‘If you’re for justice for Palestinians, you’re for climate justice’: Zena Agha on climate change and the future of Palestine

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Climate change is among the greatest threats facing humanity. Its effects are global, wide-ranging, and distributed in a highly unequal manner. Although Palestinians and Israelis inhabit the same physical terrain, Palestinians under occupation will suffer the effects of climate change more severely.

So begins “Climate Change, the Occupation, and a Vulnerable Palestine,” a recent policy brief by Zena Agha for the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. In the paper, Agha outlines the threat that climate change presents to Palestine, how it is exacerbated by the Israeli occupation, and the steps being taken, or not being taken, to prepare for it. I spoke with Agha about what climate change means for the future of Palestine and the Middle East, and how it should fit into the Palestine solidarity movement agenda.

Adam Horowitz: I should start with that while I think about Palestine a lot as part of my work, the rest of my brain is somewhat obsessed with climate change. I was completely fascinated with your paper, so thank you for that. To help set the context, can you tell us what Palestine will look like with if the world warms in the way that experts predict, which the best case scenarios seem to be between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius?

Zena Agha: I’ll issue a caveat before I answer that and say I’m not actually an environmental expert. You know the work that I was doing was very much engaged with the question of how this very real environmental phenomenon, which is climate change, reinforces an already vulnerable political problem. And my findings were that for the most part, it’s an entirely political problem. Adapting to climate change in Palestine is a political question much more than it is environmental. But of course there are profound environmental impacts. 

Zena Agha
Zena Agha (Photo: Al Shabaka)

The two main effects or risks posed by climate change in Palestine are increased temperatures and precipitation changes – rainfall. It’ll be warmer, and temperatures have already increased on average by 1.5 degrees in the area of the Mediterranean Sea. The ClimaSouth Project predicts that temperatures will continue to increase between 2.2 to 5.1 degrees Celsius which is higher than the global average. This will of course have a cataclysmic effect on the region, particularly with regards to accelerating desertification. 

This is coupled with the likelihood of decreased precipitation. ClimaSouth anticipates in the eastern Mediterranean region that there will be a decline in rainfall of up to 30 percent by the end of this century, which is 80 years from now. But that’s not to say that there will be no rains at all: what rain there is will become more concentrated, so there will actually be an increase of flash flooding in many of the countries in the region that don’t have the infrastructure to deal with intense rain. And then of course add to that rising sea levels and encroachment of saltwater into coastal aquifers, which threatens a lot of coastal communities, including Gaza and along the Mediterranean coast with modern-day Israel. And so out of that you see that climate change will severely affect the Mediterranean and particularly Palestine/Israel. 

But although the climate effects are very real, how they impact those living on the ground will be hugely disproportionate. 

Palestinians, particularly the most vulnerable Palestinians, those occupied Palestinians in Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, will be feeling the effects but infinitely more than say a Jewish Israeli either in a settlement or in modern-day Israel. And so these are the sort of political questions that I was much more engaged with. Palestinians are constantly in a reactive position. If it’s not Gaza, or the Golan, it’s the Israeli elections all in the space of a few weeks. It doesn’t really give you much breathing space to actually get out ahead of the issue and talk more long term about equally disastrous, if not more disastrous issues, including climate change. So this was sort of the impetus for the project, an attempt to step out of that emergency mode and think more long term. And more seriously about what these environmental shifts which will affect Planet Earth, how they will play out in an already vulnerable and volatile region such as Palestine/Israel. 

Palestinian draws water from cistern in the village of Khirbet Jenbah
Palestinian child draws water from cistern in the village of Khirbet Jenbah in the South Hebron Hills, which is not hooked up to the water grid, August 2012. (Photo: Sharon Azran, B’Tselem)

Adam Horowitz: You say climate change will impact vulnerable Palestinians different than Jewish Israelis, could you unpack that a little bit and explain how and why that is? 

Zena Agha: So I suppose I should start again with another caveat which is the research I would love to do would be to look at the effects of climate change on all Palestinians which would include occupied Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Palestinians inside 1948 territories, Palestinian refugees and the wider region and then possibly Palestinians in diaspora although that’s less pressing. Unfortunately, because of the current delineations of the Palestine-Israel question there’s very little available research, let alone data, which deals with Palestinians as part of one body politic. Instead there is extensive reporting, indices, and analysis produced on modern-day Israel which of course is 78 percent of historic Palestine, approximately, and the occupied territories which as part of the Oslo Accords would one day theoretically manifest themselves into a future state although you know that is seeming less and less likely and desirable as well, I guess, by all parties. So all that is to say that I was almost condemned to focus my research on occupied Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and what I saw in doing that research was that the occupation had a very profound effect on the way that Palestinians adapted to climate change. 

I was interested more in adaptation than mitigation – mostly because Palestine’s emissions are so low, it will suffer from climate change effects far more than it contributes to their cause. I understood adaptation primarily as the adjustment in human or natural systems in response to the risks and effects of climate change. The disproportional suffering between the two groups for me really came down to the direct impacts caused by the Israeli occupation. And here I’m talking about the water sector and the agricultural sector. Of course, that affected many other sectors including public health. But the reason why water and agriculture are so meaningful and so important was that water is, politically speaking, a final status issue. It is often disregarded but it has a profound political importance. And environmentally speaking , water is at the heart of climate change in the region and across the world, and we’re already seeing this. In Lake Chad and in Central America and everywhere else, it’s not unique to the Middle East, but the Middle East will definitely feel it. You know Jordan is already reckoning with these questions as is the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians already have such limited access to their water because of the effects of the occupation which I’ll talk about a minute. 

The second sector I focused on was the agricultural sector. It’s often said that this is an issue over land, and it is very much is over land and Palestinian access to land is crucial in this regard. Sixty percent of the West Bank which is Area C is controlled by Israeli security forces. And so you’re starting to understand how there is just so little land for Palestinians to graze on, to farm on, to maintain, and Palestine is overwhelmingly an agrarian society. And so the effects of these two things — the water and agriculture crises — are going to be absolutely crippling for the Palestinian economy. But more severely actually it is also going to leave Palestinians water insecure, and also facing food insecurity which I why I focus on them in depth. 

If we were to talk about the effects of the occupation on the Palestinian’s ability to adapt to climate change, they are severe. And I think this is by design. It’s not some sort of geopolitical accident or anything like that. The Oslo II Accords in 1995 gave Israel control over the water resources of the West Bank, stating that Palestinians will receive only 20 percent, while Israelis in ‘Israel proper’ or in West Bank settlements, keep 80 percent. Initially this was intended for a five-year period and is now still in place 24 years later. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, Palestinians aren’t given access to technologies or infrastructure such as desalination and other means of actually providing for themselves through water. So, not only is there wide-scale theft, there is also this sort of gatekeeping of resources, capabilities, and technologies which would prohibit Palestinians from being able to keep up. Moreover, Palestinians do not have the resources to develop, pay for, and operate them themselves

Fresh water resources, like surface and groundwater, will be more scarce as rainfall decreases, but that’s not really the emergency facing Palestinians today. The emergency is the fact that so much of the water gets taken by Israel. Access to water is actually crucial. According to the Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem, only 81 percent of Palestinian localities in the West Bank are connected to the water network. This leaves 19 percent not connected to the network and among them 65 percent rely on water tankers which are more costly than piped water and the quality is lower. And it’s estimated that only 50 percent or so of households in the West Bank have access to water on a daily basis. In Gaza this is only 30 percent which of course stops altogether during times of strife. That has profound health concerns and it’s a question of life or death. It is not just a political issue. Ninety to ninety-five percent of water, and that’s a conservative estimate, in Gaza is contaminated and is unfit for drinking or irrigation largely due to the depletion of the coastal aquifer, pollution and seawater encroachment as well as the ongoing seige. So you know when we reckon with the fact that 26 percent of all reported diseases in Gaza, and 12 percent of all child deaths are linked to contaminated water, you start seeing how this is one more tool in Israel’s remit to make sure the Palestinians are deprived not just of a decent living, and their basic human rights, but actually the right to life itself. 

Let’s compare this to Israeli settlers, 600,000 of whom live beyond the Green Line and their very presence constitutes a war crime and violates the Fourth Geneva Convention. They use six times more water than the entire Palestinian population the West Bank which is about 3 million people.They use as much as 350 liters per capita of water per day. Compare that with Palestinians who are allocated 73 liters per capita per day in the West Bank and 89 liters per capita per day in Gaza. And the World Health Organization recommends about 100 liters minimum. This is some of the lowest water per capita availability in the world which is something that Jewish Israelis don’t have to worry about. 

(Image: Visualizing Palestine)

So, this is what I mean when I say that the effects of climate change will be felt unequally. And this is saying nothing of the more political aspects which include settler violence, land theft, home demolitions, toxic deposits of waste in the West Bank, and so on and so forth. The blockade on Gaza, now in its twelfth year, and all the myriad of other political issues. But this is just speaking on the most basic level, just access to resources. You see a profound differentiation between Israelis and Palestinians (of different legal statuses) entirely just on the basis of race, and some sort of ethno-religious supremacy of one group over the other. And of course, there is a legal definition for this sort of discrimination. It’s called apartheid. I think there needs to be a reckoning with Israel which presents itself as this bastion of green governance globally with what that means for Palestinians. 

I also think it’s important to note that Israel is considered the 19th least vulnerable country, and the 32nd most ready country to deal with climate change. So, Israel is not really worried about climate change in the same way that Palestinians are because they have access to the majority of the resources, and are also developing technologies which they’re keeping for themselves and not extending to Palestinians. The ability to adapt to climate change in Palestine/Israel is very much differentiated according to race, religion, and legal status. 

Adam Horowitz: One thing that it brings to mind is that looking through the literature you see references to the term “climate apartheid.” The idea that the developing world going to be left behind as richer countries adapt to climate change. It seems we’re seeing that play out directly on the land in Palestine. 

Zena Agha: But I also think that speaks to a wider conversation about historical justice and what does environmental justice look like? 

On the one hand climate change won’t slow down for humans to reckon with colonialism and imperialism and the last couple of centuries which have portended bloody and untold abuses. But then what are the politics, or what are the ethics involved of the developed nations, particularly former colonial powers such as Britain and France and I would argue the US, to say to developing nations such as India, China, Brazil or wherever else, ‘no, you are not allowed to use the exact same things we did to get to become global leaders, and we used your resources to get there.’ While these questions have been considered as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – for instance its charter talks about ‘Common But Differentiated Responsibility’, there hasn’t been a resolution and I think part of the reason why negotiations are actually so limiting is because there is not an honest conversation had about what it means for Palestinians as a colonized people, or for any colonized people, to confront the colonizer and say, ‘you used these methods, or you have these technologies, or you have access to all of this. This bounty is from our backs.’ But I think it’s a much wider conversation. How does society deal with climate justice and environmental justice for marginalized and developing nations particularly the Global South? 

Adam Horowitz: So, there is likely a “cataclysmic” future climate-wise for the region, but in many ways Palestinians are already living that reality not because of climate necessarily but because of the political reality. Can you say some about what Palestinians are doing on an individual and national level to adapt to this reality? And what if anything are Palestinians doing to prepare for climate change? 

Zena Agha: I guess I’ll answer the second part of your question first. The politics surrounding the Palestinian Authority and its response to climate change is actually very fascinating. 

I spoke a lot in the paper and I maintain that there is this contradiction between what the Palestinian Authority is actually able to do versus what it is promising to do. And I argue that this is more an enterprise in statecraft, and in statehood, and in the performing the functions or the trappings of a functioning state, at the expense of what they’re actually capable of. And so the Palestinian Authority has sort of been wising up to adaptation quite late in the game, definitely over the last decade or so, with the first national masterplan in 2011 in conjunction with U.N.D.P and the London School of Economics. And it issued this plan and laid out vulnerability assessments in different sectors, and the effects of the occupation, and so on and so forth. But the effects of it are actually fairly meaningless. For one, the Palestinian Authority cannot predict tomorrow. Tomorrow, the Israeli occupying forces could come in and take the West Bank as we see frequently when they encroach on Ramallah and wherever else. So, that’s an example of the P.A. not being able to plan, but they also don’t have access to the very land they’re making plans for! They don’t have access to the water that they are making plans for. So it’s a kind of cognitive dissidence whereby they are making plans as an occupied people which is a very unique situation. They are physically, geographically, and politically weak and unable to prepare for the effects of climate change. And yet they’re still producing these plans and these performances of political prowess. 

 And that’s just in the West Bank, I think Gaza tells a completely different story. Gaza is entirely a political catastrophe, and the rising sea level is just going to be one more factor, and the depletion of the coastal aquifer, which is the only source of fresh water in Gaza, is another factor. But that’s not really the water crisis — the water crisis is the blockade. And Hamas, to my knowledge, is completely ill equipped to handle this, not least because they can’t provide more than a few hours of electricity for their population, or they can’t pay the salaries of their civil servants. So these questions are way in the future for them. They’re not dealing with it but also the international community has a no-contact policy with Hamas in Gaza. So they’re going a very roundabout way to implement help and assistance which is going to the P.A. to have their offices do it. You’re starting to see this utter disconnect between the Palestinian political society and the political system. 

In terms of what the P.A. is actually tangibly doing in terms of projects, they’re a member of the UNFCCC. For the most part, projects that deal with water and sanitation or agricultural initiatives are implemented by the donor community and the humanitarian community writ large, which itself is not without ethical concerns particularly with as we witness in the NGOization of Palestine. These projects are very small scale. I cite some OECD data in the report and found that in 2017 alone there were 19 donor projects in the international community from Switzerland to the US to assist with sanitation and water, a sewer system in a village for instance. And it begs the question, if the international community did exert political pressure on Israel to disengage after 52 years of permanent occupation would USAID need to be implementing a sewer in a tiny West Bank village? The answer is probably not, because Palestinians would then have the autonomy and sovereignty in order to do that themselves.

Adam Horowitz: I want to switch gears slightly. Many of our readers are involved in the Palestine Solidarity Movement in one way or another, and I’m wondering how you think climate change should fit into the movement’s agenda? 

Zena Agha: I think it should be on the agenda simply because it’s a human issue that is a catastrophe in its own making. I think with regards to the solidarity movement, Palestine is increasingly becoming a progressive issue, and climate justice and climate adaptation is a progressive issue. It’s increasingly rising to the top of any policy discussion with regards to progressive and leftist politics. 

Insofar as reckoning with this political moment we are seeing the Green New Deal proposed by progressive politicians becoming a really crucial bulwark of a progressive agenda. And I think it’s incumbent on solidarity activists both to organize around climate issues in its own right, but also to recognize that if you’re for climate justice you’re for justice for Palestinians, in the same way that if you’re for climate justice you’re for justice for indigenous Americans here on this continent. And reckoning with the fact that climate change is a threat multiplier. Although climate change will affect planet Earth indiscriminately irrespective of borders, the people who suffer the most is a political question. 

I think that’s actually where a lot of solidarity work can be done, to make sure that not only do we ally with organizations and people who focus on climate justice on the one hand, but also making sure that climate change is not seen as a secondary issue for Palestine work but rather integral to it. Anything that you understand insofar as a crisis in Palestine right now will it be exacerbated by climate change. So, in fighting for Palestinian rights and dignity climate change and climate justice is a core component of that as well. 

Adam Horowitz: I’m wondering what has what kind of response you have received from the paper? Any that surprised you, or any that led to new connections? 

Zena Agha: Surprisingly yes. It’s been so far very well received on many levels. I presented it to different donor communities and civil society organizations particularly, talking to climate folks. Being able to put Palestine on that agenda rather than having that agenda be put on Palestine, if you know what I mean, and making sure that we expand the camp and diversify who we are speaking to about these issues is important.

I presented it in D.C. when I visited Congress a few weeks ago, and again speaking to the wider audience really does put Palestine on the map and in a different way than we’ve seen previously. When I sat down with Deb Haaland’s office, the indigenous freshman congresswoman from New Mexico, I wouldn’t say the staff were experts on Palestine but they were 100 percent clear on what climate change meant, and what water scarcity meant, and what water insecurity meant for vulnerable communities. And it was around those nexuses that we were able to leverage power and have a shared understanding. And so, getting back to Palestine as a progressive issue I think this is where it really comes into play. 

Rain waters flood parts of Gaza City on December 14, 2013. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)
Rain waters flood parts of Gaza City on December 14, 2013. (Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA Images)

Adam Horowitz: One area of this conversation that I’m interested in that goes beyond the scope of your paper is speculation into what climate change will mean politically and socially for the region as a whole. For example, what will happen as a country like Saudi Arabia becomes possibly uninhabitable? 

Zena Agha: This isn’t my area of expertise but I’m happy to share what I think. This is certainly a conversation to be had and, in writing the brief I was obviously exposed to these wider conversations as well. 

There are the regional politics, which is to say, Iraq is going to be pretty unlivable, Saudi is going to be pretty unlivable. Saudi Arabia’s already buying water from California, a few weeks ago there was a very bizarre story about water from California, which itself is very water scarce, being bought by Saudi. But, I think these places are gonna be simply uninhabitable. 

Iraq is already. My mother is Iraqi, we would spend some summers in Iraq, completely uninhabitable. I mean you couldn’t leave the house you, you can’t breathe. There’s no water, there’s barely electricity and air conditioning. Is it then surprising that there is unrest and discomfort? But then how does this relate to Palestine? I’m afraid Palestinians are just gonna be thrown under the bus yet again, and I think particularly with the Gulf states, which are now actually trying to buy technologies from Israel and this is obviously going to be on the backs of Palestinians because they’re willing to turn a blind eye to what Israel is doing to Palestinians as a way of ensuring their own security and safety and so that for me is the more alarming aspect. More so than just what it means for those countries themselves. 

And even just to speak on a personal level. I would love to go back and live in the region and thinking would anyone actually be able to live in Palestine or Iraq in 20 years? And what does that mean for refugees? 

The president of Mali was in Washington a few weeks ago and met with Trump and the whole conversation was about terrorism and I think you know anyone who has the most basic understanding of what’s happening in Mali and Lake Chad will tell you that the increase of these militia groups is a result of loss of livelihoods coming from Lake Chad and it’s drying up in the last couple of decades. This is not a small thing for an agrarian and developing nation like Mali, and of course these are going to be vulnerabilities which will be exploited along ethnic and religious lines. 

That’s the kind of thing we’re gonna be seeing a lot more of in the coming years. But the full effect, I don’t know if anyone can see really say because it’s so multifaceted. I mean it is terrifying. It’s really terrifying. 

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ok. I get this is a pro-palestinian blog site. but the headline is as vague and wrong as saying one can’t be for saving the earth from climate change and be a hunter. or, if you are an ordinary Chinese citizen from Shanghai who doesn’t care about Tibetan civil rights they can’t have liberal left wing social views. plus-one can deny Israeli innovations as much as they like but its pretty hard to ignore the… Read more »

The last words of this post are terrifying. Thanks for taking the site in this direction, Adam; we want more…

Yes, an excellent start to tackling a supremely important issue. A few disjointed points. Isn’t water the main reason Israel wants to hold on to the Golan? Saudi Arabia and the Gulf will become uninhabitable, but isn’t there a class dimension? Uninhabitable for those who cannot afford air conditioning? These desert regions can be part of the solution though, to the extent that they can be harnessed as sources of solar power. It is vital… Read more »

Incidentally, climate change has been linked to the Syrian civil war – masses of people moved to the cities as their farmland became unworkable – it’s a nice example of what we can look forward to: A new study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says drought in Syria, exacerbated to record levels by global warming, pushed social unrest in that nation across a line into an open uprising in… Read more »