve its environmental practices. International partners invested heavily in its wastewater treatment and other infrastructure.

The efforts helped reduce pollution that accompanied recurring conflicts, rapid urbanization, high population density, political instability, and climate change.

Damage to critical infrastructure in Gaza is estimated at around US$18.5 billion, or 97% of the GDP of Gaza and the West Bank, the World Bank and U.N. reported.

Five out of six wastewater treatment plants are damaged, causing raw sewage to contaminate beaches, coastal waters, soil, and freshwater reserves. Damage to more than 50% of Gaza's water infrastructure also has caused water supplies to plummet to less than 5% of pre-war levels.

That leaves the population with just two to eight liters a person per day, compared to 85 litres before the conflict.

Gaza's solid waste management systems are crippled, with just one of the six facilities still operational. Within two months of the war's start in November, 1,200 tons of rubbish were accumulating daily in refugee camps and makeshift shelters that now house the 75% of Gazans displaced by the conflict.

Informal dumpsites have sprung up as a result, posing more risks of soil and groundwater contamination, particularly from hospital waste containing biohazards, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals.

Tunnel systems used by Hamas raise concerns about groundwater contamination and land instability, UNEP said, depending on their construction and the extent of Israeli flooding efforts to destroy them.

Agriculture and food security have been casualties of the war, with over 40% of cropland, orchards and irrigated land damaged, amounting to an estimated US$629 million in losses.

The World Health Organization warned last week the threat of famine in Gaza continues, with a "significant proportion" of Gazans already facing "catastrophic hunger and famine-like conditions."

The most urgent priority, U.N. officials say, is halting the destruction.