Gaza garbage puts public health at risk

A Palestinian boy rummages through a garbage dump east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, April 2015.

Abed Rahim Khatib APA images

The view from Omayma Nasser’s home is getting uglier.

Huge heaps of waste — collected and thrown in an ad hoc landfill not a kilometer from her home in the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza — dominate the view.

“The sight is killing me,” the 37-year-old mother of six said. The overpowering stench is acutely nauseating, especially in the summer: “The smells waft over earlier in the mornings than at any other time of the year.”

The rubbish mounds also attract hungry animals, including stray dogs that terrify children and parents alike. Nasser’s children refuse to go to school unless their father escorts them past the notorious landfill.

But the sight, pungency and inconvenience are just the noticeable effects experienced by those who live around what are increasingly common ad hoc landfills in residential areas in Gaza that officials say they simply have no choice but to create.

Far more pressing are the potential health risks. Due to a lack of resources, waste in Gaza is rarely sorted. Domestic, industrial, agricultural and medical waste can all be mixed in landfills, say experts. When these are burned, poisonous and sometimes carcinogenic fumes are released that pose a health hazard to those nearby.

And with no proper waste management facilities and limited space, garbage is encroaching on neighborhoods.

Some of Nasser’s neighbors have already left the area because of the landfill. As it grew, municipality workers would burn the rubbish to make room for more waste. Such open-air incinerations happen every 10 days now, and the thick, black smoke that results causes coughing and respiratory problems — pervasive complaints among residents.

Nasser says she has no choice but to stay and battle it out.

“It is our 10th year in this area, but we cannot leave. Where would we go?”

No space for the rubbish

She and three other families in the area have complained to the municipality, but officials say their hands are tied.

Gaza’s expanding population — almost 2 million Palestinians in Gaza are now crammed into its 365 square kilometers — and a nearly 10-year-old Israeli-imposed blockade are putting enormous strain on the coastal enclave’s aged and damaged public utility infrastructure.

Last week, the United Nations once again reiterated the damage done in Gaza by the Israeli siege that “continues to undermine livelihoods and prevent the realization of a broad range of human rights.”

Unable to bring in crucial materials and equipment to repair, replace or modernize waste management facilities, Gaza’s authorities have been forced to turn to landfills in populated areas to address the problem.

In Bureij, Mahmoud Issa, head of the municipality, said there was no option but to designate a piece of land as a landfill and make the necessary calculations to limit the environmental impact.

“We try to locate land where not too many people live. Instead of an area with hundreds of families who will suffer from the landfill, we choose areas with few families,” he said.

Mohammed Musleh, the director of the solid waste department in Gaza’s Environment Quality Authority, said the Israeli blockade was directly to blame for what he said was a crisis holding profoundly negative consequences for nearly all aspects of life.

There is a shortage of garbage trucks, trash containers and spare parts to keep what equipment is there functioning, he said, adding, “Israel prevents us from importing the equipment and materials we need to dispose of solid waste properly.”

There are plans to build a large waste disposal plant and foreign funding is available. Permission from Israel to bring through the equipment is not forthcoming, however.

“We have plans, but they cannot be implemented without basic equipment like diggers,” said Musleh.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Gaza generated 716 tons of household solid waste per day in 2015. There are three main landfills, all located in the east of the narrow strip of land and away from populated areas. Over the past few years, Musleh’s department has counted some 50 ad hoc landfills, of which some 16 are no longer in use. Most of those sites lie in or near residential areas.

Health hazard

The closer to populated areas, the more hazardous the landfills are to public health. Children and the elderly are more likely to be harmed, according to Abdel Fattah Abed Rabbo, associate professor of environmental science at the Islamic University of Gaza.

“When waste is incinerated, hazardous gases like CO1, CO2, methane, dioxin and furans are released into the air, causing skin and respiratory diseases to those who are exposed,” he said.

Dioxins are particularly dangerous and are understood to be carcinogenic.

Compounding the problem, Abed Rabbo said, waste in Gaza is not sorted. Industrial, agricultural and medical products can all be mixed together and be found in landfills, increasing the potency of toxic gases being released into the air.

Hussam al-Amour, 32, started developing breathing problems a year ago. He lives with his extended family in an eastern neighborhood of Khan Younis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip. There, the problem is not landfills but trash containers dotted all over the neighborhood that are regularly set on fire, emitting noxious fumes.

Without proper waste management facilities, rubbish gets burned in trash containers, with the same unpleasant and dangerous results as landfill incinerations, if on a less intense scale.

“Too much trash in this area is destroying our lives. We have been suffering for ages, and our children will not escape this,” al-Amour said. He never invites colleagues or friends to his home. “It is embarrassing to have guests in my house with this putrid smell.”

The smell attracts rats and mosquitoes. Increasing numbers of wild dogs in the area, also attracted to the rubbish, have started to prey on the local livestock. Families like Amour’s make a living raising animals, but their sheep and chicken coops are now easy targets.

Landfills also attract rummagers, a growing phenomenon in impoverished Gaza. Landfills can yield a little money if they hold some metal or wood in decent condition. Some men bring their children along to inspect the trash, but sorting through the debris brings health hazards — from infected hospital needles to sharp objects.

Al-Amour asserted a safe and clean environment is a basic right, but one that does not obtain in Gaza today.

His concern is not his heavy breathing or constant cough: it is for his children.

“I am very worried about the future of my children if this continues. The notion that my children might suffer respiratory and skin problems terrifies me.”

Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist in Gaza.