Israel-Hamas standoff contributes to sewage glut in Gaza

Monday, July 7, 2008

SHATI REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip -- When a toilet is flushed in Gaza City, the waste sloshes straight into the Mediterranean.

A yearlong standoff between Israel and Hamas has left the territory's sewage system in a state of collapse, flooding its coastal waters with human waste and blanketing crowded beachside neighborhoods in a fierce stench.

The consequences can be deadly. Last year, five people were killed when a small waste reservoir collapsed. This summer, as Gazans head to the beaches, the World Health Organization is warning them to stay out of the sea.

"If the amount of sewage dumped into the sea remains at this rate, we'll be facing a dark future for sea water in Gaza," said WHO official Mahmoud Daher.

An Israeli blockade imposed after Hamas violently wrested control of Gaza last year has left the territory without enough fuel to operate its already overburdened treatment plants. Palestinian militant attacks from Gaza into Israel have deterred Western donors from building new facilities.

Now there's a glimmer of hope.

A cease-fire that went into effect June 19 could lead to a resumption of normal fuel supplies. Little has changed on the ground so far, in part because Israel has repeatedly reclosed the border crossings in response to continued rocket fire. But Palestinians think critical projects can be quickly finished if the truce takes root.

The sewage problems are not new. Throughout decades of Egyptian, Israeli and Palestinian rule, the overcrowded Gaza Strip has been piping sewage into its 25 miles of Mediterranean waters.

But the fuel shortages mean treatment plants work only intermittently, and since January, an additional 10 million gallons a day of sewage, only partially treated, have been fouling the sea.

Munzir Shiblak, of Gaza's sewage utility, said he needs 40,000 gallons of fuel a month to treat the extra waste. From January to April, he said, the plants received less than half that, both because of Israeli sanctions and because of Hamas "mismanagement."

In the seaside neighborhood of Sheikh Ajleen, a pipe disgorges waste straight into the sea. Unwitting children swim just yards away. The WHO warns that children could contract diarrhea, dysentery and hepatitis, though no increases in these illnesses have yet been reported, Daher said.

Neighboring Israeli beaches are untouched because Israel built sewage reservoirs in northern Gaza to keep the sewage at bay.

In March 2007, an overloaded Gaza reservoir burst while Israeli and Palestinian officials were negotiating a site for an emergency replacement. It flooded the northern village of Umm Naser, drowning five people.

Following that disaster, Israel, the Palestinians and international donors revived a $70 million waste treatment project that had stalled the previous year following Hamas' election victory.

But the area has a frequent site of clashes between Palestinian militants and Israeli troops. And the Israeli blockade has dramatically restricted the flow of fuel, cement and steel pipes into Gaza.

The pipes can be used to make rockets, said Col. Nir Press, an Israeli military spokesman. Hamas gunmen, meanwhile, have attacked the Israeli fuel depot that services Gaza and seized some of the fuel that Israel has let in.

Since the cease-fire began, workers on the waste treatment project that stalled in 2006 have managed to access work sites easily, and Israel shipped in 7,800 gallons of fuel for the project, said Saadi Aly, the project's chief engineer. "I think its too early to judge, but we are seeing good signs," he said.

Authorities hope to finish the project before the winter rains, spurred by cracks appearing in the walls of a large waste reservoir perched over the densely populated northern town of Jabaliya.

But that's just one project. Plans to build a $120 million sewage treatment plant for Gaza City, the territory's biggest metropolitan area, are on hold. The World Bank says private international contractors are deterred by safety concerns and anticipated difficulties getting in supplies.


Associated Press Writer Ibrahim Barzak contributed reporting from Gaza City

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