Poisoning of Gaza water puts population at risk

11 August 2010

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Thousands of Palestinians flock to the beaches in Gaza despite knowing it is heavily polluted. (PCHR)

The signs which dot the beach along the Gaza City waterfront are clear: “THIS BEACH IS POLLUTED,” they read, and yet they seem to serve only as obstacles for children running to the sea rather than warnings to be heeded of the serious health risks associated with swimming here. For those who care to doubt the sign’s veracity, one need only to stroll north along the beach for a couple hundred meters to see raw sewage being pumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea from one of the 16 discharge sites along the coast. Yet thousands fill Gaza’s beaches and waters in spite of the clear dangers.

For the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip, deprived of their freedom of movement, worn down daily by the all-pervasive effects of the Israeli-imposed closure, the sea is one of the few sources of respite available in their lives, and for a people that have been denied their economic livelihood, it is the only such activity that is affordable and available. The sea plays an integral part in the lives of this coastal community: it is a place to fish, to play and to gather with family. The importance of the sea to the people of Gaza cannot be understated: “without the sea there is no Gaza,” explains Abdel Haleem Abu Samra, public relations officer of the Palestinian Center for Human Right’s Khan Younis Branch.

The intimate relationship Palestinians in Gaza share with the sea thus makes the current state of Gaza’s beaches and sea all the more disheartening and disconcerting. Due to the effects of the total closure imposed by Israel in 2007 — principle among them a complete lack of construction materials to build new wastewater treatment facilities or spare parts to repair existing ones, as well as an acute lack of fuel and electricity to run necessary waste treatment cycles — an average of 20,000 cubic meters of raw sewage is dumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea every day, estimates Monther Shoblak, director general of the Coastal Municipality Water Utility, although in some areas this figure reaches 70,000-80,000 cubic meters per day.

Beyond tarnishing Gaza’s once pristine shores, the noxious consequences of the deterioration of the wastewater treatment operation in Gaza resulting from the closure hold much more grave implications: the Gaza Strip is, quite literally, being poisoned. Ninety percent of the water available in Gaza from its only source — the coastal aquifer — is undrinkable, and nitrate and chloride levels reach six and seven times the international safety standards put forward by the World Health Organization (WHO). As the director of the operation to keep the water in Gaza clean, it is Monther’s job to cure this poisoning, but, like a doctor without medicine, there is little he can do while the tools he needs are denied to him and his operation under the policy of closure, which has been practiced on Gaza by Israel in various forms since 1991.

Like all Palestinians in Gaza, Monther and his staff at the Coastal Municipalities Water Utilities are forced to improvise, to make do with very little; few others, perhaps, must do so much with so little. Monther is tasked not only with disposing of the wastewater created by the 1.5 million people in this tiny strip of land but also with ensuring that they have access to safe, clean drinking water. That approximately 80 percent of Gaza’s population lives in refugee camps, some of the most densely populated areas on earth where adequate infrastructure is rare and the conditions for waterborne disease are rife, is the least of Monther’s concerns: for more than three years now, Monther has been forced to conduct his efforts while being deprived of the resources needed to do so, with perseverance in place of concrete and ingenuity instead of a supply of clean water. Monther analogizes the plight of Gaza’s wastewater treatment facilities with an old car that is forced into continual use despite being denied the spare parts needed for upkeep: eventually the car falls into disrepair and begins to spit plumes of jet black, highly polluted smoke — a highly relevant image in Gaza, where adulterated gasoline is the normal input into cars due to sharp restrictions on fuel under the Israeli closure.

Compounding the challenge facing Monther and his staff is the fact that they must also adapt Gaza’s deteriorating wastewater treatment facilities for a rapidly increasing population which, accordingly, produces a rapidly increasing volume of waste. Gaza’s current wastewater treatment facilities were constructed with an operational capacity of 32,000 cubic meters of waste a day. With a growth rate that is one of the world’s highest — an estimated 3.6 percent annually — Gaza’s surging population has overwhelmed the capacity of the waste treatment facilities, and Monther estimates that the facilities are now receiving at least 65,000 cubic meters of waste daily. Unable to handle more than half of its intake, much of the sewage is directly transported to the sea, where it is dumped completely untreated. Much of this sewage washes back onto Gaza’s shores, polluting the beaches and creating toxic swimming conditions for the countless children and adults seeking escape from the intense summer heat.

Nowhere is the deteriorating condition of Gaza’s wastewater operation more evident than in Beit Lahiya, in the northern region of the Strip. One of the Gaza Strip’s three wastewater treatment facilities, the Beit Lahiya station receives more than 25,000 cubic meters per day, almost twice its operational capacity. Exacerbating this problem, the facility is cutoff from access to the sea, and thus the untreated wastewater flows directly into the surrounding area, creating a cesspool — literally a lake of sewage — that now comprises approximately 450 dunam (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters). The Beit Lahiya station stands as one of the most extreme examples of the environmental and health disasters that the Israeli policy of closure has realized in the Gaza Strip. The consequences of the sewage lake have been fatal and not only because, in March 2007, the lake’s embankment broke and the subsequent flooding killed five people: the contamination of the groundwater in the northern Gaza Strip caused by the pollution has resulted in nitrate levels that are in some places seven times higher than WHO’s international safety standards.

“Nitrate is a silent killer,” says Monther: it is colorless, odorless and tasteless, but when consumed at levels even much lower than those present in Gaza, continued nitrate intake results in a reduced oxygen supply to vital tissues such as the brain. Nitrate intake is particularly dangerous for infants, for whom it can result in brain damage and possibly death. Information regarding the long term consequences for the people of Gaza in this regard is still unknown, however, for, as one donor has said: “Nowhere else in the world has such a large number of people been exposed to such high levels of nitrates for such a long period of time. There is no precedent, and no studies to help us understand what happens to people over the course of years of nitrate poisoning.”

The implications of Gaza’s growing population thus also present serious concerns for the other aspect of Monther’s task, which is to provide safe and clean drinking water to the people of Gaza Strip. The coastal aquifer, which runs underground along much of the Strip, is Gaza’s only source of potable water and its most important natural resource. Historically, this aquifer has served as the lifeblood for the people of Gaza and has given rise to the agriculture, particularly citrus farms, for which the Gaza Strip is famous. Once, before the imposition of the closure policy by Israel in the early 1990s, one could dig a hole within 100 meters from the beach and find drinkable water, says Monther. Now, he explains, the CMWU has been forced to issue a warning against the drilling of wells within two kilometers of the beach, which, taken in combination with the “buffer zone” unilaterally imposed by Israeli military on Gaza’s border with Israel — tacitly acknowledged at 300 meters but practiced sometimes at distances much further — leaves little space for water extraction.

As inconvenient as it may seem, the reason behind the ruling is even more worrying: the aquifer is polluted, poisoned by sewage and depleted by the rising population which it can no longer support. Only 10 percent of the aquifer’s water now meets international standards for consumption, and, if no changes are made, Monther fears that this figure may soon reach 0 percent. A UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) report published in September 2009 stated that water extraction is roughly double the capacity of the aquifer. Accordingly, Monther explains, people in Gaza are drilling more and deeper wells, further polluting the aquifer with water from the saline aquifer to the east of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, and from the sea.

Confronted with this rapidly deteriorating situation and denied by Israel the resources with which to address it, Monther and his staff have been forced to adopt unconventional means of tackling Gaza’s wastewater issues. In the southern Gaza cities of Rafah and Khan Younis, Monther explains, the wastewater situation had reached a crisis level: like Beit Hanoun, waste was being dumped directly into the land area surrounding the cities, as the area lacked both an adequate waste treatment facility and the materials needed to construct it. In response to the crisis, which threatened to deny access to safe drinking water for the combined population of 350,000, Monther and his staff turned to a practice employed by many Palestinians in Gaza surrounded by rubble left by Israel’s latest offensive: they begin to collect aggregate from the nearby remains of the Philadelphi Route, the border between Gaza and Egypt which was partially destroyed in 2008 when thousands of Palestinians flowed into Egypt seeking food and supplies. With these secondhand supplies, the CMWU was able to construct what Monther refers to as a “near state-of-the-art facility.” Although chloride levels — the counterpart to the pollution problem poisoning Gaza’s water — are still as high as six times the international standard in this southern area, Monther believes that they “are saving the city of Khan Younis by addressing the increasing levels of nitrates and removing the raw sewage from the densely populated urban areas.”

In such ways, Monther and his staff at CMWU continue their efforts to keep the water of Gaza clean, but, as he admits, “we know its not enough: the water in Gaza is deteriorating quickly. Until we find another source of water, the population in Gaza remains at great risk.” For now, the poisoning of the Gaza Strip continues, and, for all Gaza’s efforts and ingenuity, there is little that can be done to stop it as long as the closure continues. The treatment of Gaza’s wastewater cannot progress as long as Israel restricts basic building materials and adequate levels of fuel and electricity, and, with a rising population over-burdening the capacity of the current facilities, Gaza’s wastewater treatment operation only deteriorates. As Desmond Travers, a member of the UN Fact-finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, concluded in the Mission’s Report: “If these issues are not addressed Gaza may not even be habitable by WHO standards,” and the September UNEP report has warned that the damage being incurred now “could take centuries to reverse.”[ 6] As long as the closure persists, however, the people of Gaza remain helpless to combat these problems; they have little choice but to wait, spending their time at the beach trying to ignore the pollution that piles up around them.

This report is part of the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights’ Narratives Under Siege series.