The Stream, June 19, 2024: Palestine’s Waters, Wetlands, and Sanitation Systems Plunge Deeper into ‘Crisis,’ UN Report Shows

UNICEF delivery of water tank on May 23, 2024, to IDPs in Deir al-Balah, central the Gaza Strip. This tank helps provide water for hundreds of children and their families. Photo © UNICEF/UNI589846/El Baba


  • Deadly gyres in Guatemala and El Salvador triggered landslides and flooding that killed at least 13 people over the weekend.
  • A new environmental impact assessment from the United Nations shows that more than 92 percent of water in Gaza is “unfit for human consumption.”
  • The health of ancient Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia is worsening as a result of new shoreline development and pollution.
  • Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, which should be lush this time of year, are currently ablaze with wildfires that are spreading more quickly due to low rainfall and wind.

Officials in Paris have been desperately working to clean the polluted Seine River, in which swimming and triathlon events will take place during the Summer Olympics. 

“I’ve been in cleaner water in my life, but there wasn’t anything that stuck out.” — Morgan Pearson, a U.S. triathlete competing in this year’s Summer Olympics in Paris, after a swim in the Seine.

For decades, the Seine — “the world’s most romantic river” — has been Paris’s first option for the disposal of excess wastewater and stormwater. As a result of this pollution, swimming has been banned in the river for over a century. 

But in order to host multiple Olympic events in the channel, the city was forced to redesign its flow of waste. To start, boats, factories, and businesses were required for years to reduce their pollution discharges. By 2022, “the amount of untreated wastewater that ended up in the Seine… was 90 percent lower than 20 years ago,” Time Magazine reported last year. Still, in order not to overwhelm Paris’s sewer system, 1.9 million cubic meters of untreated wastewater ended up in the river in 2022. 

Doing the heavy lifting for the river’s cleanup and sanitization has been a $1.5 billion underground water tunnel and tank — an “engineering scramble,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Construction was completed this spring. Called the Austerlitz water basin, it can hold 13.2 million gallons of water, or 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools, The Athletic reports. The basin is meant to hold runoff water during a storm, “preventing it from overwhelming the city’s sanitation network, and thereby having untreated waste flow into the Seine,” per Time.

But when heavy rains fell on the city in May, “street runoff and fecal matter flowed into the river once more,” making the Seine unswimmable. Earlier this year, samples from six locations along the triathlon course contained e. Coli levels 20 times greater than the Olympic safety threshold, which is itself roughly nine times greater than U.S. standards. 

Officials are hoping the weather cooperates when the Olympics kick off in late July — hotter temperatures and sunshine kill bacteria.

— Christian Thorsberg, Interim Stream Editor

Recent WaterNews from Circle of Blue

The Lead

Five wastewater treatment plants in Gaza have been entirely shut down, further exacerbating the territory’s deepening humanitarian, health, and environmental crises, according to a new United Nations environmental impact assessment. “Sewage, wastewater, and solid waste management systems and facilities have collapsed,” the report reads.

According to an Interim Damage Assessment, 57 percent of water infrastructure and assets have been destroyed or partially damaged, including multiple desalination plants, 162 water wells, and two of three connections with Mekorot, the Israeli water company that supplies Gaza with fresh water. 

Israel’s bombing campaigns in the last eight months have destroyed roads, buildings, and infrastructure, generating 39 million tons of debris that is laced with unexploded ordnance and hazardous chemicals, the report finds. More than 92 percent of Gaza’s water has been deemed unfit for human consumption, Reuters reports. According to a March 2024 estimate, roughly 60,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage — containing “pathogens, nutrients, particulate organic matter, plastics and hazardous chemicals” — were being discharged into the environment each day. All progress that had been made in restoring the Gaza Valley, one of Palestine’s largest wetland ecosystems, has been lost.

As of April, the availability of groundwater in Gaza’s 300 wells was unknown, though that which is accessible is also “mostly unsuitable for human consumption.”

Food systems have also collapsed. Citing an analysis conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization, which used data through mid-February, the report details that 42.6 percent of all of Gaza’s cropland — 43.1 percent of its orchards, 41.2 percent of its irrigated cropland, and 41.7 percent of its rainfed cropland — has been damaged.

These losses have unsurprisingly had an acute impact on human health. In addition to nearly ubiquitous dehydration, “in the three months following the escalation of conflict, WHO reported 179,000 cases of acute respiratory infection, 136,400 cases of diarrhea among children under five, 55,400 cases of scabies and lice and 4,600 cases of jaundice,” according to the report. “Case numbers of diarrhea are 25 times those reported before the escalation in the conflict.”

This Week’s Top Water Stories, Told In Numbers


Inches of rain dumped on El Salvador — in addition to 26 inches in Guatemala and 34 inches in southeast Mexico — during a nine-day period over the past two weeks, as tropical storms known as gyres continue to batter Central America, reports. The torrid rains have triggered deadly flooding and landslides in both countries, killing at least 13 people and prompting a state of emergency declaration in El Salvador. The region’s extensive rainy season each year leaves “dozens to hundreds” of people dead, France24 reports. In nearby Honduras, roughly 5,000 people have been evacuated as a result of the rains.



The increase, compared to this time last year, in the size of wildfires spreading throughout Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands, DW reports. Covering a region slightly larger than England, the wetlands should currently be flooded — but low rainfall and strong winds have quickened the fires’ expansion. Four million cattle graze here, owned by ranchers whose health and livelihoods are threatened by the disaster.  

On the Radar

At nearly two million years old, Lake Ohrid, which straddles the Albania-North Macedonia border, is an ancient hotspot for biodiversity and evolution. “Of the lake’s roughly 1,200 known native species, 212 of them are endemic, occurring nowhere else,” Yale Environment 360 reports

But Ohrid’s fresh waters are on the cusp of a crisis, scientists and locals warn. A combination of overfishing, adjacent developments, and pollution are contributing to its degradation. Marshlands and reedlands in particular have been razed or harmed to make way for new buildings and boat lanes, while poorly designed municipal wastewater systems have at times directed sewage into Ohrid. 

These threats to the lake’s health are largely driven by economic opportunity, a relative rarity in the poorer region. Ohrid’s beauty drives tourism, and the community is seeking to capitalize on business where it can, though at the expense of environmental health. “When we fix social problems, afterward it’s possible to fix the ecological problems with the lake,” Nikola Paskali, a local conservationist, tells Yale Environment 360.

More Water News

Brazil’s Citizen Map: In an effort to better prepare southern Brazilian communities for floods, researchers are asking residents to document high water marks and damage with smartphone photos, which will be used to create digital maps and models, Yale Environment 360 reports.

Southern China Landslides: Nearly 15 inches of rain fell within 24 hours in the southeastern coastal province of Fujian, causing the collapse of 378 homes and killing at least 11 people, AP reports. Meanwhile, in northern China, droughts and temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Fahrenheit prompted a heat warning from the country’s National Meteorological Center. 

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply