Visitors need to hold their noses on approaching Wadi Gaza. Yet it is not the strong smell – resulting from pollution – and the sight of trash that cause the biggest surprises. It is that the area is densely populated.
Wadi Gaza has been recognized by the United Nations as one of the most important coastal wetlands in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin. The valley and its surrounding area have hosted a rich variety of ducks, herons, storks, raptors and flamingos.
More recently, it has become one of the few areas in Gaza where people with modest incomes can afford to buy property.
Suheil Mattar, a blacksmith, lived in eight different houses over a seven-year period, all of which he rented. After looking for a house to buy, he eventually found one in Wadi Gaza.
Mattar bought his four-bedroom house in Wadi Gaza for $13,500, moving to the area last year. He is paying the sum in installments.
An equivalently sized house or apartment – about 120 square meters – would cost $40,000 or more in central Gaza.
“Everyone thought the idea of buying a house in Wadi Gaza to be crazy,” he said. “But it is better than the hell of renting in a more crowded area. The living conditions here are bad, but we have got used to them.”
Coping with the odors from sewage is nonetheless a constant challenge. By buying air fresheners from local spice dealers, Mattar can sometimes block out the bad smells. Overcoming them completely has not been possible.
Snakes present an even bigger problem. During his first few months living in Wadi Gaza, a snake made its way into the living room of his house, terrifying his wife and children.
After that incident, Mattar built a concrete barrier outside the house. “Since then, no snakes have entered the house,” he said.
Some of the estimated 16,500 residents in Wadi Gaza have to endure considerably worse conditions.
For the past four years Eman al-Horany, her unemployed husband and four daughters have lived in a caravan approximately 50 meters from the valley. Aged 44, al-Horany is a Palestinian refugee who fled Syria’s civil war.
Al-Horany describes Wadi Gaza as a “dirty place,” but she has not been able to find accommodation elsewhere.
“We’re always sick and having health problems,” she said. “I lost my voice because of pneumonia and I struggled to find the medicine that would bring my voice back. Every night I wake up to hear my girls cough because of the bad smell.”
The housing situation in Gaza has entered a “catastrophic stage,” according to Maher al-Tabaa, who heads the Gaza Chamber of Commerce.
“Many areas are no longer desirable,” he said. Such areas include some of those where Israel has caused devastation during the three major offensives it has undertaken against Gaza over the past decade, as well as areas near the boundary separating Gaza from Israel.
An additional problem, according to al-Tabaa, is that the refugee camps in Gaza are generally too full for major construction projects to be undertaken within them.
Predictions by the UN that Gaza may not be a “livable place” by 2020 have been widely quoted. Yet many people living in Gaza already have to cope with conditions that would be viewed as intolerable in much of the world.
The sewage treatment plant in Wadi Gaza has not been running properly in the past few years. The large fans that are required during the first phase of sewage treatment have been prevented from operating normally due to electricity shortages.
These shortages have been imposed by Israel and, during 2017, were exacerbated when the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank declined to pay bills for Gaza’s energy amid a row with its rival Hamas.
With treatment made impossible, raw sewage has been flowing through Wadi Gaza towards the sea.
In the past, Wadi Gaza was a natural open body of water coming from Hebron in the occupied West Bank and the Naqab region of historic Palestine. Israel has mostly blocked that water, however, by constructing diversion dams that redirect the water before it reaches Gaza. The result has been that Palestinians have been deprived of water that is instead diverted to Israel.
Under international law, states are forbidden from acting unilaterally to change the flow of water crossing a national border or boundary.
“In the 1970s, the valley was one of the most beautiful places for tourists in Gaza,” said Abdel Rahim al-Yaqoubi, a 56-year-old shepherd who has spent more than three decades in the area. “It had white sand and fresh air.”
Al-Yaqoubi is saddened by the deterioration that has occurred. “Now at the beginning of summer, the bad smell never leaves the place,” he said. “The mosquitoes and the other insects are also here all the time.”
Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.