Gaza now has a toxic ‘biosphere of war’ that no one can escape

Zeitoun & Ghassan Abu Sitta, The Conversation, 27 avril 2018

Gaza has
often been invaded for its water. Every army leaving or entering the Sinai
desert, whether Babylonians, Alexander the Great, the Ottomans, or the British,
has sought relief there. But today the water of Gaza highlights a toxic
situation that is spiralling out of control.
Saber / EPA

combination of repeated Israeli attacks and the sealing of its borders by
Israel and Egypt, have left the territory unable to process its water or waste.
Every drop of water swallowed in Gaza, like every toilet flushed or antibiotic
imbibed, returns to the environment in a degraded state.

When a
hospital toilet is flushed, for instance, it seeps untreated through the sand
into the aquifer. There it joins water laced with pesticides from farms, heavy
metals from industry, and salt from the ocean. It is then pumped back up by
municipal or private wells, joined with a small fraction of freshwater
purchased from Israel, and cycled back into people’s taps. This results in
widespread contamination and undrinkable
drinking water
, about 90% of which exceeds the World Health
Organisation (WHO) guidelines for salinity and chloride.
conditions are getting worse, thanks to the emergence of “superbugs”. These
multi-drug resistant organisms have developed thanks to an over-prescription
of antibiotics
by doctors desperate to treat the victims of the
seemingly endless assaults. The more injury there is, the more chance there is
of re-injury. Less regular access to clean water means infections
will spread faster
, bugs will be stronger, more antibiotics will be
prescribed – and the victims will be ever-more weakened.
up, at Khan Younis refugee camp in southern Gaza. Mohammed Saber / EPA

result is what has been termed a toxic ecology or “biosphere of
”, of which the noxious water cycle is just one part. A biosphere
refers to the interaction of all living things with the natural resources that
sustain them. The point is that sanctions, blockades and a permanent state of
war affects everything that humans might require in order to thrive, as water
becomes contaminated, air is polluted, soil loses its fertility and livestock succumb to
. People in Gaza who may have evaded bombs or sniper fire
have no escape from the biosphere.
surgeons, health anthropologists and water engineers – including ourselves –
have observed this situation developing wherever protracted
armed conflict or economic sanctions
grind on, as with water systems
in Basrah
and health systems throughout
or Syria.
It’s now well past time to clean it up.
There is
water – for some
It’s not
as if there is no fresh water nearby to alleviate the situation in Gaza. Just a
few hundred metres from the border are Israeli farms that use freshwater pumped
from Lake Tiberias (the Sea of Galilee) to grow herbs destined for European
supermarkets. As the lake is around 200km to the north and lies 200 metres
below sea level, a massive amount of energy is used to pump all that water. The
lake water is also fiercely contested by Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and
Palestinians in the West Bank, each of which is seeking their legal
entitlement of the Jordan River basin
Gaza City
on one side of the border, Israeli farms on the other. Google Maps
Israel desalinates so much seawater these days that its municipalities are
turning it down. Excess desalinated water is being used to irrigate crops, and
the country’s water authority is even planning to use it to refill
Tiberias itself
– a bizarre and irrational cycle, considering the
lake water continues to be pumped the other direction into the desert. There is
now so much manufactured water that some Israeli engineers can declare that
“today, no one in Israel experiences water scarcity”.

But the
same cannot be said for Palestinians, especially not those in Gaza. People
there have resorted to various ingenious filters, boilers, or under-the-sink or
neighbourhood-level desalination units to treat their water. But these sources
are unregulated, often full of germs, and just another reason children are
prescribed antibiotics – thus continuing the pattern of injury and re-injury.
Doctors, nurses, and water maintenance crews meanwhile try to do the impossible
with the minimal medical equipment at their disposal. 

implications for all those who invest in Gaza’s repeatedly
destroyed water and health projects
are clear. Providing more
ambulances or water tankers – the “truck and chuck” strategy – might work when
conflicts are at their most acute, but they are never more than a band aid.
Yes, things will get better in the short term, but soon enough Gaza will be
onto the next generation of antibiotics, and dealing with teflon-coated
must instead design programmes suited to the all-pervasive and incessant
biosphere of war. This means training many more doctors and nurses, providing
more medicines, and infrastructure support for health and water services. More
importantly, donors should build-in political “cover” to protect their
investments (if not the local children), perhaps by calling for those who
destroy the infrastructure to foot the bill for repairs.
And there
is an even bigger message for the rest of us. Our research shows that war is
more than simply armies and geopolitics – it extends across entire ecosystems.
If the dehumanising ideology behind the conflict was confronted, and if excess
water was diverted to people rather than to lakes, then the easily avoidable
repeated injuries suffered by people in Gaza would become a thing of the past.
Palestinians would soon find their biosphere a whole lot healthier.