EXCLUSIVE | Israel-Palestine struggling in the clutches of unseen environmental crisis: NWF VP

| Updated: 11 November, 2023 4:20 pm IST
Israel and Palestine are going through an environmental crisis too.

NEW DELHI: It has been more than a month since the conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted. Israel has conducted intense airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, resulting in the loss of several thousand lives. The objective is to eliminate Hamas militants who executed bold attacks on October 7, leading to civilian casualties and numerous hostages. However, such wars have profound and lasting impacts on the environment. The extensive use of military weaponry, including airstrikes and ground combat, leads to significant destruction of ecosystems, infrastructure, and agricultural lands.

In an exclusive interview with The New Indian, Mustafa Santiago Ali, Executive Vice President of Conservation and Justice for the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), pointed out that the ongoing war could result in soil degradation and water contamination, causing disruptions to the intricate balance of regional ecosystems. Ali also drew attention to the environmental impact of the conflict, noting that the combustion of fuels and explosive materials releases pollutants into the air, leading to the deterioration of air quality. This, in turn, poses health risks for both the local population and neighbouring areas. He also discussed the legal frameworks governing the conflict, including those outlined in the Geneva Convention.

Olive Trees Destroyed:

Olive trees hold profound significance in Palestine, extending far beyond their botanical importance. Woven into the cultural and economic fabric of Palestinian society, these trees are emblematic of heritage and resilience. For generations, Palestinians have relied on olives as a staple crop, with the olive industry serving as a vital source of income for many families.

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Speaking about the widespread destruction of olive trees during conflicts, he said, “Olive trees are one of the main sources of income for folks in Palestine, and we know that those have been destroyed and will continue to be destroyed. There’s also loss of vegetation that happens when we have these wars that lead to soil erosion and further decertification as well as desiccation.”

War’s Impact On Air Quality:

Wars, like the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, unleash severe air pollution with far-reaching consequences. Aerial bombings and the destruction of infrastructure release a cocktail of toxic substances into the air, including particulate matter, heavy metals, and hazardous chemicals. The burning of buildings and vehicles further compounds the problem, emitting pollutants that pose serious health risks.

The combustion of fuels and explosive materials, during wars, releases pollutants into the air, resulting in the degradation of air quality.

The ensuing air pollution not only jeopardises the immediate well-being of those in the conflict zone but also extends its detrimental effects to neighbouring regions. The fine particulate matter generated during warfare can lead to respiratory issues, cardiovascular problems, and long-term health complications. The environmental toll of such conflicts amplifies the urgency of addressing the broader impact of war on both human health and the planet.

Highlighting how both Israel and Palestine is grappling with a concurrent environmental crisis, Ali said, “It’s a tragedy what’s happening there, but the long-term impacts to the climate are very significant and often don’t get noticed. Air pollution arises from the bombings and the collapse of buildings which often releases various toxic chemicals.

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“Consequently, this air pollution contributes to severe health issues such as cancer and exacerbates conditions like asthma. The impact is particularly concerning for children caught in the conflict, as evidenced by distressing images. The deleterious effects of air pollution significantly affect their lives and well-being.”

Contaminating Water Sources:

The destruction caused by warfare often results in toxic contaminants entering water bodies, posing risks to both the quantity and quality of water sources. Infrastructure, including pipes and sewage systems, is frequently damaged, leading to issues of water scarcity and the release of pollutants into the environment.

In the aftermath of such attacks, the cleanup process further strains water resources, amplifying the challenges faced by communities in ensuring access to safe and clean water. The consequences of water contamination and scarcity add to the complex humanitarian and environmental issues arising from armed conflicts.

Shedding light on the water crisis, he said, “In conflict zones, water scarcity is exacerbated, and the consequences are amplified during warfare. The toxic effects on water bodies intensify due to the simultaneous need for cleanup and the destruction of water infrastructure, including sewage systems and pipes.

“This results in lead contamination of water systems, contributing to various diseases such as typhoid and cholera. The lack of healthcare and damaged infrastructure further compounds the health risks associated with untreated sewage, revealing the multifaceted challenges faced in these areas. The impact of soil inequality has also been acknowledged in the discourse.”

Impact On Wildlife:

The natural movement patterns of animals are significantly disrupted during times of war. The upheaval caused by armed conflicts, including bombings and destruction of habitats, impedes the normal migration and roaming behaviours of wildlife. Traditional routes and territories become inaccessible or dangerous, forcing animals to alter their movement patterns. The resulting disruption can have cascading effects on ecosystems, affecting biodiversity and the overall balance of natural habitats.

Commenting on the impact of war on wildlife and ecosystems in the conflict areas, Ali explained, “Yeah, you know, it changes the environment there, the ecosystem. So, you will have animals that may naturally move from one area to the next that no longer can do that. You will also have significant impacts on species that are there, as their numbers will begin to shrink. We’ve found that in these types of conflicts, many animals stop breeding. Therefore, many animals cease breeding, contributing to a reduction in wildlife and fauna. These consequences in fact extend to both human and wildlife populations within the affected areas.”

What Laws Govern The Conflict?

The conflict between Israel and Palestinian forces, intensified by Hamas’ October 7 assault, has led to a significant and increasing death toll on both sides. The legal framework governing such conflicts is rooted in the international system of justice established since World War II.

The widely accepted rules of armed conflict originated from the 1949 Geneva Conventions, ratified by all UN member states. These rules have been supplemented by decisions from international war crimes tribunals.

The “Law of Armed Conflict” or “International Humanitarian Law” encompasses a set of treaties regulating the treatment of civilians, soldiers, and prisoners of war. This legal framework applies to government forces as well as organised armed groups, including Hamas militants.

Discussing the importance of adhering to international laws, he opined, “In Ukraine-Russia, Israel-Palestine, as well as in other wars like those in Iraq and Syria, the detrimental impacts on people’s health, led to the emergence of significant diseases.

“Therefore, it is important to adhere to international laws, such as those outlined in the Geneva Convention and various treaties. However, the challenge faced by Palestine, often not recognised, complicates the post-conflict remediation efforts for its residents.

“We need to understand the dynamics that are playing out on the ground. And when you do, reach out to your government. We also have to understand that when all this pollution is happening during war, it is also contributing to the climate crisis. And no matter what country we might live in, we’ve all seen the floods, we’ve seen the hurricanes, we’ve seen wildfires. So, everything is interconnected.”

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