Last week an architecture student at the Islamic University of Gaza asked me a question following my lecture about sustainability. Paraphrasing, he asked “What advantages and disadvantages are there in Gaza to becoming a sustainable city?”
After some thought, here’s my reply.
First things first. This summer the United Nations released a report that asserts Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020 if urgent action is not taken. You can find the report here.
The report says that the population of the Gaza Strip will increase from 1.6 million people today to 2.1 million people in 2020, resulting in a density of more than 5,800 people per square kilometre. Infrastructure in electricity, water and sanitation, municipal and social services are not keeping pace with the needs of the growing population.
Clearly, Gaza is unsustainable today and there are serious doubts about whether Gaza will be able to provide the basic needs for its people in the near future. In this context, “sustainability” takes on a very different meaning than the concept coined by the Brundtland Commission in 1987 — “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.”
In Gaza, sustainability and survivability must go hand-in-hand. The challenges are great, and the obstacles seem insurmountable, but this student, himself, represents one of the important advantages Gaza has for building a sustainable future.
Gaza has a very well-educated population eager to contribute and make its mark on the community, the region and the world. I’ve met many of them personally in the past month — from architects, engineers, IT specialists, scientists, and others. Together, they represent the most important resource that Gaza has for the future. They understand the challenges and are working on the solutions.
What other advantages does Gaza have for a sustainable future?
* Gaza’s location is an asset, in a temperate clime with the Mediterranean at its doorstep! Think agriculture, tourism, energy, commerce.
* A resilient population that appears to be well-connected with each other and with the rest of the world via the internet and social media. When strife and stressful conditions exist, (think climate change!) these connections are tremendously important. People in many other parts of the world could learn some lessons from the connectivity that exists in Gaza.
* I’m not a religious person but I wonder if the faith and spiritual traditions shared by the majority of Gazans might be an asset for building a sustainable path to the future. It’s worth considering.
Now for the disadvantages to building a sustainable city in Gaza. Some are obvious and others may not be.
* The Israeli occupation, siege and geopolitical strife that have worsened in the past decade are a disadvantage. Books could be (probably have been) written about this, but I think “occupation” and “sustainability” are an oxymoron. Many of the disadvantages that follow have their genesis in the occupation.
* Energy sources and energy use are unsustainable in Gaza. Until Gaza switches to solar or wind or another energy alternative that frees Gaza from its dependence on fossil fuels and from other countries, it will not be on a sustainable path.
* The current population growth rate is unsustainable. I understand that large families are expected in this culture and perhaps required by Islamic teachings (?) but as a factor in the search for a sustainable path, the present growth rate is a tremendous disadvantage.
* Transportation in the Gaza Strip is unsustainable and I haven’t seen plans to change that direction. More and more cars are not the answer. There appears to be a huge disconnect between land use and transportation development and I wonder if there is an agency working on this disconnect.
* Water (quality and quantity), wastewater treatment and disposal, air quality, solid waste disposal —- there are solutions to all of them but the occupation prevents any serious efforts to address these problems.
* The economy in Gaza is in ruins. I read somewhere that the unemployment in Gaza is among the highest in the world! Gaza cannot be on a sustainable path until it has a functioning economy that provides jobs and a decent quality of life for everyone.
* Decision-making, planning and administrative processes may be stuck in silos which inhibit sustainable pathways. I don’t know the situation in Gaza but I suspect that years and years of dependence on UNRWA and NGOs and foreign donors may have negatively impacted the internal, homegrown capacity-building.
* A disposable consumer ethic exists in Gaza which is unsustainable and may be difficult to change. I’m referring to both the trash and litter that are omnipresent, but more importantly the use of plastic cups, individual desserts and pastries wrapped in plastic, plastic bags, and much more. Recycling will be important but educating the population to use fewer disposable products will also be necessary.
As a new visitor to Gaza, I have alot to learn but I hope my observations have answered this student’s very thoughtful question.