Culture and Climate

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    The Environment and Climate Change in Palestine and the Arab World
    An Overview

    The environment and its problems are some of the greatest challenges facing the world today, whether at the level of people or governments. And while the world’s nations attribute varying degrees of importance to these challenges, Arab countries in particular have a distinctly long list of concerns and priorities that have taken precedence over the environment and climate change.

    Foremost among these have been the recurring needs of socio-economic development plans to tackle widespread unemployment, fight poverty, and provide basic education and health services to rapidly growing populations with very high growth rates. Palestine is no exception but rather a good of example of this state of affairs.

    Climate change has been established as a scientific fact and there are countless illustrations and instances from every country in the world to support its incontrovertibility. These include, but are not limited to, extreme weather events such as tsunamis and floods, intensifying droughts and wildfires that have destroyed hundreds of millions of acres of tree-cover, cold and hot temperature extremes, as well as the general rise in sea levels that has had a devastating ecological impact on low-lying coastal areas which are often the economic power-houses of their countries. It is noteworthy that in recent years the material costs associated with record hot temperatures, floods, tropical storms and other environmental catastrophes have been commensurately large.

    On the international stage, many environmental organisations have been set up to address the challenges involved, most notably the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). A host of international agreements have been adopted, including the core 1972 Stockholm Declaration, followed by the 1992 Rio Declaration – from which were derived three major environmental documents of our time around climate change, desertification and bio-diversity. In the intervening decades, there were many other international accords, including the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and the accompanying Montreal Protocol, as well as others concerning every aspect of the environment. 

    This highly complex subject has ramifications for every biological and developmental issue in the world and this article will provide a rapid and brief overview of the challenges faced by Palestine and the rest of the Arab countries from the perspective of the writers.

    Environmental and Climate Change Issues in Palestine and the Middle East

    Solid waste management, including household and industrial waste, pollution from manufacturing, ecological degradation and climate change are considered to be among the most significant challenges currently facing Palestine and the Arab region. Consequently, ministries of the environment or departments responsible for environmental issues have been created in most countries of the region. Such departments have led efforts to issue regulations and legislation on the issues involved, and they have been largely responsible for upholding the defence of the environment and related matters in the face of the many other challenges before their nations.

    Such ministries and departments have represented their countries at conferences and other forums on the environment, both regionally and internationally. Palestine, where the Ministry for Environmental Affairs was created in 1998 and an Environmental Code was passed under Law 7 in 1999, was one of the first Arab countries to issue environmental legislation and regulations.

    Without doubt, the Arab world in general and Palestine in particular have been and remain acutely and fully aware of the environmental challenges facing them. However, their national priorities have curtailed their ability to respond to the challenges and threats commensurately. Senior policy-makers may consider the environment a superfluous luxury because they remain unaware of the extent of the threat resulting from the lack of adequate response to the challenges involved, and do not accord these sufficient significance.  That is why the two writers of this article consider that raising awareness among decision-makers in the Arab world is of utmost importance, because a proactive approach toward environmental threats would save their countries enormous amounts of money that would otherwise be spent on mitigating the impact of environmental disasters such as floods and droughts, and their consequences.

    It is also worth noting that Arab countries enjoy a unique position in international environmental negotiations, and especially in climate change talks, where both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have a significant presence. The Saudis have an impressive and highly competent delegation, whether in terms of their experience or their negotiating ability, and many Saudis have acceded to high positions in international negotiating bodies. This is perhaps an indication of the importance of these negotiations and their outcomes for the economies of the kingdom and other oil-producing countries, especially those that form the Gulf Cooperation Council. For these countries, the stakes are high because their economies are founded on the very fossil fuels that international agreements seek to limit since they are the biggest culprits in global warming. 

    Arab states were present from the very outset and at all stages of climate change negotiations, both as a regional bloc and as part of the G-77, which now groups 133 developing countries. They played a prominent role in the wording of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) with its emphasis on equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) between developing and developed nations, which affirms the urgent need of developing countries for sustained economic development and combating poverty.

    The Environment, Climate Change and the Arab-Israeli Conflict

    An internationally-accepted principle is that the environment knows no borders. Thus Israeli actions negatively and directly impact the environment on both sides of the conflict. It is indisputable that throughout its rule of the Palestinian territories it occupied in 1967 Israel methodically neglected the Palestinian environment, leading to extensive ecological damage. Even though the Palestinian Authority took over control of the Occupied Territories in 1994, Israel’s incursions on and violations of the Palestinian environment have continued unabated, and have if anything intensified since the Oslo Accords and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. These violations include but are not limited to the following:
    the theft of Palestinian water sources, such that 82% of all these have been depleted;
    the systematic devastation of the environment in and around the areas traversed by the separation wall built by Israel, as a result of which vast tracts of land have been bulldozed and over 1.5 million trees are estimated to have been uprooted, many of them ancient. This is in addition to the trees that were stolen and replanted within the 1948 borders or in Israeli settlements erected on Palestinian land;
    the dumping of toxic industrial waste on Palestinian lands;
    the discharge of raw sewage from Israeli settlements into streams, leading not only to their pollution but to the contamination of aquifers which constitute Palestine’s basic water supply;
    the assault on Gaza in 2008, followed by the latest attack in the winter of 2012. Several UNEP studies have been conducted on the environmental impact of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, especially following the dismantlement of settlements erected in the Gaza Strip and their demolition by the Israeli army, including an assessment of the environmental damage caused by the assault on Gaza. The Palestinian Ministry for Environmental Affairs has also published a study on the impact of the wall on the environment in Palestine.

    In addition to all the above, the occupation has greatly increased the pressure on resources resulting from Israel’s domination of 62% of Palestinian lands classified as Area C under the Oslo Accords, that is, territory under full Israeli civil and security control. Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority must obtain Israeli permission for any local environment-related projects to go ahead, such as the establishment of landfills or waste water treatment plants.

    All in all, numerous studies have been carried out, all of them pointing to the importance of climate change and its consequences for security in the region. Conducted by various European research centres, these studies have clearly implicated the occupation in the worsening climate change situation, which affects development, as well as food and water security in Palestine and the region as a whole. Limited water resources, in particular, are of great concern, as estimates predict another 20% drop in rainfall by 2050. Average temperatures are predicted to rise by between 2.5 and 5.6 degrees Celsius by the end of the current century, when it is expected that the River Jordan will have almost completely dried up.  

    As mentioned in the introduction, Arab states are taking many measures to adapt to the consequences of climate change, specifically with regard to limiting air pollution. The reports submitted by these countries to the UN Emergency Secretariat on Climate Change summarise their efforts on that score.

    At a regional level, several summit meetings of the Arab League have agreed on the need to establish a united Arab position at international climate negotiations. The League has issued an ‘Arab Plan for the Management of Climate Change’, which was drawn up in cooperation and consultation with Arab climate change experts. The plan is considered a model of its kind and it is hoped that it will be fully implemented on the ground. 

    The voice of Palestine

    Until November 29th 2012, Palestine held observer status (officially known as ‘observing entity’) at all international climate change convention meetings, including the fifteenth round held in Copenhagen, where Palestine was represented by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and a delegation including including representatives from both the foreign and environment ministries, and from the water authority. It was there that Palestine unveiled its climate change strategy plan. The Ministry for Environmental Affairs is the liaison with the Convention and with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    Since the UN General Assembly upgraded its status from non-member observer entity to non-member observer state on November 29th 2012, Palestine has been represented at regular meetings of the UNFCCC as an observer with the right to take part in negotiations and deliberations. The Palestinian delegation cannot, however, vote on decisions or take part in the deliberations of subsidiary bodies such as working groups and ad hoc committees; nor can it benefit from the tens of billions of dollars available from some twenty international funds that exist to help developing countries with climate change adaptation, under the pretext that Palestine is not a party to the Convention – even though Palestine is a full member of the G-77, which is considered amongst the most significant blocs in international climate negotiations, representing most developing countries along with China. For over two years now, and in coordination with the G-77 countries and China, Palestine has been attempting to obtain the agreement of the Parties to the Convention (i.e. full signatories) for it to benefit from international climate change adaptation funds, in order to implement national climate change plans and strategies to execute adaptation projects to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change. It must be borne in mind that Palestine has never been a polluting state responsible for world climate change, but is actually a victim suffering from its many consequences, especially as concerns water resources and food security, given the preponderant role of agriculture in the Palestinian economy. Despite full support by the G-77 and China, Palestine has not succeeding in obtaining the parties’ agreement due to the opposition of the United States, which has blocked the initiative. 

    Traditional Knowledge and Climate Change

    There is no doubt that the importance of traditional knowledge in the region results from its historical experience of environmental challenges, in particular climate change. Palestine and the region as a whole have known periods both of aridity and of floods, which have provided society there with experience that can be built upon. In this regard, I would like to note the story of the Prophet Yusef (PBUH). The Holy Koran recounts how Yusef successfully managed seven years of drought, and there are many other similar examples. It is also worth noting here that much traditional knowledge is taken into account in international circles when planning for climate change adaptation.

    Reckless behaviours are considered to be one of the prime causes of ecological catastrophe and climate change: on the one hand the excessive depletion of resources, fuelled by poverty and famine, including over-grazing and deforestation; and, on the other, excess consumption among the wealthy nations of the region.

    Patterns of consumption among wealthy countries are unarguably among the leading causes of climate change and environmental degradation, given that they entail the reckless use of natural resources such as fossil fuels, most of which are non-renewable, which leads to environmental degradation and aggravates climate change. Of particular concern are patterns of food consumption, when we know that it requires 15,000 litres of water to produce one kilogramme of meat compared with 2,500 litres for one kilo of rice and 1,500 litres for one kilo of wheat.

    The concept of a ‘water footprint’, which appeared in 2002, takes into consideration both the direct and indirect uses of water by both producers and consumers. The water footprint of an individual, group, or institution is defined as the total amount of fresh water needed to produce goods and services. The water footprint of the average US consumer is about 2,840 cubic litres annually, while the equivalent figure in Japan is 1,280, and in China, it is 1,070. Here it should be noted that, according to an independent British study published at the beginning of 2013, as much as half of all global food production is lost as a result of poor harvesting, storage and transportation practices, as well as market and consumer wastage. This ultimately means that gigantic quantities of water, as well as other resources and production inputs, are being wasted, on top of the pollution that results from the production process.
    Dr. Ziad Mimi
    is an Associate Professor in the faculty of Civil Engineering at the University of Birzeit, Palestine. He specialises in integrated water resources management.

    Nidal Katiba
    teaches at the University of Birzeit.

    Translated by Maia Thabet
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2013

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