Health risks on Gaza’s coast

A child swims in the “Shalihat” area in Gaza City despite warnings from the health ministry. (Erica Silverman/IRIN)

GAZA CITY (IRIN) - The World Health Organization (WHO) in the Gaza Strip, in conjunction with the Gaza health ministry, began a public awareness campaign this week to warn swimmers and fishermen of raw sewage discharges, and the potential dangers.

Signs were placed in seven areas along Gaza’s 42-km-long coastline where untreated sewage is being dumped directly in the sea, according to WHO officer Mahmoud Daher in Gaza.

“There are areas to be avoided, the possible threats are diarrheal diseases or skin diseases,” said Daher. “The effect on fish is limited to the [identified] areas, and shellfish — not very popular in the Gaza diet — could also be affected.”

WHO will make a full assessment later on in the season, said Daher.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) agrees with WHO that pollution of the costal waters is a public health matter, said FAO food security adviser Erminio Sacco based in Jerusalem.

Gaza’s environment authority also made announcements on TV, radio and in the press, warning Palestinians the seven areas (accounting for at least 10 percent of Gaza’s total beach area) are too polluted for swimming or fishing, according to Engineer Baha al-Ghaza from the authority.

“The health monitoring system in Gaza is not fully effective, so we are not sure of the exact effects of the pollution so far this season.” said al-Ghaza. The health ministry was developing a system to monitor the potential effects of the polluted seawater, said health ministry spokesperson Hamam Nasman.

Areas affected

According to the environment authority and the Coastal Municipal Water Utility (CMWU), four of the prohibited seven coastal areas are in Gaza City. Areas affected in the north are Beach Refugee Camp, the beachfront hotel area, the former presidential compound (only rubble remains), and an area populated by beachfront cafes known as “Shalihat.” Further south, affected areas include an area near former “Netzarim” settlement, Wadi Gaza (Gaza Valley), and Rafah (near the Gaza-Egypt border).

A main sewage pipe is discharging untreated sewage directly into the sea in all seven areas.

Despite the warnings, some families continue to swim and fish in the prohibited areas.

Eyad, aged 30, a former security officer under the Fatah authority, and his wife Nasrin, brought their three children to swim in the “Shalihat” area in Gaza City on 4 June.

“We heard warnings from the health ministry, but we think it is still safe,” said Eyad, as his five-year-old daughter Noa and three-year-old son Adel ran into the sea.

WASH report

About 80,000 cubic meters of raw and partially treated sewage is being discharged directly into the sea each day at multiple points along the coast, according to an April 2009 report published by the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) cluster, a coalition of UN agencies and international organizations responding to Gaza’s water and sanitation crisis.

Israel’s 23-month blockade of the territory and some limited damage due to the Israeli offensive (27 December 2008 - 18 January 2009) has put additional pressure on the undeveloped sewage infrastructure in Gaza, according to the WASH report.

Restricted entry of construction and industrial materials, and spare parts, is preventing Palestinians from rebuilding infrastructure, said the UN Office for the Coordination of humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

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