By Ramzi Sansur
According to many sources, environmental security is defined as “the relation between the environment and the security of humans and nature.” This sounds a little abstract to many people but on close analysis, we find a number of issues that address this vague definition of environmental security. One of the more import issues in this regard is the conservation of nature and natural resources, as they are the lungs of the earth on which humanity depends. The destruction of ecosystems has already affected human welfare. Climate change, floods, forest fires, pollution, overfishing, and over-exploitation of natural resources are but a few examples that are leading to environmental “insecurity,” to say the least.

The environmental security situation in Palestine is not very different from that of the rest of the world.

• Water resources: Water resources in Palestine, a semi-arid region of the Middle East, are under extreme threat of drying up. This is not an imaginary situation. Looking at such resources a hundred years back we find that many springs have dried up, the aquifers are drying up, Lake Hula has become a pond, most swamps have disappeared, Lake Tiberias is drying up, the Jordan River has become a stream, the Dead Sea has shrunk, and rainfall has become sporadic, scarce, and unpredictable.

• Forests: It is said that forests once covered all of Palestine and beyond. Over many centuries human activity has caused most forests to disappear. The implications of this reality include the loss of biodiversity, the reduction in land-based water resources, and reduced rainfall as forests induce precipitation and help conserve water.

• Desertification: Human activities combined with climate change have increased the proportion of land areas that have lost their vegetation cover. The general implications of this as well as the effects on human welfare are serious and have been well documented.

• Population change: Palestine has experienced a dramatic population increase especially as a result of the creation of Israel and the millions of people who have been brought to colonise this once-rich land, “the land of milk and honey.” This population increase seriously threatens all natural resources in the land. In fact, population dynamics are threatening water and land resources and taking a toll on ecosystems and recreation areas.

• Pollution: Like many other areas in the world Palestine is not immune to pollution. In some parts of the country water resources have become contaminated as a result of agricultural activities, increased industrialisation, and wastewater, among others. Land resources are no better with chemical “attacks” from agro-industrial activities.

• Conflict: There is no doubt that military activities have caused serious destruction of some ecosystems as well as some urban areas and have led to contamination of such systems. Examples of such destruction are the situation in Gaza and the ecosystem destruction on the eastern slopes of the mountainous region of the West Bank where military outposts abound with associated military activities.

Let us look closely at some situations. Take, for example, waste treatment, solid waste, and sewage. To initiate any activity in this regard takes much effort and many years of negotiation before a project is approved, not by the Palestinians but by the Israelis. The whole of Palestine is considered “Eretz Israel,” and permits from the Israelis are needed for these projects; the fact that most such projects are located in the unfortunate “Area C” means that permits are denied even after years of negotiations and that much of the donor money is spent without achieving the project goal. Other projects that have been implemented, such as wastewater treatment facilities, are targeted by Israel during military activities, a situation which leads to a dangerous public health threat, similar to the on-going situation in Gaza.

Water security is practically absent for Palestinians. The bulk of water resources goes to the Israelis and their settlements, and the better and cleaner water resources are located in the West Bank. All of this has been documented by the United Nations and other national and international bodies. Thus we can easily say that Palestinians suffer from water insecurity. Water insecurity leads to public health insecurity and retards development, which thus results in development insecurity. Such policies will eventually backfire on the Israelis, though to a lesser extent, I believe, than on Palestinians. And the list goes on and on.

It is clear, however, that Palestine suffers from the same environmental issues as other countries. The Israeli occupation and associated practices are a major component in environmental security. In fact, one can easily deduce that Palestine suffers from environmental insecurity and that we are heading towards disasters if we are not already experiencing them.

So what are the solutions and what can we do? This is a difficult question to pose and much more difficult to answer in light of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the continued occupation, settlement expansion, and military activities. If Palestine were independent then one could issue environmental safety legislation and offer practical solutions. Unfortunately this is not the case as continued occupation and settlement and military activities overshadow any initiatives that Palestinians may undertake. Indeed this is a gloomy picture of the situation on the ground. But there is always light at the end of the tunnel if decision makers have a minimum of goodwill and good intentions.

Many people – both Palestinians and Israelis – are concerned by the policies of what led to this gloomy situation of environmental security in Palestine. There are officials and organisations on both sides that are crying foul and trying their best to make their voices heard, much to the dislike of many decision makers, especially Israeli decision makers, who determine policies and practices on the ground. Inside Israel there has been a movement, albeit in its infancy, that is trying to influence decision makers to attempt to reverse environmental deterioration. Their major handicap relates to what the Israelis perceive as national security. The same is true for Palestinians who are struggling to maintain a form of stability in an environmentally unstable situation. Such individuals and organisations must be given a better chance to voice their opinions. Funds and donor money should be targeting the various components of environmental security mentioned above; there has been enough expenditure on sterile workshops, conferences, meetings, and trainings that have little impact on improving the lives of people. I am certain that people on both sides, when faced with the true implications of the current environmental situation, will think twice before continuing those damaging policies whose consequences are known and understood by any sane person.

I know for sure that grandiose plans such as transporting fresh water to the area from other countries or building canals and pipes to “correct” water insecurity will eventually falter if they materialise at all. The solution lies within and not without, for if the “within” is not changed then environmental insecurity will continue till the day when there is nothing left to sustain the population.

Ramzi M. Sansur holds a doctorate from the Institute of Environmental and Occupation Health Sciences of New York University. In 1982 he established the Center for Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at Birzeit University. He is currently on leave working as a consultant for the Ministry of Health and the general supervisor of the Central Public Health Labs. He is also the general director of EcoMed, an environmental health NGO. A pioneer in the environmental area, Dr. Sansur has been involved in many wide-ranging environmental projects.