Gaza’s cesspools

Around 120,000 cubic meters of untreated wastewater flow into the Mediterranean daily from Gaza, yet new wastewater treatment plants are reducing pollution.

Mohammed Asad APA images

“We haven’t felt at ease in two years,” Hana Abu Dhaher, 23, said. “We no longer enjoy meals or family gatherings.”

Life hasn’t been the same for the Abu Dhaher family since April 2021, when a new wastewater treatment plant opened about 100 meters from their family home, located east of central Gaza’s al-Bureij camp.

“Our neighborhood is infested with flies and mosquitoes,” Abu Dhaher, an accountant, said. “Furthermore, the foul odor does not leave the house.”

The al-Bureij wastewater treatment plant was built to treat all of central Gaza’s wastewater – a significant task, given Gaza’s sewage crisis. Currently, the plant absorbs around 60,000 cubic meters of sewage water daily, according to engineer Zuhdi al-Ghariz, the project director of the Ministry of Local Government.

As one of the world’s most densely populated areas, the Gaza Strip and its population of 2.1 million are in dire need of more sewage treatment facilities like al-Bureij.

Currently, around 120,000 cubic meters of untreated wastewater from Gaza go into the Mediterranean every day. Though, with new treatment plants, this amount appears to be on the decline.

The existing sewage networks service only 60 percent of homes in the Gaza Strip, and the remaining 40 percent depend on septic tanks that often leak and seep into the aquifer.

Yet, over the past several years, as more facilities are built to address Gaza’s wastewater crisis, the residents in their vicinity are enduring a different kind of nightmare.

Residents protest al-Bureij

While project director al-Ghariz acknowledged that al-Bureij residents might be bothered by the plant’s smell – which he says is caused by the accumulation of untreated wastewater – he said that the plant’s construction was “supervised by international consultants who designed the stations according to international specifications.”

Specifically, Germany, which invested $100 million in the plant’s construction.

The plant “handles the problem of sewage that was spilling into the sea by natural flow, ruining soil and groundwater wells,” he said, noting that in coming years the plant will treat 90,000-120,000 cubic meters daily.

Hashem Taha, the al-Bureij treatment plant operations officer, also did not deny the existence of problems for residents.

“We saw an increase in insects and terrible odors,” he said, “therefore the municipality of al-Bureij was provided with diesel and materials needed to kill mosquitoes and clear weeds that created a fertile environment for their development.”

He said that the smell problem has mostly been resolved, and that it is only particularly bad for an hour or two during the day, when the station processes the wastewater.

Yet Zahia Abu Dhaher, the mother of Hana, said the smell is persistent.

“The smell is harmful, especially for us, the elderly who suffer from shortness of breath,” she said.

Furthermore, the mosquitoes are so bad that her sons and daughters have developed rashes as a result of the nonstop bites and must visit the doctor on a regular basis for treatment.

This past August, the Abu Dhaher family along with other residents of al-Bureij protested outside the gates of the plant, demanding an improvement in conditions, but to no avail.

Zahia Abu Dhaher said that Israel’s May 2021 attack on Gaza only worsened the situation.

The station was operated remotely and faced numerous power cuts, which intensified the smell as a result of the accumulation of solid waste.

During that attack, Israel further destroyed or damaged 23,070 meters of sewage lines and 2,850 meters of rainwater drain pipes, according to the Gaza municipality.

Nihad al-Khatib, the official in charge of operating sewage plants at Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, said the impact of the Israeli blockade on Gaza’s sewage crisis cannot be overstated.

“The development of many plants has been postponed because the occupation has not allowed the entry of equipment needed to operate and complete them,” he said. “Some projects have been suspended for more than a year and a half.”

As Israel destroys Gaza’s infrastructure, prevents the entry of equipment needed to maintain facilities and imposes restrictions on the construction of new infrastructure, the efficient treatment of sewage becomes a near impossibility.

Flooded with sewage in Beach camp

Mousa al-Sisi, 76, dreads wintertime in Beach refugee camp.

In 2019, a sewage pipe opposite his house exploded and leaked into his family’s home. He had to build a wall of sandbags outside to stop the flow and re-route it toward the sea.

For this reason, many Palestinians in Gaza see sewage pipes and drains as bombs just waiting to explode every winter.

“The [sewage] problem has been present for years,” al-Sisi said, “but it has gotten much worse in the last two years due to the camp’s inadequate infrastructure.”

Infrastructure is shoddy throughout the camps in the Gaza Strip, and it causes daily problems that range from a nuisance to catastrophic.

“When my grandchildren go to school,” al-Sisi said, “they jump from stone to stone amid the foul smells.”

Each winter carries the threat of temporary displacement, property damage and health issues due to flooding and burst sewage and drainage pipes.

The Gaza municipality has discussed a development project in coordination with UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, to help address the sewage crisis in Beach camp.

Despite such projects, sewage problems persist. For instance, in the Jabaliya camp, the Abu Rashid pond is a constant nuisance to those who live nearby.

Originally a natural spot where rainwater collected, in 1975 the nine-meter-deep pond became a depository for sewage.

Even with the numerous development projects in this area, the pond still emits a powerful stench and attracts rodents and insects, especially in summer.

Abdel Rahman al-Ajrami, 35, is unemployed and lives near Abu Rashid pond.

“We really do not need the problems caused by the pond,” he said. “We live in a state of anxiety with the first drop of rain in winter, as the water level rises and sometimes gets into our homes.”

Hamdi Mutair, the former director of Jabaliya municipality’s water and sanitation department, said there are efforts in place to maintain the pond, such as pumping in water and spraying pesticides.

Yet constant interruptions of electricity and the fuel crisis have instead made the pond a cesspool.

Yasmin Abusayma is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza, Palestine.