Gaza’s extremely limited ability to adapt to climate change

Gaza’s extremely limited ability to adapt to climate change

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The upcoming COP27 conference in Egypt offers a valuable opportunity to consider the impacts of climate change on the Middle East and its most vulnerable people. Neighboring Egypt, the people of the Gaza Strip face some of the most devastating climate impacts, while having the least agency to respond.

Gaza already faces environmental disaster. With more than 2 million people living within 365 sq km, it is one of the most crowded territories on Earth. Surrounded by walls, the vast majority of Palestinians living in Gaza are unable to escape their deteriorating environment. Gaza suffers from debilitating shortages of water and electricity and lacks the necessary resources to fully treat sewage. Pollution of the aquifer, groundwater and the ocean has contributed to extensive public health problems.

Political factors are the primary causes of the area’s environmental problems. The blockade by Israel and Egypt heavily restricts goods into the territory, which creates enormous obstacles to maintaining — let alone updating — infrastructure. Israeli policies also strangle Gaza’s economy. The Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007 added to the territory’s problems, as most international agencies and governments will not work with Hamas. The Palestinian Authority is one conduit for providing funds to Gaza while trying to bypass Hamas, but conflict between the Palestinian factions has led to electricity shortages and salary cuts.

Climate change is now exacerbating Palestinians’ suffering in Gaza and threatens to further worsen the economy, agriculture, health and security. Extreme heat, shifts in precipitation patterns and sea-level rise pose the greatest climate threats to Gaza.

Extreme heat and more frequent, intense and prolonged droughts are already affecting the Eastern Mediterranean. Israeli research has found that the average temperature in Israel rose 1.4 degrees Celsius between 1950 and 2017. Various estimates suggest that average temperatures in Israel and the Palestinian territories will rise by another 1 to 1.5 C by 2050. The region will experience more intense heat waves — even reaching about 46 C by 2050. Summers will last longer, as winters shorten. These trends pose severe threats to Gaza’s already struggling agricultural sector and to the health of Gaza’s residents, most of whom do not have access to air conditioning or reliable refrigeration.

Climate change threatens to further worsen the Strip’s economy, agriculture, health and security

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Climate models project significant decreases in average precipitation, which will erode agriculture and basic health in Gaza. Drought also threatens the coastal aquifer. The aquifer is essential to agriculture and general life in Gaza, but it has been worn down by extensive overpumping, pollution and increased salinity; today, it is unsuitable for drinking. Drought will exacerbate these problems. Palestinians in the territories already consume below the minimum per capita amount of water recommended by the World Health Organization and water pollution is a leading cause of child illness and death in Gaza.

When rain does fall, it is likely to arrive in more intense bursts. Gaza’s farmers have already experienced the damage that intense rainfall can do to crops. Downpours can harm Gaza’s fragile infrastructure and overwhelm outdated drainage systems. It can cause flooding, as residents experienced in January, when floods damaged hundreds of homes. Given Gaza’s housing shortage — resulting from overcrowding and the destruction of homes during war — residents have few options to escape flood-prone areas.

Gaza lies alongside the ocean and overcrowding has pushed people to live close to the water. Some Gazans have already recognized that the sea level is rising, which will increase into the future. Rising seas erode beaches and increase saltwater intrusion into the aquifer. In some cases, it directly threatens homes and infrastructure. Other climate change impacts on the sea have reduced fishermen’s catches; Israel already restricts how far off the coast Gaza’s fishermen may go and climate change is adding to their frustrations.

Climate change’s impacts on Gaza have received little attention from the international community, Israel and the Palestinian leadership. The multiple immediate and severe challenges facing Gaza make it difficult to devote energy to longer-term risks. However, a few organizations and the Palestinian Authority have attempted to provide some recommendations. Some of the suggestions make sense, including improving the collection of meteorological data in Gaza, integrating climate change into aid organizations’ programming and promoting drip irrigation and drought-resistant crops.

However, the political reality undermines all options for developing Gaza’s resilience. It is easy to see how Palestinians’ lack of sovereignty, Hamas’ control of the territory and Israel’s blockade make any efforts to adapt to climate change extremely difficult. For example, solar power is a good option for Gaza and is expanding in the territory, but Israeli restrictions on the necessary materials slows development. Early warning systems might help alert people in Gaza to a severe weather event, but where can they go? Updating infrastructure — for example, to improve drainage systems, preserve water and retrofit buildings — is crucial for adaptation, but Israel restricts many of the necessary materials from entering the territory.

The Palestinians of Gaza have contributed very little to climate change. However, they are especially vulnerable to its effects and have extremely limited ability to adapt. They will need outside help but, fundamentally, they need an end to their isolation and a resolution to the conflict with Israel.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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