Poisoning of Gaza water puts population at risk

View of a Gaza beach, January 2009. Photo by Andre H. Laurie/Flickr

The article is abridged from an August 11 Palestinian Centre for Human Rights report.

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The signs which dot the beach along the Gaza City waterfront read: "This beach is polluted.” Yet they serve only as obstacles for children running to the sea, rather than warnings of the serious health risks.

One need only stroll north along the beach for a couple hundred metres to see raw sewage being pumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea from one of the 16 discharge sites along the coast.

Yet thousands of people fill Gaza's beaches.

For the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip, the sea is one of the few sources of respite available in their lives. It is the only such activity that is affordable and available.

The sea plays an integral part in the lives of this coastal community: it is a place to fish, to play and to gather with family.

The intimate relationship Palestinians in Gaza share with the sea makes the state of Gaza's beaches and sea all the more disheartening.

Due to the effects of the total closure imposed by Israel in 2007 — such as a complete lack of construction materials to build new wastewater treatment facilities or spare parts to repair existing ones — an average of 20,000 cubic metres of raw sewage is dumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea every day, estimates Monther Shoblak, director general of the Coastal Municipality Water Utility (CMWU). In some areas, this figure reaches 70,000-80,000 cubic metres per day.

The Gaza Strip is, quite literally, being poisoned.

Ninety percent of the water available in Gaza from its only source — the coastal aquifer — is undrinkable. Nitrate and chloride levels reach six and seven times the international safety standards put forward by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

It is Monther's job to cure this poisoning, but, like a doctor without medicine, there is little he can do while the tools he needs are denied to him under the policy of closure, which has been practiced on Gaza by Israel in various forms since 1991.

Like all Palestinians in Gaza, Monther and his staff at the Coastal Municipalities Water Utilities are forced to improvise; few others, perhaps, must do so much with so little.

Monther is tasked not only with disposing of the wastewater created by the 1.5 million people in this tiny strip of land, but also with ensuring that they have access to safe, clean drinking water.

That approximately 80% of Gaza's population lives in refugee camps, some of the most densely populated areas on Earth where adequate infrastructure is rare and the conditions for waterborne disease are rife, is the least of Monther's concerns.
For more than three years, he has been forced to conduct his efforts while being deprived of the resources needed to do so, with perseverance in place of concrete and ingenuity instead of a supply of clean water.

Monther analogises the plight of Gaza's wastewater treatment facilities with an old car that is forced into continual use despite being denied the spare parts needed for upkeep: eventually the car falls into disrepair and begins to spit plumes of jet black, highly polluted smoke.

Compounding the challenge facing Monther and his staff is the fact that they must also adapt Gaza's deteriorating wastewater treatment facilities for a rapidly increasing population.

Gaza's current wastewater treatment facilities were constructed with an operational capacity of 32,000 cubic metres of waste a day. With a growth rate that is one of the world's highest — an estimated 3.6% annually — Gaza's surging population has overwhelmed the capacity of the waste treatment facilities. Monther estimates the facilities are now receiving at least 65,000 cubic metres of waste daily.

Unable to handle more than half of its intake, much of the sewage is directly transported to the sea, where it is dumped completely untreated. Much of this sewage washes back onto Gaza's shores, polluting the beaches and creating toxic swimming conditions for the countless children and adults seeking escape from the intense summer heat.

Nowhere is the situation more evident than in Beit Lahiya, in the northern region of the Strip. One of the Gaza Strip's three wastewater treatment facilities, the Beit Lahiya station receives more than 25,000 cubic metres per day, almost twice its operational capacity.

Exacerbating this problem, the facility is cut off from access to the sea. The untreated wastewater flows directly into the surrounding area, creating a cesspool — literally a lake of sewage — that now comprises approximately 450,000 square metres.

The Beit Lahiya station is one of the most extreme examples of the environmental and health disasters that the Israeli policy of closure has created in the Gaza Strip. The consequences of the sewage lake have been fatal. In March 2007, the lake's embankment broke and the subsequent flooding killed five people. Furthermore, the contamination of the groundwater in the northern Gaza Strip caused by the pollution has resulted in nitrate levels that are in some places seven times higher than WHO's international safety standards.

"Nitrate is a silent killer”, says Monther: it is colourless, odourless and tasteless, but when consumed at levels even much lower than those present in Gaza, continued nitrate intake results in a reduced oxygen supply to the brain.

Nitrate intake is particularly dangerous for infants, for whom it can result in brain damage and possibly death. Information regarding the long-term consequences for the people of Gaza is still unknown. However, as one donor has said: "Nowhere else in the world has such a large number of people been exposed to such high levels of nitrates for such a long period of time.

“There is no precedent, and no studies to help us understand what happens to people over the course of years of nitrate poisoning."

The implications of Gaza's growing population also present serious concerns for the other aspect of Monther's task, which is to provide safe and clean drinking water. The coastal aquifer, which runs underground along much of the Strip, is Gaza's only source of potable water and its most important natural resource.

Historically, this aquifer has given rise to the agriculture, particularly citrus farms, for which the Gaza Strip is famous. Once, before the imposition of Israel’s closure policy, one could dig a hole within 100 metres from the beach and find drinkable water, says Monther.

Now, the CMWU has been forced to issue a warning against the drilling of wells within two kilometres of the beach, which, taken in combination with the "buffer zone" unilaterally imposed by Israeli military on Gaza's border with Israel leaves little space for water extraction.

The reason behind the ruling is even more worrying: the aquifer is polluted, poisoned by sewage and depleted by the rising population. Only 10% of the aquifer's water now meets international standards for consumption. If no changes are made, Monther fears this figure may soon reach zero percent. A United Nations Environment Program report published in September 2009 said water extraction was roughly double the capacity of the aquifer.

Confronted with this rapidly deteriorating situation and denied by Israel the resources to address it, Monther has been forced to adopt unconventional means of tackling Gaza's wastewater issues.

In the southern Gaza cities of Rafah and Khan Younis, the wastewater situation had reached a crisis level: like Beit Hanoun, waste was being dumped directly into the land area surrounding the cities, as the area lacked an adequate waste treatment facility and the materials needed to construct it. The crisis threatened to deny access to safe drinking water for 350,000 people.

Monther turned to a practice employed by many Palestinians in Gaza surrounded by rubble left by Israel's latest offensive: they began to collect aggregate from the nearby remains of the Philadelphi Route, the border between Gaza and Egypt, which was partially destroyed in 2008 when thousands of Palestinians flowed into Egypt seeking food and supplies.

With these second-hand supplies, the CMWU was able to construct what Monther refers to as a "near state-of-the-art facility”.

Although chloride levels are still as high as six times the international standard, Monther believes they "are saving the city of Khan Younis by addressing the increasing levels of nitrates and removing the raw sewage from the densely populated urban areas”.

In such ways, the CMWU continues its efforts to keep the water of Gaza clean. But Monther admits: "We know it’s not enough: the water in Gaza is deteriorating quickly. Until we find another source of water, the population in Gaza remains at great risk."

For now, the poisoning of the Gaza Strip continues. For all Gaza's efforts and ingenuity, little can be done to stop it as long as the closure continues.

The treatment of Gaza's wastewater cannot progress as long as Israel restricts basic building materials and adequate levels of fuel and electricity.

As Desmond Travers, a member of the UN Fact-finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict, concluded in the mission's report: "If these issues are not addressed, Gaza may not even be habitable by WHO standards."

The September UNEP report has warned that the damage being incurred now "could take centuries to reverse”.

As long as the closure persists, the people of Gaza remain helpless to combat these problems; they have little choice but to wait, spending their time at the beach trying to ignore the pollution that piles up around them.