Climate change highlights Israeli-Palestinian inequities
Some of the recent global demonstrations calling for more action on climate change highlighted the inequities of climate change impacts. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict offers a clear example of environmental inequities that are worsened by climate change.
A rise in sea levels could pose a risk to Israel and Gaza. The sea level is projected to rise by 0.1 to 0.4 meters by the year 2100 along the Gaza coastline, according to a 2017 USAID fact sheet. Saltwater intrusion into the already-stressed coastal aquifer will likely worsen. A rise in sea levels could also threaten land, soil and infrastructure by the coast, while the warming ocean could damage fish stocks.
Temperatures will rise. A study by researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU), published in August 2018 in the International Journal of Climatology, projected “a general increase in seasonal mean temperature” in the eastern Mediterranean, including Israel and the Palestinian territories. The study also found that, by 2100, the hot and dry summer period will increase from four months to six, while winter will shorten from four months to two.
The TAU study projected that total seasonal precipitation will decrease by as much as 40 percent in parts of the region. Some other reports have suggested that rainfall reductions for Israel may be less — in the range of 4 to 8 percent — but even that is clearly problematic for an already arid region. When rain comes, it is likely to be more intense in some areas.
Hotter temperatures, longer dry seasons and less overall rainfall will increase the risks of prolonged, severe droughts. These risks appear to have already increased. A NASA study published in 2016 found that “the recent drought that began in 1998 in the eastern Mediterranean Levant region, which comprises Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey, is likely the worst drought of the past nine centuries.”
Desertification and brushfires will likely increase. The region has experienced several heatwaves in recent years that negatively affected crops, livestock and people. When rain does come, if it is more intense it may cause floods.
The changing climate will have many effects on Israel and the Occupied Territories, but the most important one will be decreased water supply. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza already have insufficient water, consuming below the minimum per capita recommended by the World Health Organization. Israelis have far greater access to water and much higher consumption rates.
The changing climate will have many effects on Israel and the Palestinian territories, but the most important one will be decreased water supply
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Israel controls the vast majority of water resources, even those that originate in the West Bank, and ensures that Israelis, including settlers in the West Bank, receive much greater allocation than Palestinians. Israeli forces also regularly destroy Palestinian water infrastructure and collection systems, such as cisterns. Palestinians sometimes have no option but to purchase expensive bottled water from Israel.
The blockade of Gaza makes it difficult to import the materials needed to maintain or repair water infrastructure, exacerbating the urgent issues of water shortages and contamination. The lack of water significantly constrains Palestinian agriculture.
Inequities in access to water are a long-running issue in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and highlight the reality that, while climate change will affect both peoples, Palestinians will bear a much greater burden. Israel controls nearly all the water resources and tends to view water access as a zero-sum competition, suggesting that, as water resources become stressed, it will increasingly reduce access for Palestinians.
Palestinians have made attempts to recognize and prepare for the challenges of climate change. They joined the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement in 2016, and the Palestinian authorities have established a National Committee on Climate Change.
But, fundamentally, the Palestinians lack the sovereignty that is necessary to implement policies that could effectively mitigate the risks climate change poses to them. Without sufficient control over land, water supplies, trade routes, electrical supplies, tax revenues and more, there is little that Palestinian authorities can do to defend their people’s interests in shared resources and undertake adaptation measures.
There is potential for climate change to offer a new avenue for Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. While the impacts are highly unequal, both Israelis and Palestinians will have to adapt to climate change. Their populations live in such close proximity that health effects on one can affect the other.
Israel also belongs to the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, and has numerous measures in place to combat and adapt to climate change. While a 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that Israelis were the least concerned about climate change among 26 countries surveyed, 38 percent of Israelis see it as a “major threat.”
There are Israeli and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations working on environmental and climate change issues, creating opportunities for cooperation. However, any cooperative efforts would have to recognize the extra challenges that Palestinians face.
The alternative is that climate change increasingly fuels conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as they fight for diminishing, essential resources. As climate change threatens both populations, it is a good time to reconsider innovative, cooperative solutions.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch