Thursday, January 15, 2009

Gaza’s Blackening Beaches

Can you imagine it, America? Can you imagine living in such conditions?

At the rate things are going, you may not have to wait much longer.

"Gaza’s Blackening Beaches

by Mohammed Omer

Wadi Gaza sewage water going to the beach (Photo M. Omer).

FLIES SWARM by day, mosquitoes buzz and bite throughout the night, as an ever-present putrid pungency thickens the air. Fermented by the heat, the translucent fog of nauseating gases permeates one’s skin and hair, re-emerging as sweat. One breathes it, tastes it. It is in everything and of everything. Gaza reeks.

Umm Hamada, 39, cannot treat her water. She can do nothing to erase the smell or keep insects from entering her home through the open sewage system. “When night falls and there is no electricity it smells worse,” she says, holding her nose in disgust. Several of her seven children have been sickened by the pervasive stench.

Her neighbor, with a pajama-clad six-year-old, interjects, “We can’t sleep—not only because of the smell,” he explains, “but because of the mosquitoes.”

Sewage in Gaza

The issue of sewage management in Gaza, including the problems of runaway waste, treatment and containment, dates back to 1967, when Israel invaded and occupied the Gaza Strip. At that time, Israeli occupation forces constructed three new sewage treatment facilities to serve Gaza’s population of 380,000 people: one in Beit Lahiya in the north, one near Gaza City, and one near Rafah in the south, consisting primarily of a treatment lagoon and incapable of processing the majority of sewage it receives. In Khan Younes, inadequate septic tanks remain the primary method of treating waste, thus explaining the recent flooding of the city’s sewage system which devastated homes and overran the streets with filth.

During the 1980s Israel added a handful of treatment lagoons and small sewage processing stations within Gaza. Built at a fraction of the size necessary to serve Gaza’s rapidly growing and increasingly dense population, the “improvements” quickly were rendered obsolete. In 2008, these aging facilities are overwhelmed by a 400 percent increase in Gaza’s population. According to eyewitnesses, heavy rains in late October caused the flooding of tens of houses in Gaza’s Al Shati refugee camp because existing sewage pipes were unable to accommodate the excess water.

Israel’s frequent re-invasions of and attacks on Gaza and its strangulating siege since the election of Hamas in January 2006, coupled with its moratorium on imports, further debilitated the overworked and by-now-ancient system. Parts break and cannot be replaced. Ponds overflow, pipes burst, machines freeze or crumble, causing sewage to back up and overflow into Gaza’s streets, homes—and now its shoreline. In several area the cresting and crashing waves are opaque with black deposits of untreated sewage. As the waves recede, they leave rancid ribbons of waste on the sands. Many Gazans, alarmed by the warnings of the Palestinian Ministry of Health, now fear the blackening beaches.

More than four miles of Gaza’s coastline has been deemed contaminated and unfit for swimming. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Gaza director, Mahmoud Zaher, confirms that 11 of Gaza’s beaches are now classified as polluted.

An Ecological Disaster

Gaza’s sewage enters its Mediterranean shores at an estimated rate of 30,000 to 50,000 cubic meters of partially treated waste water and 20,000 cubic meters of raw sewage each day. An estimated additional 10,000 to 30,000 cubic meters of partially treated sewage seeps into the ground, contaminating the aquifer, according to the Gaza Coastal Municipality Water Utility, and further threatening the primary source of drinking water. “Ninety percent of Gaza’s drinking water is considered polluted under the international standards specified by the WHO,” notes Monther Shoblak, an engineer and director of the water utility.

“What ends up in the sea is the water normally reclaimed for agricultural purposes upon proper treatment,” he adds.

With contamination of both sea and ground water, the toxins have entered Gaza’s food supply—its fruits, vegetables, fish, milk and meat—and ultimately, of course, the bodies of Gaza’s men, women and children who, as a result of the siege and Israel’s restrictions on imports, remain largely dependent upon whatever can be caught or grown locally.

Exacerbating the danger to the people and delicate ecosystems of Gaza is an intermittent power supply. “Since Israel destroyed Gaza’s main electricity station in 2006,” Shoblak explains, “when we are able to generate electricity, our first priority is pumping sewage away from homes. This leaves little [power] for treatment.”

Four Decades vs. Three Millennia

For more than three thousand years, agriculture and fishing formed the bedrock of Gaza’s economic life. Prior to 1967, Gaza was a self-sufficient and prosperous society of independent farmers, fisherman and small business owners. But Gaza’s Israeli occupiers have prevented its fishermen from plying their trade outside the 10 kilometer—although, more realistically, 3 to 6 kilometer—offshore fishing zone, enforced at gunpoint by Israeli navy vessels.

Contamination and bacteria will affect the fishing industry in Israel and Egypt, as it already has in Gaza, warned water engineer Marek Komarzynski of the International Committee of the Red Cross in an interview.

“Due to the strong current in the Mediterranean, [untreated] water could potentially end up in Israel,” he said. “Thus, the contamination of the Mediterranean in Gaza’s region may affect Egypt and even Israel.”

Gaza’s southern city, Rafah, lies close to Egypt’s border, with Beit Hanoun in the north bordering Israel. Both areas suffer from water pollution.

Israel is aware of the problem, Komarzynski noted. “I knew that the Israeli authorities were concerned,” he stated, when Israel offered to provide water pipes during last year’s emergency in Gaza.

Representatives from the Israeli Water Authority were not available to comment on the contamination crisis.

Shoblak and other experts in Gaza cite three additional factors contributing to the escalating sewage crisis: 1) The Israeli occupation, illegal under international law and in its 41st year; 2) mismanagement of funds and resources by Palestinian agencies and the international community; and 3) international acquiescence.

Under pressure from Israel and its supporters, the international community joined the Jewish state in imposing and enforcing collective punishment on a civilian population. This was in retaliation for the January 2006 election of a Hamas government, in elections deemed free and fair by international observers.

Of the three factors cited, Palestinians have control over how they manage their resources, but have no influence over the the Israeli occupation and international complicity.

Not Merely a Local Crisis

Today, Gaza’s tide pools and rich aquatic life continue to deteriorate. The spreading of the contamination to both Israel and Egypt renders Gaza’s occupation-induced pollution more than a local catastrophe. The ramifications represent an international ecological, human and economic disaster—one that is manmade, unnecessary and wholly solvable.

Umm Hamada doesn’t know how long she must wait before the pervasive stench of sewage becomes history, but at the moment it seems it may only be her grandchildren who will live to see that day.

Baruch Nagar, head of Israel’s Water Administration, is responsible for Gaza and the West Bank. He maintained that the problem was not new and that Israel was doing all it could to help Gaza process its sewage.

“Palestinians have been pumping partially-treated or untreated sewage water into the sea for years,” he asserted, “not just since the beginning of this year. Israel assists in various ways with the pumping and water distribution and the continued operation of the sewage treatment plants. We have a project in Beit Lahiya, in the north of Gaza,” he said. (That project, in fact, is funded by a German donor.)

“Sewage waste is a serious problem that could affect Israel and Egypt, maybe not now, but in the near future,” Nagar acknowledged.

Palestinian officials and others, however, hold Israel responsible for the crisis, accusing it of not allowing into Gaza 2- to 6-inch water pipes, cement and necessary replacement parts and equipment. They see Israel forcing Gaza to deal with its untreated sewage water however it can—which so far has proven disastrous.

As Shablak puts it: “How long are we going to wait to allow such environmental disasters to happen before actions are taken?”