Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Gaza sewage crisis threatens Israel as waste flows north

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP — The fish are no longer safe to eat, beaches are empty, and an expanding sewage crisis in the Gaza Strip threatens Israel's shores.

Shortages of fuel and spare parts have crippled Palestinian sewage treatment facilities, already strained by the fast-growing population, forcing officials to divert constant streams of raw and semi-treated sewage into the Mediterranean Sea.
"It's a matter of regional concern, not just a Gaza concern," said Mahmoud Daher, head of the Gaza office of the United Nations World Health Organization.

"Because the sea current is going to the north, what is done to the Gaza beach will certainly reach Ashkelon and Tel Aviv, or Haifa even," he said, referring to Israeli coastal cities.

A recent U.N. report cites Israel's blockade on the territory — part of an ongoing effort to isolate Hamas, the Islamist organization that seized power last summer and is pledged to Israel's destruction — as the primary factor in the sewage dumping.

Israel claims that Gaza receives ample fuel for humanitarian needs, including the operation of sewage treatment plants, but that Hamas hordes fuel for its own use. Hamas has denied this.

Water quality tests conducted in late April by the World Health Organization at 13 points along Gaza's coast found that four sites — three in Gaza City and one in Rafah, in the south – are contaminated with dangerous levels of bacteria associated with feces.

The findings, to be published in an upcoming report warning of health risks in Gaza and Israel, revealed high concentrations of fecal coliforms and fecal streptococci, which indicate the possible presence of disease-causing bacteria and viruses.

Palestinian health officials have recommended that beaches near the contaminated water be closed for the season and have urged fishermen not to fish close to the coastline.

Since January, between 13.2 million and 16.9 million gallons of partially treated and untreated sewage from the Gaza Strip have been flowing daily into the Mediterranean Sea, according to Palestinian water authority officials and a report issued by the U.N. humanitarian office in Gaza.

Gaza sewage has long flowed into the Mediterranean, sometimes in open streams, the result of long-term neglect. The problem has sharply worsened in recent months, Palestinian officials said.

Last October, Israel declared Gaza a "hostile territory" and reduced electricity, fuel and other supplies into Gaza as sanctions against Hamas, which continues to fire rockets into southern Israel.

This month, rocket strikes killed two Israelis and seriously injured three others.

Frequent, hours-long cuts to the territory's electricity have forced officials to increasingly rely on generators to power the sewage treatment network, but Gaza's water authority has received only one-third of the fuel it needs to run the generators, the U.N. report said.

Two weeks ago, Israel responded to a months-old request for spare parts for Gaza's sewage system.

Thirteen of 25 shipment requests were approved and are awaiting delivery, eight remain under review and four were rejected because they included pipes that could be used to make rockets, said Peter Lerner, spokesman for the Israeli Defense Ministry.

Of all the consequences of Israel's blockade — rising unemployment and poverty, a greater reliance on food handouts, and a beleaguered health care system — the sewage dumping affects a shared resource for both Palestinians and Israelis.

"We are concerned about the sewage being pumped into the sea. Of course it doesn't stop at the border," Lerner said.

A spokesman for Israel's environment ministry said the ministry was not aware of sewage polluting the Mediterranean.

The general director of the Ashkelon Desalination Plant, which is 3 miles north of Gaza and produces 13 percent of Israel's domestic consumer demand, confirmed that seawater processed by the plant is polluted by sewage believed to be from Gaza, according to the U.N. report.

The plant did not respond to questions regarding additional costs the facility may be incurring to treat the polluted water.

Roughly one-third of the sewage being dumped into the sea comes from pumping stations in Beach Camp, a refugee camp of 80,000 people.

Generators lack the fuel to pump sewage to Gaza City's treatment plant, so most of the sewage from the camp flows directly into the sea without any treatment at all, according to top officials with Gaza's water authority.

The sewage that does make it to the main treatment facility can only be partially treated because its generator is running at 40 percent efficiency.

Gaza's sewage woes gained international attention last year when a lagoon of human waste breached a sand embankment and inundated a village. Five Palestinians drowned.

A $74 million project administered by the World Bank meant to expand the limited sewage treatment network that led to the tragedy has been delayed by violence and politics.

Israel has approved the project, but Israeli military incursions, Palestinian infighting, fuel shortages and, most recently, a strike by Palestinian fuel distributors has slowed progress.

Other international projects to rehabilitate the sewage system are on hold after Western countries restricted aid money to Gaza because Hamas is widely labeled a terrorist group.

"There is a political willingness to punish Gaza," said Monther Shoblak, director of the Gaza Emergency Water Project of the Palestinian water utility. "We are polluting our sea, but [Israelis] are paying their own price."

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