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Source: United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
29 October 2007

Wasting the environment

By Toni O'loughlin

Um Al Nasser, Gaza Strip, 29 October 2007 – When the walls of a sewage pond burst above a Gazan village, Monther Shoblak, who runs the sewerage system, raced to the scene knowing what he would find.

For eight months Mr Shoblak warned of the disaster which unleashed a two metre wave of refuse on Um Al Nasser, drowning five residents, gouging a 30,000 cubic metre trench, sweeping away shacks, animals and household items and smearing kitchens, bedrooms and living areas with sludge in its wake.

“It was just a matter of time,” Mr Shoblak, director of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), said.

Gaza’s rudimentary sewerage system had flooded and drowned people in the north twice before, in 1989 and 1992 and Mr Shoblak knew after the third spillage it would happen again. “Bells have been ringing in my mind ever since,” Mr Shoblak says.

Built in 1976 by the Israelis to service 50,000 residents, the history of the northern waste water treatment plant typifies Gaza’s development. What started as a plant consisting of four effluent ponds has swollen into a 40 hectare lake that has outgrown the original plans.

The putrid green waste was meant to evaporate, seep into the ground to recharge the aquifer beneath, and decompose into water suitable for irrigation.

But the water quality was so poor that a system for transporting it to farms was never built. Consequently the volume sewage grew to the point of becoming a major pollutant of Gaza’s only fresh water supply, which the United Nations estimates will be depleted in just 15 years.

By 2006 the sewage lake and surrounding overflow ponds were at alarmingly high levels with 14,000 cubic metres of waste pouring in each day, almost three times the system’s maximum capacity.

Plans to build a new treatment plant were drawn in 2003 but they languished until 2006 only to stall, again mired in politics and conflict.

Mr Shoblak knew he had to act but as the international community had not responded to his requests he could only afford the same stop gap measure that had been used before.

So a Palestinian Water Authority construction crew was dispatched to dig yet another lagoon in the only place acceptable to the Israeli army – 800 metres from the village on a hill with a 50 metre rise.

Six months after the digging stopped, in September 2006, the pool’s wall broke, flooding Um Al Nasser with the force of a small tsunami.

“This construction was criminal. The disaster happened just one hour after the children had left their homes to go to school,” Mr Shoblak says. “We talked a lot about our problem but no one responded -- but after the catastrophe everyone wanted to help,” he says.

The residents were so angry that for two months they blocked the bulldozers and construction workers who had been sent to strengthen the embankment of the main lake and dig three more lagoons.

They wanted to move as the lake was brimming and threatening to flood the 3,000 residents who lived just 20 metres from the embankment. Another 8,000 people were at risk of being affected further downstream.

“They knew the lake could collapse at any time, they were claiming legitimate rights. Human beings shouldn’t live there,” Mr Shoblak says.

Tensions in Um Al Nasser and the surrounding towns ran high, provoking a flurry of outbursts and finger pointing.

The mayor of a nearby town accused enterprising locals of selling sand from the embankments in Gaza’s growing black market. Some blamed farmers for tapping the sewerage pool with pipes to set up an unauthorized water reusing system to irrigate their crops. Others blamed the winter rains, the Israelis and the international financial boycott on the then Hamas-led Palestinian government.

“When I went home it was virtually destroyed. Everything in my home, all the clothes, all the furniture, the fridge, was gone,” says Hamad Abu Qled, a 12-year-old whose neighborhood was still marked by the flood, seven months later.

Filthy two metre high water marks still stained house walls, inside and out, and the streets still reeked of sewage, even though the contaminated soil and refuse had been removed.

Abu Aleah lost his mother, his brother’s son and another two year-old family member. “I was at home with my family and around 9.45 a.m. we saw the waste water and the sand coming. It came like a quick wave, so quickly that I tried to move my children to a safer place and when I returned my mother was gone,” Mr Aleah said.

To defuse the anger and overcome resistance to strengthening the
embankment and building more ponds, UNICEF, which leads the humanitarian community’s emergency work in the water and sanitation sector, met with the other participating agencies and local representatives for several months to build local support.

The mayor of Um Al Nasser, Zeyad Abu Fraya, says the residents now appreciate the value of the €460,000 (US$675,550) project funded by the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) through UNICEF.

“People feel safe after the construction of the embankment,” Mr Fraya said adding that many people are still suffering. “There are still some houses destroyed and they can’t be repaired. Twenty families are still living in tents and some are still renting,” Mr Fraya said.

Indeed, none of the 110 houses that were damaged or completely destroyed by the flood have been repaired.

Construction sites have ground to a halt, including US$160 million of internationally funded projects, because Israel’s toughening blockade has reduced to a trickle the flow of goods and materials into the import-dependent Gaza Strip.

With Israel further cutting fuel supplies, Mr Shoblak fears that the looming winter rains and inability to operate the pumps regularly will inevitably result in a fourth flood.

UNICEF’s work in water and sanitation in Gaza and the West Bank during 2007

In partnership with Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, the Palestinian Water Authority, the Palestinian Hydrology Group, donors and NGOs, UNICEF:

• Constructed or rehabilitated 6 wells and 11 water networks serving about 55,000 people;
• Provided daily drinking water to 343 schools and 32 health facilities reaching 250,000 students, teachers, patients and health workers;
• Delivered 125 tanks, installed 40 drinking fountains serving about 100,000; and
• Constructed sanitation facilities in 52 schools and 8 clinics that reach about 44,000.

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