Gaza is sick of sewage and time is running out to contain it
Israel’s desalination plant at Ashkelon, on the Mediterranean coast, is considered to be one of the most advanced and efficient in the world, supplying about 20 percent of the country’s drinking water.
But at least four times in recent months, it has had to shut down.
The reason: each day an estimated 90m litres of untreated or partially treated sewage flows into the sea in Gaza - only a few kilometres south of Ashkelon.
Tides and winds then disperse the sludge, taking a substantial portion northwards into Israeli waters. The sewage gives rise to blooms of algae which have threatened to block filters at Ashkelon.
For years Gaza’s 1.8 million people have endured an environmental disaster, caused by failing infrastructure, Israeli blockades and war. It is an environmental disaster that now threatens to spill over into Israel.
Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director of EcoPeace Middle East, says the problem has the potential to spread serious diseases such as typhoid or cholera.
“This is a classic example where nature knows no borders,” Bromberg says. "If pollution exists on one side, it very quickly moves to the other side, because that’s the way nature takes it.”
The immediate problem is a lack of power at a new $80m World Bank funded water treatment plant in northern Gaza. The wider issue is the whole relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians and how they share – or do not share - the region’s environment and its resources.
The Gaza plant – officially known as the North Gaza emergency sewage treatment project, has been in the pipeline for many years, but its construction has been interrupted by wars and bombings.
The project has also been delayed by the Israeli blockade: the import of cement and mechanical equipment such as pumps and disinfecting chemicals has been severely restricted as the Israelis allege such materials could be diverted by Hamas for military use.
Who has the power?
Operating the sewage plant requires substantial amounts of power – a commodity chronically lacking in Gaza. It’s estimated that Gaza has a deficit of more than 50 percent in its power supplies.
Last year people had to cope with power cuts of up to 20 hours a day and the situation has not improved by much this year.
Gaza accuses Israel, from which it has to buy the majority of its electricity, of withholding supplies. The Gaza power station, the territory’s only large-scale facility rebuilt after being badly damaged by Israeli bombing in 2014, continues to suffer fuel shortages and break downs.
Power lines bringing supplies from Egypt are old and often malfunction.
The Gaza Electricity Distribution Company, the body in charge of Gaza’s electricity network, is short of trained personnel; electricity is expensive in comparison to networks elsewhere and, according to a 2012 World Bank report, only 40 percent of bills are paid.
Arguments between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over fuel purchases and taxes have also hampered power supplies.
Last month a group of US congressmen wrote to Israeli ministers asking for more electricity to be supplied to the north Gaza sewage facility to stop effluent flowing into the sea and posing “serious health risks to both Israeli and Palestinian communities along the coast”.
Israel responded by saying it was considering various options for supplying additional power, but repeated allegations that Hamas could take it for its own use.
Some relief for Gaza’s sewage problems might be provided following the recent deal on restoring diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, with Turkey saying it plans to build a treatment station in Gaza.
Time to act
The trouble is that time is running out: piles of sewage have been building up in Gaza for years. In 2007, at least five people were killed when sewage flooded a village.
Earlier this year a retaining wall at the water treatment plant in Gaza city collapsed, with raw sewage flooding nearby farms and orchards.
Inadequate sanitation causes a high incidence of illness and disease: At least 30 percent of households in Gaza are not connected to any properly coordinated sewerage system. Instead they rely on some 40,000 cesspits, all of which have to be emptied manually.
The sewage problem is intertwined with a larger and looming water crisis. In the past, most people in Gaza depended on the aquifer which runs along the Sinai, Gaza and Israeli coast for their water.
Water in the aquifer is now severely depleted and also contaminated both by seawater and sewage, with more than 90 percent of water unsafe for human consumption.
Gazans now have to spend large amounts of money buying water from private producers – many of them unlicensed - who use small-scale, inefficient desalination facilities to produce drinking water.
Some water problems might be solved by a new EU-funded desalination plant being built in south Gaza, but it’s likely to be a case of "too little, too late".
The UN has issued dire warnings about the environmental and humanitarian disaster unfolding in Gaza, saying that unless action is taken, the territory will be uninhabitable by 2020.
Gaza’s sewage problems are replicated on the West Bank, with inadequate treatment facilities causing pollution in many areas. As is the case along the coast, adjoining communities in Israel are also affected.
Now, as a growing pool of sewage flows round the eastern Mediterranean, it is not only people in Gaza who are desperate for action to be taken.
Yair Farjun, the head of the Ashkelon regional council, said: "After mortar fire from the air and tunnels underground, now we’re being attacked by sewage... All the authorities we contacted answered that they were not responsible for helping solve the problem."
Kieran Cooke is a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and the Financial Times, and continues to contribute to the BBC and a wide range of international newspapers and radio networks.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: A Palestinian worker inspects a water cleaning station in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, 20 January 2008 (AFP)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.