Is Israel’s Gaza bombing also a war on the climate?

Gaza’s water, soil and air have been devastated. And reconstruction will add to the carbon emissions.

Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip
Military vehicles like this Israeli tank in the Gaza Strip contribute to the effects of climate change from fuel emissions they release, to land they flatten [Handout via Reuters]

Many of the world’s leaders are gathered in Dubai for COP28, the annual United Nations summit on climate change. Some 2,400km (1,500 miles) to the West, meanwhile, Israel’s war on Gaza is raging.

Sixty days into the war, Israel’s bombs have killed about 16,000 people, including more than 6,600 children. But increasingly, experts are also worried about its effect on the environment and on Gaza’s ability to combat climate change.

From polluted water supplies to toxic smoke-filled air from burning buildings and bodies, every aspect of life in Gaza is now filled with some form of pollution.

“On the ground, this war has destroyed every aspect of Gaza’s environment,” Nada Majdalani, the Ramallah-based Palestine director for EcoPeace Middle East, told Al Jazeera.

Here’s a look at how the unstoppable bombardment of the enclave could further affect climate change in a region that has already seen temperatures increase, with projections of a 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) rise by the end of the century.

How has the Israeli bombing affected Gaza’s climate change measures?

Gaza has been under an Israeli siege for 16 years, with Israeli authorities holding the switch to — among other things — dependable access to fuel and power in the enclave.

As a result, the people of Gaza turned significantly to solar energy to power their homes.

“Gazans have been climate adaptive, and some 60 percent of their energy would come from solar power,” Majdalani said.

But Israeli bombing has damaged or destroyed thousands of buildings, many of which were roofed with solar panels.

“Destroying the solar panels is not only targeting the wellbeing of people, it’s diminishing the efforts of the Gazans in taking climate adaptation and measures to secure clean energy,” she said.

“These solar installations now lay in the rubble with the buildings destroyed, setting back Gaza’s climate change efforts.”

What are the main environmental concerns on the ground?

Amid the war, “getting figures and measurements of the extent of the damage” to Gaza’s environment is difficult, said Majdalani.

But some things are clear. Decaying bodies and contaminated water supplies are a “ticking time bomb” that will lead to the spread of diseases, she said.

“Right now this is the greatest concern, and everyone should be worried, including Israel. Having military might on the ground cannot protect them against the spread of cholera which is predicted.”

Impending rains are another concern. Majdalani’s team estimates 44 percent of gas, water and sanitation facilities have either been completely or partially damaged in Gaza since the war began. This includes water wells and wastewater treatment. Sewage water has already flooded Gaza streets, but if rain mixes with the filth, the risks of cholera and other gastrointestinal diseases increase further.

“The war damage to Gaza’s water sanitation and hygiene infrastructure makes flooding more likely with the winter rains,” Doug Weir, director of the Conflict and Environment Observatory, an independent research body based in the United Kingdom, said.

Even before the current war, inadequate sanitation infrastructure and electricity shortages meant that untreated sewage water was dumped into the sea and was responsible for more than one-quarter of illnesses. It was the primary cause of child morbidity in the Gaza Strip.

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the total shutdown of wastewater treatment plants in October, after Israel imposed a complete blockade on any fuel entering the strip, led to the release of more than 130,000 cubic metres of untreated sewage into the Mediterranean Sea daily, posing a grave environmental hazard.

With the destruction amid the current war, huge volumes of debris and waste are blocking sewers, warned Weir. This, he said, “will allow more standing water, with associated risks to human health from transmissible diseases from wastewater mixing with rainwater.”

Could there also be a rise in carbon emissions adding to global warming?

This war, like others before it, requires vast quantities of fossil fuel, leading to excessive carbon emissions and pollutants in the environment.

Earlier reports suggest 25,000 tonnes of munitions were dropped on Gaza in the first few weeks of the war. The carbon emissions from this would equate with the annual energy use of approximately 2,300 homes, or the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from approximately 4,600 passenger vehicles.

The world’s military forces also use fossil fuels to operate aircraft, tanks and weapons, accounting for approximately 5.5 percent of global emissions. The figure could be higher as defence forces are not bound to report their carbon emissions as it may undermine national security.

“Methodologies to count emissions from conflicts are in their infancy,” Weir told Al Jazeera.

But things are slowly changing.

Last week, the UN Environment Programme’s flagship Emissions Gap report, which is released before each COP meeting, made mention of conflict and military emissions for the first time, calling for more research into the topic.

What effects do the weapons used in Gaza have on the environment?

Groups like Human Rights Watch have also accused Israel of using white phosphorous munitions in Gaza, which added further to the pollution in the atmosphere, said Majdalani. “As Gaza enters the rainy season, we expect the rain to fall as acid rain, contaminated with white phosphorus.”

People who use plastic sheets to collect rainwater to drink directly, amid a shortage of drinking water, could be particularly at risk, she said.

In the first weeks of the war, the United Nations humanitarian agency OCHA reported Israel dropped 42 bombs every hour on Gaza.

In addition to the emissions from weapons, their manufacture also contributes to pollution, Weir explained. “Far more emissions come from them during production, for example in creating the metal for their casings.”

Reports from Ukraine suggested the fighting there released some 100 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere in the first seven months of the war.

So what about Gaza?

“We anticipate that the bulk of the emissions in this war will be from military fuel use – Israeli jet fuel and diesel, from urban and landscape fires caused either by the destruction of buildings or targeted attacks, and from the carbon costs of reconstructing Gaza.”

How will destroyed buildings and reconstruction add to climate change?

Other risks include fires, pulverised building materials that can include harmful substances like asbestos, and pollutants released from facilities containing hazardous materials.

Even rebuilding war-torn areas that have turned to rubble causes significant emissions. “Producing concrete and cement to rebuild generates a large quantity of carbon dioxide, which contributes to the climate crisis,” said Weir.

Lennard de Klerk, from the Initiative in GHG Accounting of War, did a rough calculation on how much GHG emission would result from rebuilding just residential and non-residential buildings that were destroyed or damaged after the first six weeks of the war.

He told Al Jazeera, “5.8 million tonnes of carbon emissions would be released to produce construction materials and the emissions of the construction activities itself”.

That is already a fifth of the projected emissions for the reconstruction of Ukraine from its war, which has been going on for 21 months as opposed to two months in Gaza.

Source: Al Jazeera