Gaza’s excrement river

Society

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From over-capacity cesspools to a contaminated aquifer, the water and sewage systems of the Gaza Strip are a living nightmare.

“Personally I’ve never been so overwhelmed by a smell. You feel that there is something terribly wrong in the air,” said Karl Schembri, communications outreach officer for Oxfam International. There’s something toxic hitting you in the face. There’s no escaping it.”

“Personally I’ve never been so overwhelmed by a smell. You feel that there is something terribly wrong in the air.”

Schembri grimaced with his back to the river of raw sewage otherwise known as Wadi Gaza.

“Around 30,000 cubic metres of sewage flow out here into the sea every day – [there are] 1.6 million people here and this is where it all goes,” Schembri said. “This is yet another face of the blockade. Because of the ban on entry of construction materials — cement, pipes and equipment which is either delayed by years or never allowed in — this is the only way Gazans can deal with it.”

Cutting the Gaza Strip roughly in half, Wadi Gaza flows east-west, laden with chemicals, trash and effluent. At the coast, its brown stream mixes with the Mediterranean blue surf before being caught in the current heading north past Gaza City to Israel. In total, 16 outfalls in coastal Palestine pump 80 million litres of raw sewage into the sea every day.

“If you go into the street, you cannot breathe fresh air,” said Ahmed al-Yaqoubi, director general of the Palestinian Water Resources Centre. “If you have children, where can you bring them? There are no parks, no gardens, just the sea. And if you see the sea, it is in a miserable condition. All of the Gaza Strip is in crisis.”

“If you go into the street, you cannot breathe fresh air.”

At first glance, nothing seems amiss along Gaza’s 40 kilometre long coastline. Every Friday families crowd the beaches and play in the waves. But poison lurks in the sand and water. The high-tide mark is delineated by a crust of sewage sludge. Green, sewage-eating algae cloak the beach’s rocks. The Mediterranean off the coast contains amounts of toxic Escherichia and Enterococci bacteria — both of which originate in human faeces — at levels far above World Health Organization standards.

“There is no natural reason for Gaza to be in this state. There is no calamity. There is no objective reason why we should be smelling this smell right now rather than having a tourist resort and people just enjoying the beach,” Schembri said. It’s just a political decision to keep 1.6 million people under blockade and collective punishment.”

Poison lurks in the sand and water.

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The shared sea

“We are joined by the environment,” said Majd Ghannam, director general of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU). “If we have contamination in Gaza and it enters the sea, basically Israel is downstream from the Gaza Strip. The first to suffer is the Ashkelon desalination plant. If something happens here in Gaza it will affect somewhere in Israel.”

Ghannam’s statement holds true for the main water source of the south-eastern Mediterranean. From Haifa in the northwest of Israel to the Sinai border town of Al-Arish in Egypt, millions rely on the Coastal Aquifer. Historically this rainwater-fed resource enabled agricultural civilizations to flourish, from the Romans to Theodore Herzl’s Jewish state. But now, along with ground water salination caused by over-pumping, Gaza’s cesspools and sewage are poisoning this shared Israeli, Egyptian and Palestinian resource.

Salty to taste, the water from the tap is chock full of bacteria and viruses, putting drinkers at risk of watery diarrhoea, acute bloody diarrhoea and hepatitis.

“Ninety-five percent of our water is contaminated,” said Ghannam, who recently led CMWU’s examination of the Gaza Strip’s water quality. “We found things in the water that shouldn’t be there, even in Gaza.”

Salty to taste, the water from the tap is chock full of bacteria and viruses, putting drinkers at risk of watery diarrhoea, acute bloody diarrhoea and hepatitis, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency.

Under blockade and over capacity

The faecal contamination of Gaza’s water resources is a product of decades of ruin and occupation. The damage is most visible in the northern cesspools of Beit Lahiya. Here, eight pools the size of football fields glisten under the hot sun. Their noxious evaporation fills the air. Insects and disease abound. The Ashkelon industrial district is visible just over five kilometres away. The Bedouin village of Umm Al Nasr lies adjacent to the reeking cesspools. Villagers live here under constant threat of disease and death.

In 2007, Beit Lahiya’s 45-hectare sewage lake leaked, drowning five and displacing 1,800 people from Umm Al Nasr. Two years later, a cesspool wall broke and flooded the village with 50,000 cubic metres of filthy water. Livestock drowned and homes were left uninhabitable.

Gaza is an arid land where every drop is precious.

“It will be dangerous for the population if we are overwhelmed [again] with water from the lagoons,” said Rajab Al-Ankah, head engineer at the waste water treatment plant. Designed to handle 8-10 million litres of sewage a day, the Beit Lahiya treatment plant currently processes more than 25 million litres daily. Raw sewage is now filling the eighth and final cesspool, which may soon be overwhelmed.

“Perhaps today, perhaps tomorrow — I don’t want to think about it,” Al-Ankah said. “It is very difficult to think about it. We must make new cesspools.”

Without reliable access to electricity because of Israeli destruction of power plants and limits on imports, Beit Lahiya’s aerators, mixers and pumps rely on a generator for half the day, consuming around a thousand litres of diesel, Al-Ankah said, rapping his knuckles on a nearly empty fuel tank.

Israel’s invasion three years ago, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, caused US$60 million worth of damage to Gaza’s sewage and water systems.

“We haven’t any alternative — daily we must pump 25 million [litres] to the eastern and northern pools,” said the German-trained engineer, shrugging. “I always have to keep my phone on.”

Despite a promised lifting of the Israeli siege, construction on the eastern sewage plant has been stalled since 2004; Gazans are denied access to concrete and piping, even for waste water treatment facilities.

“This partial lifting is a big joke. It was partially lifted so we can enjoy some Coca-Cola, fizzy drinks, chips; some trivial things. We need spare parts for our medical equipment, spare parts for our water filtration system; we need cement to rebuild our waste water systems,” said Dr. Mona El-Farra, project director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance and vice president of the Red Crescent Society in the Gaza Strip.

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Hydrologic war

Israel’s invasion three years ago, dubbed Operation Cast Lead, caused US$60 million worth of damage to Gaza’s sewage and water systems, according to a CMWU assessment.

Sewage treatment plants, lined and unlined cesspools, a dump, a waste water sea outlet, and 2,445 metres of sewage pipeline were hit during Israel’s coordinated naval, ground and aerial assaults. On 10 January 2009, the Sheikh Ijleen waste water plant was bombed by Israel. The resultant effluent flood was a kilometre long. At the Az Zaitoun waste water facility, a shell cracked open the containment wall of Anaerobic Pond No. 3. More than 100,000 cubic metres of sludge were released, contaminating at least 55,000 hectares of land, according to the UNEPEnvironmental Assessment of the Gaza Strip. The report estimated the environmental cleanup cost at US$26.51 million.

Gazans are kept from cleaning their own waste water by the Israeli occupation. Slowly, but surely, the situation is deteriorating.

Water futures

Gaza is an arid land where every drop is precious. Al-Yaqoubi looks at the cesspools and Wadi Gaza and sees millions of litres of this critical resource being wasted. If they could import the needed material, Palestinians could clean this water sufficiently to irrigate crops and reduce the load on their stricken water sources.

Much like the Civil Administration’s sanitation policy in the West Bank, Gazans are kept from cleaning their own waste water by the Israeli occupation. Slowly, but surely, the situation is deteriorating. The prospect of drought looms on the horizon.

“By 2015 we won’t have any water,” said Ghannam, who believes a five-year moratorium on pumping will save the aquifer. With a population expected to double to 3.2 million in five years, the future looks bleak for the world’s most densely-packed community (four people per square metre) whose sole water source is close to being exhausted.

“Israel is pushing people to evacuate, to find other places, to immigrate to other countries. To not be part of this land or live in it.”

The knowledge and the money (for the most part) to fix Gaza’s sewage and water disaster are ready. To stave off complete destruction, the Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Group’s Thirsting For Justice campaign calls for rapid alternative water source development, rehabilitation projects, and sanitation system upgrades. The Maia Project is providing schools with clean water, while Gruppo di Volontario Civille (GVC) is currently connecting beach pumps to an internationally funded desalination plant.

But the Palestinians themselves are also able and ready. “These are knowledgeable people — they can run their own country. They don’t need foreign aid, they don’t need expertise from abroad,” Schembri said. “They just need the freedom and the liberty to do it.”

By keeping Gaza thirsty, Ghannam said, “Israel is pushing people to evacuate, to find other places, to immigrate to other countries. To not be part of this land or live in it.”

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