[News] There’s Something in the Water: The Poisoning of Life in the Gaza Strip

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Wed Aug 11 18:47:32 EDT 2010


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There’s Something in the Water: The Poisoning of Life in the Gaza Strip

Thursday, 05 August 2010 00:00


Gaza City, Palestine­The signs which dot the 
beach along the Gaza City waterfront are clear: 
"THIS BEACH IS POLLUTED," they read, and yet they 
seem to serve only as obstacles for children 
running to the sea rather than warnings to be 
heeded of the serious health risks associated 
with swimming here. For those who care to doubt 
the sign's veracity, one need only to stroll 
north along the beach for a couple hundred meters 
to see raw sewage being pumped directly into the 
Mediterranean Sea from one of the sixteen 
discharge sites along the coast.[1] Yet thousands 
fill Gaza's beaches and waters in spite of the 
clear dangers. For the 1.5 million Palestinians 
trapped in the Gaza Strip, deprived of their 
freedom of movement, worn down daily by the 
all-pervasive effects of the Israeli-imposed 
closure, the sea is one of the few sources of 
respite available in their lives, and for a 
people that have been denied their economic 
livelihood, 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 importance of the sea to 
the people of Gaza cannot be understated: 
"without the sea there is no Gaza," explains 
Abdel Haleem Abu Samra, Public Relations Officer 
of the Palestinian Center for Human Right's Khan Younis Branch.

The intimate relationship Palestinians in Gaza 
share with the sea thus makes the current state 
of Gaza's beaches and sea all the more 
disheartening and disconcerting. Due to the 
effects of the total closure imposed by Israel in 
2007­principle among them a complete lack of 
construction materials to build new wastewater 
treatment facilities or spare parts to repair 
existing ones, as well as an acute lack of fuel 
and electricity to run necessary waste treatment 
cycles­an average of 20,000 cubic meters of raw 
sewage is dumped directly into the Mediterranean 
Sea every day, estimates Monther Shoblak, 
Director General of the Coastal Municipality 
Water Utility, although in some areas this figure 
reaches 70,000-80,000 cubic meters per day.[2]

Beyond tarnishing Gaza’s once pristine shores, 
the noxious consequences of the deterioration of 
the wastewater treatment operation in Gaza 
resulting from the closure hold much more grave 
implications: the Gaza Strip is, quite literally, 
being poisoned. 90% of the water available in 
Gaza from its only source­the coastal aquifer­is 
undrinkable, and nitrate and chloride levels 
reach six and seven times the international 
safety standards put forward by the World Health 
Organization (WHO). As the director of the 
operation to keep the water in Gaza clean, 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 and 
his operation 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, to make do 
with very little; 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 now, Monther 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 analogizes 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 smoke­a highly relevant image in Gaza, 
where adulterated gasoline is the normal input 
into cars due to sharp restrictions on fuel under the Israeli closure.

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 
which, accordingly, produces a rapidly increasing 
volume of waste. Gaza’s current wastewater 
treatment facilities were constructed with an 
operational capacity of 32,000 cubic meters of 
waste a day. With a growth rate that is one of 
the world’s highest­an estimated 3.6% 
annually­Gaza’s surging population has 
overwhelmed the capacity of the waste treatment 
facilities, and Monther estimates that the 
facilities are now receiving at least 65,000 
cubic meters 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 deteriorating condition of Gaza's 
wastewater operation more evident than in Beit 
Lahia, in the northern region of the Strip. One 
of the Gaza Strip's three wastewater treatment 
facilities, the Beit Lahia station receives more 
than 25,000 cubic meters per day, almost twice 
its operational capacity. Exacerbating this 
problem, the facility is cutoff from access to 
the sea, and thus the untreated wastewater flows 
directly into the surrounding area, creating a 
cesspool­literally a lake of sewage­that now 
comprises approximately 450 dunums. The Beit 
Lahia station stands as one of the most extreme 
examples of the environmental and health 
disasters that the Israeli policy of closure has 
realized in the Gaza Strip. The consequences of 
the sewage lake have been fatal and not only 
because, in March 2007, the lake's embankment 
broke and the subsequent flooding killed five 
people: 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 
colorless, odorless 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 vital tissues such 
as 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 in this regard is still unknown, 
however, for, 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."[3]

The implications of Gaza’s growing population 
thus also present serious concerns for the other 
aspect of Monther’s task, which is to provide 
safe and clean drinking water to the people of 
Gaza Strip. 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 served as the lifeblood for the 
people of Gaza and has given rise to the 
agriculture, particularly citrus farms, for which 
the Gaza Strip is famous. Once, before the 
imposition of the closure policy by Israel in the 
early 1990s, one could dig a hole within 100 
meters from the beach and find drinkable water, 
says Monther; now, he explains, the CMWU has been 
forced to issue a warning against the drilling of 
wells within two kilometers of the beach, which, 
taken in combination with the “buffer zone” 
unilaterally imposed by Israeli Defense Forces on 
Gaza’s border with Israel­tacitly acknowledged at 
300 meters but practiced sometimes at distances 
much further­leaves little space for water extraction.

As inconvenient as it may seem, the reason behind 
the ruling is even more worrying: the aquifer is 
polluted, poisoned by sewage and depleted by the 
rising population which it can no longer support. 
Only 10% of the aquifer’s water now meets 
international standards for consumption, and, if 
no changes are made, Monther fears that this 
figure may soon reach 0%. A UNEP [United Nations 
Environment Programme] report published in 
September 2009 stated that water extraction is 
roughly double the capacity of the aquifer.[4] 
Accordingly, Monther explains, people in Gaza are 
drilling more and deeper wells, further polluting 
the aquifer with water from the saline aquifer to 
the east of Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, and from the sea.

Confronted with this rapidly deteriorating 
situation and denied by Israel the resources with 
which to address it, Monther and his staff have 
been forced to adopt unconventional means of 
tackling Gaza's wastewater issues. In the 
southern Gaza cities of Rafah and Khan Younis, 
Monther explains, 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 both 
an adequate waste treatment facility and the 
materials needed to construct it. In response to 
the crisis, which threatened to deny access to 
safe drinking water for the combined population 
of 350,000, Monther and his staff turned to a 
practice employed by many Palestinians in Gaza 
surrounded by rubble left by Israel's latest 
offensive: they begin 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 secondhand supplies, the CMWU was able to 
construct what Monther refers to as a "near 
state-of-the-art facility." Although chloride 
levels­the counterpart to the pollution problem 
poisoning Gaza's water­are still as high as six 
times the international standard in this southern 
area, Monther believes that 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, Monther and his staff at CMWU 
continue their efforts to keep the water of Gaza 
clean, but, as he admits, “we know its 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, and, for all Gaza’s efforts and 
ingenuity, there is little that 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, and, 
with a rising population over-burdening the 
capacity of the current facilities, Gaza's 
wastewater treatment operation only deteriorates. 
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,"[5] and the September 
UNEP report has warned that the damage being 
incurred now "could take centuries to 
reverse.”[6]  As long as the closure persists, 
however, 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.


[1] United Nations Environmental Programme, 
"Environmental Assessment of the Gaza Strip 
Following the Escalation of Hostilities in December 2008-January 2009," 2009.

[2] UNEP Report, 2009.

[3] Roy, Sara. "Gaza: Treading on Shards," The Nation, 17 February 2010.

[4] UNEP Report, 2009.

[5] United Nations Document A/HRC/12-48, "Human 
Rights in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab 
Territories: Report of the Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict," 2009.

[6] UNEP Report, 2009.




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