‘It’s like living in a septic tank’

21 Jun

A flooded quarter in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, February 16, 2017. Heavy rains caused flooding across the Gaza Strip, overwhelming the territory’s sewage system and forcing families to evacuate from their makeshift homes. [Anne Paq ActiveStills]

By Sarah Algherbawi, The Electronic Intifada, Gaza Strip, 20 June 2017

Life in a septic tank

Hiba al-Ashi has to keep the windows of her apartment closed. It is the only way to avoid the foul odours from the polluted sea.

“Life has become unbearable,” said the 36-year-old mother, whose Gaza City home overlooks the Mediterranean.

Every day, 100,000 cubic meters of raw sewage are discharged into the sea around Gaza.

The Gaza Strip’s environmental problems have worsened in recent years.

Gaza has suffered from chronic electricity shortages ever since its sole power plant was bombed by Israel in 2006. Israel imposed an ongoing, severe economic blockade on the territory one year later, restricting the import of fuel and hindering repair of electricity infrastructure destroyed and damaged during successive military offensives.

Gaza’s power plant shut down entirely in April this year, and Israel further reduced electricity supply to Gaza this week – a violation of international humanitarian law, according to human rights groups. Electricity is currently available fewer than three hours per day.

One of the results – among others profoundly affecting daily life in Gaza – is that there is not enough power to run sewage treatment facilities in the territory. Desalination plants, which provide most of Gaza’s drinking water, are also operating at significantly reduced capacity.

“Unprecedented”

Visiting the beach used to be one of the only possibilities for enjoyment and relaxations for Palestinians living under siege in Gaza.

Pollution has narrowed such possibilities. Around 50 percent of Gaza’s beaches are unfit for swimming, according to the local Environment Quality Authority. A number of beaches have been closed to the public.

“The pollution rate of the sea water and beaches this year is unprecedented,” said Ahmad Helles, a representative of that authority. “This indicates that there is a real environmental disaster.”

According to Helles, both the sand and water are contaminated. The sand, he said, “carries a lot of microbes which may be harmful and cause illnesses in humans.”

Maher Salem, a leading administrator of water services in Gaza, said that the sewage facilities will “stop totally soon.”

“We are forced to pump all the sewage into the sea untreated,” he said. “This is preventing people from swimming and, in many cases, even going to the beach.”

Having a view of the sea or living near it is considered desirable throughout the world. In Gaza, however, many people wish to leave homes close to the shore.

“The pollution rate of the sea water and beaches this year is unprecedented”

“Living in a septic tank”

Taysir Abu Saada has lived in Beach refugee camp, part of Gaza City, for 18 years. He is trying to save money so that he can rent an apartment elsewhere. He wants to “take my family away from this unhealthy atmosphere,” he said.

“I feel like we are living in a septic tank, not a real house,” said his 19-year-old daughter Shaima.

Wisam Lubad, a 22-year-old student, used to enjoy walking on the beach. Now she has to hold her nose when she ventures towards the shore.

“Nothing is well in Gaza,” she said. “That includes the sea – our only escape.”

One recent day, a local family decided to eat a grilled lunch on the beach in Gaza City. The family found the experience so unpleasant that it abandoned the lunch after a short while.

“We’re living in a big tragedy in this country,” said Samar, one member of the family. “We have one disaster after another.”

Beaches in Rafah, an area of southern Gaza near its border with Egypt, have been closed – at the order of the local authority.

The closures are necessary “to protect our citizens from harmful diseases which may be caused by this pollution,” said Sobhi Abu Ridwan, who heads the Rafah municipality.

Masoud Matar is among a number of people in Gaza who have vowed to keep visiting the beach, despite warnings by the authorities.

“Everybody in Gaza considers the sea as their friend,” he said. “Most Gazans are poor. They cannot pay for holidays in resorts or go to swimming pools. The sea is their only hope for having a bit of fun when it is hot.”

The closure of beaches is also causing income losses. Many people in Gaza work as peddlers during the summer.

Muhammad Abu Assi is a recent college graduate, who was hoping to earn a little money by selling corn on the shore. “I was waiting for the summer to start my life as a peddler,” he said. “Now it seems that this is not going to happen.”

Contaminated fish

Fishermen, too, are worried about the consequences of the pollution.

One of them, Mahmoud al-Ghandour, said that much of the fish for sale in Gaza’s markets may be unsafe to eat.

“Fishing has been my life for 30 years,” he said. “I have never seen so much pollution as that which we’ve had over the past five years.”

Sarah Algherbawi is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.

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