It is stating the obvious to say that war is not sustainable. At the moment, the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7th, the suffering of the kidnapped Israelis and their families, the horrific loss of civilian life in Gaza including many women and children, the ongoing suffering of displaced Palestinians and Israelis, and the loss of our soldiers, completely overshadows environmental concerns. The environmental concerns, especially the global threat of climate change, however, are not going away. War is not sustainable, not only from the conventional point of view, that the resources that fuel wars (guns, ammunition, fuel, food, and other supplies) are limited, but also by our current understanding of sustainability, that we must act in a way that causes little or no damage to the environment and therefore leave it intact for future generations.
The direct impact of the current war in Gaza on the environment is plain to see. The massive physical destruction of buildings and homes in Gaza also destroys any underlying ecosystems which exist even in urban areas. Due to the lack of fuel, and in some cases direct damage caused by Israeli bombing, sewage treatment plants in Gaza are dysfunctional, and the tens of thousands of cubic meters of raw sewage produced daily in Gaza are now flowing directly into the shared coastal aquifer between Israel and Gaza, and into the Mediterranean Sea. The almost 2 million refugees created by the war are in survival mode, living from day to day and unable to make sustainable choices for themselves and their families.
Environmental initiatives in Gaza that offered renewable energy sources instead of the diesel-fueled generators many Gazans use to provide themselves with electricity have also been destroyed. One of my Palestinian colleagues, a renewable energy entrepreneur had managed to receive a power purchase agreement from the Palestinian Energy and Natural Resource Authority (PENRA) to build the first solar field in Gaza. The 2 MW solar field near Khan Younis was completed before the war but had yet to be hooked up to the electric grid. Israeli bombs destroyed the field.
A scenario that has been suggested by the IDF to defeat Hamas hiding in tunnels underneath Gaza has been to flood those tunnels with seawater. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, Dr. Clive Lipchin, Director of the Center for Transboundary Water Management at the Arava Institute, said that using seawater to destroy Hamas’s tunnel system could cause additional seawater infiltration into the already highly degraded coastal aquifer.
The long-run environmental outlook for Gaza is perhaps even more daunting. The massive reconstruction that will have to take place once the war is over to replace housing and infrastructure destroyed by the bombing will require millions of tons of concrete releasing large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The concrete needed to build one house can release 4 tons of CO2. Seventy percent of the homes of more than a million Palestinians were destroyed in Gaza City. In addition to homes, major reconstruction of institutions, such as schools, hospitals, wastewater treatment plants, offices etc. will require additional concrete.
Other infrastructure such as water and sewage lines, electric lines etc. will require additional natural resources, the extraction and processing of which will deplete resources and add additional greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere. Israel’s war with Hamas is not the only war on the planet. The Russian-Ukraine war has been raging for almost two years. Then there are the other wars worldwide to which most of us in Israel pay little attention. The conflicts in Myanmar, Sudan, Yemen, the Maghreb (Western Africa), Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to name a few, not only take countless lives every year but also impact the environment both directly and indirectly.
Perhaps war’s biggest impact on the environment is the fact that instead of focusing on how to work together across borders to stop the steady rise of the average temperature on earth from passing the 2-degree centigrade rise over the pre-industrial average temperature threshold, countries around the globe are focused on internal and external military conflicts that do nothing to enhance sustainability and only make us more vulnerable to climate change.
While the kind of destruction we are seeing now in Gaza, Ukraine and other war zones is terrifying, the picture of a world that has passed the 2-degree threshold is perhaps more frightening. The most recent report of the UN IPCC says that heat extremes would reach critical tolerance thresholds for agriculture and health, causing the death of millions on the planet through famine, heatwaves, and the spread of disease. Entire small island nations would be lost due to sea level rise. The Middle East is one of the global hotspots for climate change with an expectation of even lower precipitation, average temperatures reaching over 50 degrees centigrade, and large portions of the region becoming uninhabitable by the end of the century.
I recently attended the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP28) in Dubai. Tens of thousands of people came from around the world to find a way to work together to stop this threat to humanity. While there is a lot of criticism of the effectiveness of the UN Framework for Climate Change, it offers some glimmer of hope that humanity will rise to the challenge of mitigating the problem it created.
Due to the current war in Gaza, Israel’s delegation to COP28 was small and hardly felt in many of the negotiations and panels. As an OECD country and well-known start-up capital, Israel has a great deal to offer in terms of technological solutions in agriculture, water, food technology, and biotechnology as well as cyber and AI. At COP28 in Dubai, Israel’s new relationships with Arab states offered an opportunity to play an important role in the global struggle to mitigate and adapt to climate change, an opportunity missed because Israel was preoccupied. There are not too many COPs left before the world passes the 2-degree threshold. Israel and the world cannot afford to continue to be engulfed in destructive and non-sustainable wars while large parts of the planet including the Middle East face an uninhabitable future.