During Israel’s invasion of Gaza, it was predicted that the heavy bombing and shelling across the territory could breach the earthen walls of the sewage collection ponds there and cause a large, potentially catastrophic, sewage overflow. These fears arose from recent experience. In March 2007, six people drowned in a sudden flood of wastewater when the earthen retaining walls at a sewage lagoon, weakened by neglect and heavy rains, collapsed in the northern Gaza hamlet of Umm Nasr, near Beit Lahiya.
During the Israeli attack in January, there was a breach in one of the earthen embankment walls of a sewage containment lagoon in Gaza due to some form of Israeli military activity resulting in a large sewage flood.
Although the incident was only reported recently, it was evident from a United Nations analysis of QuickBird satellite images taken from space on 16 January, and confirmed by photos taken by a UN Environmental Program team on the ground in Gaza on 30 January, was an outflow from a sewage lagoon in Sheikh Ejleen, next to the main wastewater treatment plant in Gaza City.
While there was no loss of life this time, there was likely long-term environmental damage, including to Gaza’s already polluted water aquifer — the only source of water for the coastal strip — with dangerous consequences for human health.
Satellite photos and analysis released on 10 March by the UN Institute for Training and Research’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme, stated that “A single impact crater [occurring on, or sometime before 10 January 2009] to the eastern section of a holding pond (70m x 150m) caused a massive outflow of sewage, moving an estimated distance of 1.2 kilometers.” The outflow of sewage was “violent,” with “indications of severe land erosion.”
While the UN map analysis does not speculate on what caused the “impact crater,” the damage to the retaining wall apparently was most likely caused by bombing from Israeli aircraft. However, there is also a possibility that Israeli military bulldozers and/or tanks operating in that area caused this damage. Artillery shelling, another possibility, has not been mentioned.
Sari Bashi, Executive Director of GISHA, the Israeli human rights organization that has gone to the Israeli high court to try to stop Israeli military-administered sanctions against the entire Gaza Strip, said that her office had received an affidavit confirming damage from an Israeli army attack that hit Gaza’s sewage infrastructure.
Maher Najjar, the Deputy Director of Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, confirmed in a telephone interview from his home in Gaza on Friday that “one of the earthen shoulders of a sewage lagoon of the main treatment plant in Gaza City had received two hits from F-16s, the shoulder was damaged, and 500,000 cubic meters of raw sewage spilled out.”
Najjar added that “The main problem is we are afraid of the pollution from this spill into Gaza’s underground water aquifer.” He explained that the land in the area around the sewage lagoon was sandy, and as a result “the flood of spilled sewage infiltrated quickly into the aquifer.”
Neither Najjar nor his colleagues were in the Gaza treatment plant at the time to witness the attacks, and did not get there until much later due to the dangerous war conditions.
An affidavit supplied by Najjar on 11 January to GISHA, which was at the time in the process of petitioning Israel’s high court to provide fuel and electricity to vital humanitarian institutions in Gaza, stated that: “On 10 January, one of the sewage lagoons at the Gaza treatment plant, the third one, was hit by Israeli shelling, and the sewage has started to seep into nearby areas. The spillway has reached one kilometer, meaning that the sewage is already running one kilometer past the lagoon, contaminating homes and farmland nearby, which is highly dangerous for residents. There is an additional danger of contamination of the drinking water, if sewage leaks into the valves of the water network. We had given the coordinates of the plant and lagoons to the Israeli military, through the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross], and asked that it not be hit.”
A damage assessment report prepared by Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), with the help of the World Bank, after the cease-fire, stated that:
“During the Israeli offensive war in the Gaza Strip, CMWU has submitted all the water and wastewater facilities coordinate locations to the ICRC agency to coordinate with the Israeli military to avoid shelling these locations which will lead to [a] severe humanitarian crisis if water is stopped supplying or if wastewater flooding happens in case of targeting these locations. Even though, some were targeted directly by F-16 air strike rockets and military tanks … The water and wastewater network have the largest damages value between the other categories because the tanks were excavating the lands while they were moving and its value reaches up to 44 percent of the total damages encountered.”
In addition to the Gaza sewage overflow — now visible from space, as news stories reported — the just-released UN analysis also included satellite photos of “Rafah Building Destruction along the Egypt-Gaza Border” (presenting a satellite-based damage assessment along the Egypt-Gaza border, in which damaged buildings, infrastructure and impact craters have been identified). There were also 13 maps showing damage assessment overviews for the entire Gaza Strip and a satellite photo of the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA’s headquarters. The CMWU Damage Assessment reported that there was also Israeli war damage inflicted — apparently deliberately — on the North Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment installation in Beit Lahiya.
The North Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment was backed by Quartet envoy Tony Blair, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). On 15 December 2007, USAID’s then-newly-appointed administrator, Henrietta Fore, appeared on the main road (then undergoing major repair funded by USAID) from Jerusalem to Ramallah in the West Bank, where she announced that USAID was going to respond “to an urgent need to address potentially dangerous sewage issues in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza.” USAID, she announced, according to a press release, “will construct an emergency holding pond and provide the pumps and spare parts to operate it.”
A USAID official at the US embassy in Tel Aviv, contacted by this author, said at the time that this project — which she said was “to build an emergency secondary sewage holding pond to relieve the pressure on a bigger pond” — would probably get underway within weeks.
Last month, a USAID spokesperson in Tel Aviv told this author that “we completed a small emergency pumping station at the large sewage lagoon at the Beit Lahiya plant.” All parts and supplies to complete the project were allowed into Gaza, despite the continued Israeli military sanctions, and the project — which eventually cost about $350,000 — was completed in April 2008, the spokesperson noted.
Whether by luck or by particular care, there was no Israeli military damage to the USAID-funded small emergency pumping station built at the North Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment installation in Beit Lahiya, nor to two other USAID-funded projects that were completed in October 2008, costing $55,000 each, to renovate the water and sanitation facilities at the al-Quds and al-Ahli hospitals, elsewhere in the Gaza Strip. But other parts of the installation were not spared.
According to the CMWU’s recent post-war Damage Assessment: “The services rooms at the infiltration basin 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8 have been completely damaged especially the upper part of the chambers which were subjected directly by the Israeli bulldozers, and tanks, the bulldozers have deliberately destroyed, the upper part of the chambers which include the block and concrete works, the finishing works, plastering, doors, windows and lifting cranes. Large quantities of rubble have entered into the underground part of the chambers and may have caused damage to the on/off valve, this has to be checked later after removing the debris. It is noticed that the chambers damaged are located on the northern part of the access road while the other four chambers were not hit because of the existence of trench excavated along the southern site of the access road which most likely prevented the bulldozers from reaching far chambers.”
The CMWU also reported that the Electrical Control Room was damaged, and fuel storage tanks were vandalized by Israeli forces. The 3,000 liter diesel storage tanks were “dragged and thrown into basin no. 1,” resulting in “polluting the ground water.” In addition, the Damage Assessment stated that “Israeli bulldozers have deliberately damaged the entire electrical poles base and some manholes,” and added that there were at least four air strikes along the route of the sewage installation lines.
A spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Defense did not return a phone call asking for information.
Marian Houk is a journalist currently working in Jerusalem with experience at the United Nations and in the region. This article originally appeared in an earlier form on her blog, www.un-truth.com.