More Gazans at risk from new sewage flood

A further 800 Palestinian homes could be swamped by raw sewage in northern Gaza if the side of a lake containing sewage is not shored up immediately, the United Nations has warned.

Two children and three women were killed and 18 people injured in the Bedouin village of Umm Nasser near Beit Lahiya when an earthen embankment around a sewage reservoir collapsed on 27 March, sending a torrent of sewage and mud through the village. (See photo slideshow)

Locals are now living in tents on higher ground. But the residents of al-Firdaus neighbourhood to the west of a bigger waste water basin near Beit Lahiya fear they could be next.

“I expect many to be killed in the event of a collapse of the bank of the huge pool. I call on the government not to wait for another disaster. The only solution is to remove the cesspool,” said resident Fathi al-Heeb.

The Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) said that within two months it hoped to begin pumping water from the larger Beit Lahiya basin to the first two of nine new basins to the east of Gaza City. This would be part of the North Gaza Waste Water Project, which has been delayed for two years.

In the meantime, the PWA is attempting to pump some of the water between local basins - but it is not going well, according to PWA deputy chairman Redhy el-Sheikh.

''I expect many to be killed in the event of a collapse of the bank of the huge pool. I call on the government not to wait for another disaster.''

“We have had difficulties with the pumps and also with some of the local people,” he said. “But we are working 16 hours a day to get the two new basins ready to the east of Gaza City. The Israelis are facilitating the delivery of materials so we can get this project done.”

The UN said it had been warning since 2004 that work needed to be done on the Beit Lahiya cesspools. But Stuart Shepherd, humanitarian affairs officer for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the Beit Lahiya pools’ location, just a few hundred metres from Gaza’s northern border with Israel, meant it had not been safe to carry out the work.

Unsafe to work

“The project to build new basins is now two years behind. Donors made pledges in 2004 but it became extremely unsafe to work and that's why it did not proceed. The area became the scene of heavy Israeli shelling while Palestinian militants were using it to fire rockets into Israel. Palestinian workers were simply not prepared to risk their lives working there,” he said.

Anyone who comes within a couple of hundred metres of the border risks being shot at by Israeli troops, who are on alert for potential attacks by Palestinian militant groups.


Photo: Tom Spender/IRIN
A flood of sewage devastated the Bedouin village of Umm Nasser, destroying shacks and flooding streets in the built-up area

The pools are also near the former Israeli settlement of Nissanit, which is strategically important because it is on high ground. It is part of the border no-go zone and was heavily shelled by the Israelis last year before a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militant groups came into effect last November, Shepherd said.

The Israelis said they hoped the Palestinians would eventually build advanced sewage treatment plants.

“We are helping in every way we can and we are getting as much material from Israel into Gaza as possible,” said Shlomo Dror, spokesman for Israel’s Office for Government Activities in the Territories.

“In the long term, we would like the Palestinians to move beyond just building more basins and instead build a sewage treatment plant.”

Treated sewage can be used for agriculture, he said, adding that pumping sewage into the sea had consequences for Israel.

“We have a water desalination plant in Ashkelon, which is just north of Gaza, but if there is a lot of sewage in the sea, we might as well close it down. There is also an electricity power station there that uses seawater. The more polluted the water is, the less electricity it can produce,” he said.

Israel provides roughly half the electricity in the Gaza Strip.

ts/ar/ed

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