The Reality of Waste Management in Gaza: Risks & Challenges

Children walking through piles of garbage near theor homes in Khan Younis

Imagine a small and enclosed space with 2 million inhabitants, cramped together, living literally on top of one another. The land they are forced to live in measures only 365 square kilometers, an area the size of Bremen in Germany. Its borders are heavily fortified and people cannot leave except with special permit from Israel that is rarely given. The resources of this confined and overpopulated space are depleted and the groundwater is polluted. For years now, the electricity supply works only up to 4 hours a day. This is Gaza in 2018.

Two years from now, this small strip of land on the shores of the Mediterranean will be unlivable. This was the conclusion of a UN study published in 2012 and was reaffirmed by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in 2018.

Guterres’ statement indicates the approaching collapse of the Gaza Strip after 12 years of siege and blockade by Israel and Egypt, political division between the two leading Palestinian factions - Fateh and Hamas - and after three devastating Israeli assaults on the strip in 2008, 2012, and 2014.


Solid Waste in Numbers

The Gaza strip is running out of water, energy and even fresh air. The 2 million inhabitants are literally drowning in waste water[1] and suffocating in solid waste.

Gaza produces around 2 thousand tons of solid waste per day or an average of 730 thousand tons annually. This is the equivalent to 1 kilogram of waste per person per day, with variations between cities and villages.

65% of the solid waste is organic, says Dr. Abdel Majeed Nassar, professor of Environmental Engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza. 11% is plastic, 12% paper and carton waste, 7% metallic waste, and 5% is not specified other waste.

According to Nassar´s figures, the amount of solid waste produced daily was 1,893 tons in 2015 and in 2020 it is estimated to reach 2,230 tons per day. These numbers are dangerous when compared to the limited space of the Gaza Strip and the high-density of the population, Nassar warns.

 “The quantity of solid waste is not the only and major indicator of the environmental collapse, the reality of how existing landfills are operating is even scarier.” Nassar explains that the Gaza Strip has three major landfills: Sofa in southern Gaza, Deir al-Balah, and Johr al-Deek in eastern Gaza. The lifespan of all three landfills has been exceeded by over ten years already. They have long lost their capability to accommodate any more waste. This has resulted in the spread of diseases among the residents of surrounding neighborhoods. The environment has been harmed and the safety of groundwater resources and agricultural lands is threatened. Moreover, about 80 unregulated random dumping sites have sprung up, next to residential areas.

Children playing near their home in Khan Younis, Gaza that is being suffocated by a random dumping site
Figure 1 Children playing near their home in Khan Younis, Gaza that is being suffocated by a random dumping site

Dr. Nassar also points out that solid waste management in Gaza faces other challenges like the lack of proper management by municipalities, which is exacerbated by the Israeli blockade that hinders the entrance of needed materials and equipment.


Landfills…Ticking Bombs

Due to their overflowing the 3 official landfills in Gaza are considered environmentally unsanitary. The waste spreads beyond the insulation of the dumping site and liquid leachate spills onto areas beyond the landfill. The leachate then infiltrates the ground and contaminates nearby agricultural soils and the underlying groundwater reservoir.

 “The landfills were designed to expire in 2008, but the Israeli blockade and lack of donor funding has hindered their renewal”, explains Mr. Ali Barhoum , Executive Director of the Solid Waste Management Committee. “The main goal we are currently working to achieve is to remove waste away from the residential areas” he adds.

The Solid Waste Committee is the body responsible for managing solid waste in the three governorates Middle Area, Rafah, and Khan Younis, which cover up to 50% of the total solid waste of the Gaza Strip. The other 50% is run by the municipalities of Gaza City and the northern area.

To relieve the Sofa landfill, the Solid Waste Management Committee is currently working on constructing a new landfill next to it, according to international environmental standards. “The new landfill is 500 meters away from the green line and is intended to meet international environmental standards”. Mr. Barhoum explains. “It is designed to accommodate up to 700 tons per day from 17 different municipalities in the middle and southern governorates, which constitute 50% of Gaza’s waste. It’s estimated that by 2040, the landfill will be able to accommodate the whole quantity of waste generated in the Gaza Strip.” 

The landfill will be constructed on 235 acres and is part of the “Managing Solid Waste Project in Southern Gaza Governorates” funded by the International Bank Group, European Union, the French Agency for Development, and the Palestinian Authority.

Additionally, the same donors are supporting another project for the rehabilitation and expansion of the Johr al-Deek Landfill, which will be designed to operate using methods of healthy disposal and waste sorting, according to Barhoum.

Regarding the increasing number of random dumping sites, he adds: “At this time, we cannot control or limit the existence of random dumps as municipalities are not capable of providing the minimum level of waste collection or disposal services because of the high cost.  The service bills that citizens pay cover only 10 to 15% of the total needed budget for removing and disposing waste.”

Furthermore, municipalities are forced to reduce their movements because of the lack of fuel needed for their vehicles, which results in the accumulation of waste in and around dumps in the streets. 

Children walking through piles of garbage near theor homes in Khan Younis
Figure 2 Children walking through piles of garbage near theor homes in Khan Younis

Diminishing financial resources are one of the main reasons for the deterioration of waste disposal. Engineer Maher Salem, the Director General of Water and Sanitation in the Municipality of Gaza, warns that his municipality might not be able to continue providing its services to citizens much longer. He attributes this to the recent punitive measures imposed by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah on the Gaza Strip. It leads to a reduction of the monthly expenditures budget by 30 million USD. This was done by cutting salaries of PA employees by 50%, leaving them incapable of paying the bills of their municipalities. Additionally, the overall foreign aid to the Gaza Strip declined following the Trump administration cutting aid to the Strip by 50 to 60 million USD.

“The projects currently being implemented do not cover the needs of the environmental sector in Gaza”, Salem says. “The monthly operational expenses of municipalities used to be covered through bill payments by citizens, but now we only collect 7% of the bills which is barely enough to cover 30% of the municipality’s expenses.”

This calculation is supported by Dr. Maher al-Taba’a, an economic expert and the Head of the Chamber of Commerce in Gaza. “The Gaza Strip is witnessing a reduction of funds from all donor bodies which is reducing the government’s revenues in parallel with reduction of donor countries’ support to the PA’s budget in the West Bank.”


Mismanagement ... Disastrous Leachate 

The deteriorating economic conditions and the Israeli procedures are the major challenges for proper solid waste management in Gaza. Mismanagement by the municipalities is another factor that has to be counted. One of the main problems is the lack of sorting.  Medical waste is not separated from industrial, agricultural, and household wastes. This mixing leads to the production of toxic substances that have serious risks to human health.

Dr. Ahmed Hellas, who is a researcher on water and environmental issues, the treatment of solid waste leachate, and the Director of the Environmental Awareness Department at the Environmental Quality Authority, says: “Waste does not go through a sorting process, so all types of waste are mixed together resulting in the production of toxic leachate. It is created by pressure, heat, and chemical materials. Each ton of waste results in 200 to 250 liter of toxic leachate”,

Analyses of a sample of the leachate have shown that its toxic ingredients are more dangerous than those found in sewage water as it includes high percentages of chemical and organic toxins that have serious implications on the environment and human health.

Not only does the lack of sorting harm the environment, Gaza’s municipalities also frequently resort to burning solid waste, which is also harmful to the environment and humans.

“Burning organic waste causes bad odor and the release of toxic gases that affect the human respiratory system. Specifically, burning plastic waste causes carcinogenic gases that affect genes, the respiratory system and the eyes.” Helles clarifies.



The most pressing problem facing the Gaza Strip and its inhabitants is the lack of clean water. 98% of the water resources in Gaza are contaminated with nitrates and chlorides, says Monther Shublaq, Director General of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), which is the main water service provider in Gaza.

The population of the Gaza Strip depends on groundwater from the Coastal Aquifer that is extracted through about 8,000 wells, 300 of them belonging to municipalities and used for domestic and agricultural purposes. The over-pumping of the groundwater aquifer causes its depletion and contamination by infiltrating seawater.

In fact, the coastal aquifer has not been used for drinking purposes at least since 2016. The contamination is due to a variety of reasons including pollution from solid waste leachate penetrating the soil and reaching the groundwater aquifer as well as the intrusion of saline water from the sea. In addition, Gaza’s sea has become highly polluted because of the dumping of solid and liquid waste into the sea. UN figures show that at least 108 million liters of wastewater are flowing into the sea every day and that pollution levels are four times higher than the international standard.

Large Pipeline discharging wastewater into the sea in close proximity to Gazan beaches making it dangerous for people to swim.
Figure 3 Large Pipeline discharging wastewater into the sea in close proximity to Gazan beaches making it dangerous for people to swim.
Large Pipeline discharging wastewater into the sea in close proximity to Gazan beaches making it dangerous for people to swim II
Figure 3 Large Pipeline discharging wastewater into the sea in close proximity to Gazan beaches making it dangerous for people to swim.


Recycling Projects and Individual Initiatives

Waste recycling could contribute to solving the problem of solid waste in Gaza and simultaneously help to bolster the economy through decreasing expenditures on raw materials for some industries, increasing capital for others, and creating employment opportunities. But it is still not high on the agenda in the isolated and narrow strip. Only 5% of the total waste produced is used for recycling, says Nour Elddin al-Madhoun, Director of Solid Waste in the Municipalities Committee.

 “There are five major factors that stand in the way of increasing the percentage of recycling in Gaza: The Israeli blockade that prevents access to needed equipment and materials, lack of engineering and technical experiences in Gaza, continuous electricity cuts that increase operational costs, lack of governmental support to environmental and agricultural projects, and lack of foreign funding for the private sector and NGOs.”

 Ali Barhoum adds: “Studies prove that we can benefit from around 70% of the produced solid waste in the Gaza Strip. However, we still need a clear vision by the government and municipalities to work on a management system based on the R3 model that calls for Rationalization and Reduction of waste produced by households and factories and adopting Recycling methods, with the existence of an environmental code of conduct signed by all workers in waste-producing related works.”

However, the lack of a recycling program by the government is not discouraging youth and concerned citizens from coming up with their own initiatives. Among the individual initiatives that succeeded recently is the recycling of wood/timber started by Aya Kishko, a 28-year-old graduate of the Department of Architecture and Engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza. Her initiative uses wood remains from carpentry workshops for artistic works used mainly in home furniture.

Kishko’s idea came to her when she worked in the industrial area in Gaza following her graduation and noticed that huge amounts of wood were discarded without any benefit.

Her initiative is called “Basata” which translates to “simplicity”, referring to its simple tools and costs of production. Meanwhile, the workshop that Aya opened up herself currently employs 12 workers.

Figure 4 Majd next to rubble from destroyed houses that she uses to manufacture new bricks for construction
Figure 4 Majd next to rubble from destroyed houses that she uses to manufacture new bricks for construction

Gaza … A Major Dump for Israel

In light of the dire economic conditions in the Gaza strip, its residents increasingly buy used products imported from Israel and other countries. These second-hand items reach Gaza through traders who sell them at low prices that poor people can afford. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), currently 53% of the population in Gaza are living in poverty.

According to Ahmed Abu Qamar, the economic expert at al-Resalah Newspaper, Gaza receives hundreds of tons of second hand products every month that have a short lifespan, which means that all these products will quickly turn into solid waste.

 “Gaza has turned into a major dump for Israel”, Basem al-Masry, Head of Health and Environment Department at Beit Lahia Municipality in northern Gaza concludes bitterly.

In spite of these  hardships, Gazans have come up with creative ideas to overcome shortages and constraints.

For example Rawan Abdel Latif and Majd al-Mashharawi. The two civil engineers were inspired by the rubble of the buildings destroyed during several Israeli offensives in Gaza. They figured out a way to use the stone and ash from the rubbles of destroyed homes to produce new bricks for construction in a project they named “Green Cake.”  Israel on the entry of vital building materials such as cement. Green Cake bricks are very light, half the weight of the traditional building bricks, environmentally friendly, good for sound and heat insulation, and 30% cheaper than the traditional building bricks.

The “Green Cake” project won the bronze prize at the United Arab Emirates Energy Contest in 2017, after being adopted by the Business and Technology Incubator at the Islamic University of Gaza for entrepreneur students.

Figure 5 Majd with the final product, the bricks ready for construction
Figure 5 Majd with the final product, the bricks ready for construction


Another example of the resilience of Gazans is the initiative of Muhammad al-Dalies, aged 54, owner of an electricity tools factory who succeeded to turn the blockade into a milestone in his career. After Israel imposed its blockade and obstructed access over several electrical tools and raw materials, Muhammad decided to produce them locally utilizing recycled plastic.

The project that started in 2016 is now employing 30 workers. The idea is built on collecting plastic waste, sorting it, cleaning it, and applying a full recycling process resulting in plastic materials that can be used in the manufacturing of electrical equipment such as plugs, wire covers, plastic parts for various electrical devices such as fans, boilers and more.

These initiatives show the resilience and perseverance of the people of Gaza in the face of an occupying force that entraps them in a small and environmentally damaged strip of land. They represent an act of defiance to the decade long embargo imposed on them and an expression of the overwhelming desire to live a dignified, fulfilling and healthy life. Additionally, they prove the growing commitment of Gazans to the protection of their endangered environment.



[1] In November 2013 a Gaza neighborhood was flooded by overflowing wastewater from a wastewater treatment plant. In February 2012 a child drowned in a wastewater basin in Beit Lahia.