This report provides an overview of the current state of the environment in the occupied
Palestinian territory. Building on earlier work by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the report includes analysis of the current state of the environment, including biodiversity, water, land and soil degradation, depletion of natural resources, urbanization and waste management. The report describes trends and identifies emerging environmental challenges, including environmental governance challenges. This analysis is intended to provide a basis for evidence-informed policies.
Methodological approach and sources
UNEP uses the drivers-pressures-state-impact response causal framework approach. This represents a systems analysis view in which the driving forces of social and economic development exert pressures on the environment, and change the state of the environment. This change leads to impacts on human well-being and ecosystem health, which in turn triggers human responses to remedy these impacts. These responses influence the state of the environment, either directly or indirectly, through driving forces or pressures. Existing policies should be assessed in terms of how they address the drivers and impacts of environmental challenges.
The evidence in this report was gathered through the following methods:
- Review of data and analysis from available government sources, reports by international organizations and peer-reviewed scientific papers;
- Consultations with Palestinian and Israeli officials and other stakeholders, undertaken during missions in December 2018 and February to March 2019, and via follow-up calls and correspondence; and
- Field visits to over 40 sites by a UNEP delegation to the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and to Israel, undertaken in February and March 2019, to review and record evidence of noticeable environmental change.
The report was also reviewed by expert practitioners before publication in 2020.
Drivers of environmental change in the occupied Palestinian territory
In analysing drivers of the state of the environment in the occupied Palestinian territory, this report arranges drivers under the following headings: climate change and underlying environmental conditions; socioeconomic drivers; and environmental governance constraints.
Climate change and underlying environmental conditions
The occupied Palestinian territory lies within a generally hot, arid and water-scarce region that has experienced an increase in temperatures over the past fifty years. Climate projections indicate that by mid-century, the temperature will increase by between 1.2°C and 2.6°C. Climate change modifies the water cycle by altering precipitation patterns and seasons: average monthly precipitation may fall by 8–10 mm by the end of the century, and seasonal rainfall patterns may also change, leading to greater aridity. Climate-related hazards, such as heatwaves, droughts, floods, cyclones, and sand and dust storms, are projected to become more frequent and severe.
High population growth is often a significant driver of environmental change. The Palestinian population is increasing at a yearly rate of 2.7 per cent. The total population in 2019 was estimated at almost 5 million and is expected to increase to 6.9 million by 2030. Population density is very high in Gaza and some areas of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Urbanization has occurred rapidly with inadequate planning. Population growth puts pressure on natural resources and service delivery systems: the amount of solid waste generated each year in Gaza, for example, is projected to increase to over 3,000 tonnes in 2030, from around 1,900 tonnes in 2015. Population growth has also contributed to the increase in land value, leading to the sale of land for urban infrastructure and the expansion of building onto agricultural lands. Settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem puts additional pressure on limited natural resources, further contributing to the pollution of air, soil and water.
Environmental governance constraints
The political situation limits the policy space for sound environmental governance, and impedes the use of best practice solutions to address natural resource scarcity and urbanization challenges. Environmental governance constraints drive environmental change in the following ways:
- Palestinian movement and access to land is restricted to specific areas, leading to high population density, poorly planned urbanization, stresses on infrastructure, and degradation of accessible agricultural and rangeland. Gaza is enclosed, and in the West Bank urbanization and agriculture have been affected by the constraints Palestinians face in land-use planning. It remains almost impossible for Palestinians to obtain Israeli issued construction permits in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
- Palestinian policymakers and professionals cannot employ best practice environment management solutions. In Gaza, management of freshwater, wastewater, and solid waste is impacted by the closure, as well as by the intra-Palestinian divide which impedes environmental governance by the Palestinian Authority. Insufficient waste management capabilities and energy supplies have led to the contamination of soil and groundwater, and the discharge of sewage and wastewater into the Mediterranean Sea. Restrictions on the use of water and land, and on the import of materials and technologies, have affected farming practices: use of irrigation is limited, and farmers use excessive chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase crop yield.
- Lack of political progress has led to unclear and overlapping environmental governance arrangements. The Palestinian Authority faces difficulties in applying Palestinian laws in Areas A and B, and is unable to apply these laws in Area C, or – due to the intra-Palestinian division – in Gaza. Israel applies separate sets of laws to Israeli individuals in the occupied Palestinian territory, and to Israeli settlements, industrial installations and closed military areas. The joint environmental management arrangements that were established as part of the 1995 Interim Agreement are only partly functional. The simultaneous application of different sets of laws, and law enforcement capabilities, in the same territory, leads to data and enforcement gaps.
- Israeli settlements and security measures cause environmental change and degradation. Examples include the uprooting of large numbers of trees (especially olive trees) during the clearance of land for military bases, buffer zones, bypass roads (which are generally inaccessible to Palestinians) and the separation barrier. Despite mitigation efforts by Israel, such infrastructure has impacted delicate ecosystems and biodiversity.
State of the environment: key findings
UNEP found substantial evidence of environmental change and degradation in the occupied Palestinian territory. Surface and groundwater courses and marine ecosystems are being degraded by the discharge of untreated wastewater and by leaching from solid waste and unregulated industries. Rapid population growth, the growth of Palestinian urban areas, the expansion of Israeli settlements, landuse changes and the unsustainable use of natural resources have put severe pressure on ecosystem goods and services.
These factors present mounting challenges to efforts to maintain healthy ecosystems, conserve biodiversity and prepare for the adverse effects of climate change.
- Gaza is facing a water crisis. The Coastal Aquifer groundwater level has dropped to more than 10 metres below mean sea level. The annual safe yield of the aquifer is 55–60 million cubic meters (mcm); however, approximately 160–200 mcm per year are being extracted. Only 4 per cent of the 180 mcm of water extracted annually by Gaza residents from the aquifer are potable. Access to safe drinking water in Gaza via the public water network fell from 98.3 per cent in 2000 to only 10.5 per cent in 2014. Intensive use of agricultural pesticides, along with the inflow of sewage into the Coastal Aquifer, has resulted in nitrate concentration of 300 mg/L: six times higher than World Health Organization recommendations.
Chloride concentrations are also high. These contaminants present particular risks to children and pregnant women. Waterassociated diseases account for approximately 26 per cent of childhood diseases in Gaza and are a primary cause of child morbidity.
- Marine ecosystems, human health and desalination operations are impacted by largescale discharge of untreated wastewater from Gaza. The amount of untreated or partially treated sewage/wastewater that flows daily from the Gaza Strip into the Mediterranean Sea increased from 90,000 cubic meters (m³) per day in 2012 to 100,000 m³ per day in 2016 and 110,000 m³ per day in 2018.
- Freshwater courses and groundwater in the West Bank and Gaza are being polluted by waste from Palestinian towns and villages, and from Israeli settlements. Untreated wastewater infiltrates into the groundwater of the Mountain Aquifer, affecting its quality: localized high concentrations of chlorides and nitrates have been identified. The Mountain Aquifer is contaminated by leaching of toxins from unregulated vehicle dismantling and e-waste industries.
- Demand for water is increasing, primarily due to population growth. The annual domestic supply gap for Gaza and the West Bank is projected to be approximately 79 and 92 mcm respectively by 2030 unless supply and service options are expanded. Half of the Palestinian wells in the West Bank have dried up over the last 20 years. Quantities of water purchased from the Israeli water company, Mekorot, are increasing, and Palestinian Authority debt for such water purchases was estimated at US$335 million in 2017. Non-revenue water – which includes leakages through the system, theft and water supplied to customer who are not billed – is high: approximately 82 mcm of water is lost every year. On average, non-revenue water ranges from 29 per cent at the service providers’ level and 15 per cent (10 mcm/year) at the bulk water supply level in the West Bank to 40 per cent in Gaza. Some municipalities lose as much as 53 per cent of their water.
- Climate change will exacerbate strains on water management structures. The potential for water harvesting and wastewater recycling is underutilized, and institutional arrangements to manage the shared aquifer systems are insufficient. Activities such as deepening and rehabilitation of wells, protection of springs, wastewater recycling and implementation of small-scale desalination units are limited or unsustainable due to lack of support.
- Solid waste disposal capacities are inadequate. Communities, municipalities and village councils struggle to cover the costs of waste collection, transportation and disposal. In 2019, an estimated 343 tonnes of solid waste per day in the West Bank and 443 tonnes per day in the Gaza Strip were disposed in dumpsites, some of which are located adjacent to agricultural land or urban areas. This waste contaminates the soils in these areas. In Gaza, there are numerous challenges relating to solid waste management, including a lack of investment in environmental management systems and the high quantity of debris that have been generated by military conflicts since 2000.
- Soil pollution comes from the discharge of raw and untreated wastewater into wadis and agricultural lands, the remains from stone quarries and the stone and marble industry in the form of dust or slurry, and the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Each year, 502.7 tonnes of pesticides are used in the West Bank. Changing crop patterns are also affecting soil biodiversity.
- Soil, water and air are being polluted by unregulated e-waste, used vehicle processing and other industries. The amount of e-waste coming from Israel and processed in Palestinian villages is estimated to be 57,000 to 64,000 tonnes annually, supporting over 380 businesses, 1,000 jobs, and generating over US$28.5 million per year. The illegal disposal and treatment of e-waste have led to environmental and health hazards affecting people on both sides of the Green Line. When active, burning sites release toxic black smoke that includes benzene, dioxins, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls. In the West Bank, researchers have identified a strong spatial association between e-waste burn sites and childhood lymphoma. Efforts by Palestinian, Israeli and international entities to address these issues have not achieved a sustained reduction in pollution. In Gaza, unregulated industries are contributing to high incidences of childhood lead poisoning.
- Eleven Israeli industrial complexes are located in the West Bank, and small scale industrial/ commercial activities are located in Israeli settlements. Israel applies environmental regulations in these installations, but inside settlements the Israeli licensing and monitoring mechanisms for industries are less exhaustive in certain aspects than those applied inside
Israel. Israeli companies also own and administer at least eight quarries in the West Bank. A further seven quarries are under Palestinian ownership. In several cases, nearby towns and villages are affected by chemical and wastewater runoff, odours and dust from industries and quarries.
- Land use is changing, and Palestinians are experiencing rapid urbanization. The urban population has almost tripled in the past 25 years. Between 1992 and 2015, the land area under artificial surfaces increased from 1.4 to 4.3 per cent, whereas the area under vegetation cover decreased. This change in land use increases vulnerability to extreme weather events, including flash floods. The proportionate increase in built-up areas in Gaza
– from 8.25 per cent in 1982 to 25 per cent in 2010 – has also reduced groundwater recharge. The percentage of land area under cultivation has decreased from 36.54 to 24.4 per cent between 1997 and 2015. Rangelands have been exposed to overgrazing for long periods of time, leading to the disappearance of plant species and to soil erosion.
- Earthquakes and landslides pose the greatest geophysical risk in the occupied Palestinian territory. A third of surveyed buildings in the West Bank are likely to suffer high damage during an earthquake, and another 40 per cent are likely to suffer moderate damage. Refugee camps are highly vulnerable, yet they are not covered by the Palestinian national disaster risk reduction mechanism.
- Current environmental governance arrangements have led to data and enforcement gaps. Resolving environmental governance challenges requires enhanced cooperation between relevant Palestinian and Israeli authorities.
There are significant gaps in environmental data relating to the occupied Palestinian territory. Information on fauna and soil biodiversity is limited and there is no systematic recording of soil fertility parameters. Accurate assessment of land use trends is also lacking. Official data on transboundary waste movements of all types, including hazardous, solid waste and e-waste are not available.
There are also significant data gaps relating to water, including on withdrawal from groundwater sources in the West Bank and water quality data. A further scientific assessment would be warranted to quantify the damage caused by over-abstraction and pollution of the Mountain Aquifer and Coastal Aquifer. Water losses in delivery systems, and locations of such losses, should be assessed accurately. Steps then need to be taken to minimize loss. More precise estimates of the reduction in water availability due to the impact of climate change also need to be calculated.
This report reviews environmental challenges, constraints, and opportunities in the primary environmental sub-sectors, including terrestrial and marine ecosystems, biodiversity, water, air quality and climate, the urban environment, land degradation and soil contamination. Recommended actions within these subsectors are listed at the end of each chapter. All recommendations should be implemented: failure to address any aspect of environmental management and protection covered in this report would have serious implications for the future.
Environmental policy development and implementation in the occupied Palestinian territory occurs in a context of uncertainty, division and political impasse. In late 2019, the United Nations Secretary-General expressed great concern about the “challenges to the international consensus to achieve an end to the occupation and the realization of a negotiated two-State solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and reiterated his call for “concrete steps in support of ending the occupation and realizing a lasting peace.” In this context, and mindful of constraints to development planning and environmental governance, it is necessary to highlight environmental issues that must be resolved urgently, to prevent irreversible damage to ecosystems and human health. Other issues must be resolved over a longer timeframe – starting now, and aiming for results by the middecade, or by 2030.
Priorities for environmental protection and management are described below:
- Tackle severe pollution from waste, especially e-waste and other hazardous pollution from the informal e-waste sector and unregulated industries is already affecting human health, particularly the health of children; if uncontrolled, it may have major, long-term health impacts, which cannot be confined to specific geographical areas. Solutions are available and must urgently be implemented, with full cooperation from all stakeholders, in line with target 12.4 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
- Scale up efforts to harvest, preserve, treat and reuse water. Climate change will exacerbate water scarcity, which will in turn impact the Palestinian environment and economy. An urgent, concerted push is required to protect the Coastal Aquifer. Water management faces many challenges: work must accelerate now, across the occupied Palestinian territory, in the following areas:
- Enhance rainwater harvesting, where relevant using new technologies, to increase the availability of potable water and water for agriculture;
- Reduce losses from the water distribution system;\Significantly reduce pollution of fresh watercourses and the Mediterranean Sea, in line inter alia with targets 6.3 and 14.1 of the
Sustainable Development Goals;
- Increase the reuse of wastewater and
educate key stakeholders such as farmers; and
- Enhance wastewater treatment in Gaza – without which investment in desalination will not yield full benefits for the people of Gaza.
- Invest in natural resource-based livelihoods that promote climate resilience and land restoration. Initiatives such as the Greening Palestine Programme and use of drought tolerant fodder crops in rangeland have already contributed to small increases in grassland and tree-covered areas in the West Bank. Broadening such initiatives, and investing in sustainable production, processing and marketing of non-timber forest products such as olives, honey, dates and medicinal plants, would deliver major benefits to people and the environment.
- Explore and develop options for boosting the green economy in the occupied Palestinian territory. From an economic and human security perspective, growth and job creation are of high importance. In seeking to develop a lowcarbon, resource-efficient and socially inclusive economy, Palestinians can draw on relatively high levels of tertiary education, and high and growing human development indicators. Initially it will be important to focus on making the traditional sectors more sustainable and cleaner, to allow time for just transition. To facilitate green growth, the Government of Israel needs to lift relevant restrictions.
- Address environmental data gaps and shortcomings. Agreement on baseline indicators for priority sectors (e-waste and wastewater, among others), and a decision to investigate where data systems are reporting widely varying findings, would help ensure that knowledge about the environment could be fed appropriately into environmental decision-making. UNEP could provide technical support to enhance cooperative knowledge management and scientific data exchange around environmental issues.
- Ensure that environmental and climate-related priorities are incorporated into strategic plans. Environmental protection and climate change risk management should be integrated fully into the Palestinian national development plans and strategies. International actors, including donors and United Nations entities, also need to ensure that their planning and investment strategies are informed by environmental issues and especially by climate-related risks.
- Establish functioning shared environmental monitoring, management and governance. It has been evident for well over a decade that the systems for joint environmental management that were established within the 1995 Interim Agreement are insufficient. To protect the environment and natural resources for current and future generations, Palestinians and Israelis need to establish and agree on transparent, evidence-based systems for environmental governance. These systems need to include:
- mutually agreed data collection and monitoring provisions;
- clarity about which environmental laws apply in the occupied Palestinian territory, and which entities are responsible for enforcing those laws;
- processes to ensure coherent urban and land use planning;
- effective mechanisms for transparency and accountability; and
- processes for engagement and participation by stakeholders regarding environmental governance, including civil society and the private sector.
To protect the environment, a functioning, shared environmental management and governance system will be necessary – whether or not progress at the broader political level is achieved.
- Promote and invest in urban resilience. This includes climate resilience, which can be achieved by providing access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all (target 11.2 of the Sustainable Development Goals); enhancing air quality and municipal and other waste management (target 11.6); and increasing access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces, in particular for women and children, older persons and persons with disabilities (target 11.7). It is also critical to focus direct spending on sustainable infrastructure (clean and renewable energy, clean water, sanitation, public transport, waste management and communication).
- Work with public and private sector investors to promote sustainable economic development. This includes greening of the agriculture and fishing sector; helping the producers to meet sustainability standards and support for packaging, labelling and marketing; and tackling existing constraints by proactively seeking partnerships from countries and companies interested and able to invest in a green economy.
- Fund and implement climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. Adaptation and mitigation measures are described in the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) and National Adaptation Plans (NAP) developed by the State of Palestine. Some measures require substantial investment – for example, the transport target includes a 25 per cent shift from private cars to public transport by 2030.
Since agriculture is the sector most sensitive to climate variability and change, additional investments are needed in irrigation, improved water efficiency and climate-smart agriculture. Protecting the Gaza coastline from the impacts of sea level rise, and upgrading utility systems to include renewable energy sources, will also require additional planning and resources.
- Scale up ecosystem restoration. Restoration of landscapes and watercourses could deliver major benefits in terms of climate resilience and land productivity. Several policies are proposed, including new technologies in water harvesting, crop rotation, grazing and rotation management, and enhanced use of agroforestry.