Guest contribution by Maryam I.
In the Gaza Strip, there are two major highways running north and south that travelers use for transportation. First, there is the Salah il-Deen Highway. Crossing Salah il-Deen by foot at night was once deadly because even if there was power, the road is so poorly lit in certain areas and cars traveled so fast that there was no way to precisely assess when it was safe to cross. Further, the road did not have a median in many areas and taxis would pull over to the far left to drop off passengers or get change for big bills or make sharp left turns in the middle of traffic.
The second highway is the coastal highway, or tareeq il-bahar [beach road]. For many of us in Gaza, we prefer to travel down the coastal highway because, no matter what time of the day or night it is, a view of the sea is always refreshing and relaxing. We have always paid special caution to a certain stretch of this highway, however. This stretch I am referring to is called Wadi Ghazza and it is the place where central Gaza’s untreated sewage is dumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea. The same sea we swim and fish in.
Though Gaza does have waste treatment facilities, they are inadequate to treat the waste of Gaza’s growing population. This is further exacerbated by Israel’s five-year siege on Gaza that prevents the importation of building materials. Not only can new sewage plants not be built to accommodate the needs of Gazans, the existing treatment plants cannot be rebuilt or repaired since they were attacked during Israel’s 2008-2009 assault on the Gaza Strip, codenamed Operation Cast Lead. During this offensive, the Israeli military caused $60 million worth of damage to over 30 kilometers of water networks throughout the Gaza Strip, an action deemed “deliberate and systematic” destruction by the UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict (“The Goldstone Report”). This has resulted in 80 million liters of untreated or partially treated sewage flowing into the sea daily from a total of 16 different sources, which has severe consequences on the Gaza Strip including the contamination of Gaza’s underground aquifer.
The Gaza Strip is made up of five districts: Rafah, Khan Yunis, Central Gaza, Gaza City, and Northern Gaza. Of these districts, all have sewage treatment plants except for the Central Gaza district. Additionally, except for the Northern Gaza district, all of the waste treatment plants were damaged during Israel’s offensive. Even with treatment plants, the Northern Gaza District is the only district that does not dump sewage directly into the sea on a daily basis. Although Northern Gaza’s plant is adequate to meet it’s sewage treatment needs, the current pushes all of the waste from the Gaza Strip northward and the shores of Northern Gaza are in the worst condition of all.
Furthermore, fuel shortages and Israel’s 2006 damage to Gaza’s only electric power plant, which is still not capable of functioning at full capacity and currently runs at a maximum of 63%, means waste treatment plants have to go without electricity for periods up to 12 hours. This long stretch without power prevents waste treatment plants from meeting the needs of the population and provides no choice but to dispose of the waste as quickly as possible before the waste floods residential areas. One method used in the Northern Gaza district to store waste and prevent its pumping into the sea is to built pools to hold the waste. Eight of these reeking cesspools exist in Beit Lahya, attracting insects and disease. In 2007, one of these pools flooded the nearby Bedouin village of Umm al-Nasr, drowning five people and displacing 1,800 more. Two years later, 50,000 cubic meters of contaminated water flooded the village for a second time, drowning livestock and rendering homes uninhabitable.
Upon seeing Wadi Ghazza, Karl Schembri, communications outreach officer for Oxfam International, stated, “There is no natural reason for Gaza to be in this state. There is no calamity. There is no objective reason why we should be smelling this smell right now. . . It’s just a political decision to keep 1.6 million people under blockade and collective punishment.”
Even with the stomach-turning stench of Wadi Ghazza, we still prefer the coastal highway to the oftentimes faster Salah il-Deen highway. This may soon change, however, because the disgusting odor that characterizes Wadi Ghazza is no longer confined to it. Recently, I have noticed the same smell coming from Gaza City beaches, including the expensive tourist attractions near the seaport.
Last week, I went to the Shalehat sea resort for lunch with some friends. We chose this site so that we could enjoy the cool breeze and beautiful view of the sea as we shared a meal. As soon as we approached the tables near the sea, my stomach tightened and I nearly gagged, “What’s that horrible smell? Are we near a bathroom?” I asked one of my friends. “No, that’s the smell of the sea,” she answered. I remember when the sea smelled like salt and fish, when seeing it was relaxing and refreshing. Now, we seek to avoid the only freeing part of Gaza’s geography and travel to isolated areas if we want to have a beach picnic or swim. My friends and I ended up sitting at a table closer to the highway than the beach to avoid the smell; we were so far from the shore that the beach breeze did not reach us. Overall, it was a regretful experience.
Anyone in Gaza will tell you that all summer activities available to Gazans involve the sea. The beach is such a popular site for Gazans in the summertime that it is hard to find a spot along the shore to swim or sit. My worry is that things will soon change. The increasing pollution of our beaches is causing illness to even the swimmers brave enough to subject their immune system to the challenge of surviving a dip in the contaminated sea.
Gazans all know of the dangers of swimming in the Gazan beaches of the Mediterranean Sea and it is also widely known of the added danger present during the month of July: jellyfish. After a family beach outing last Thursday, we returned home to discover how acute our stings actually were. My kid cousins had the most severe reactions. One cousin’s stings developed into second degree burns and, after being seen by a doctor, we have knowledge that her stings were caused by a type of jellyfish that has never before been seen on Gaza’s shores. The jellyfish most commonly seen in Gaza’s beaches are white and their stings are like temporary rashes that fade after a day or two. These jellyfish are blue and they inject their prey with poison. My cousin’s sting advanced into a severe burn and then finally developed pock-like bumps over its surface, a sign of infection. The doctor informed our family that even without regard to the poisonous jellyfish, her state was worsened and grew infected as a result of the increasing pollution of the sea.
The doctor then added that he has been treating children with the same symptoms since the first day of July and that no matter what warning the doctor gives, there seems to be no action he can take to keep children out of the sea. Though it smells and makes us sick, Gaza’s beaches are the only places we can go for a temporary distraction from the poverty, congestion, and smog of our tiny enclosed enclave.
To offer some perspective, I will conclude with the words of Majd Ghannam, director general of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), through this deprivation of proper methods for treating sewage, “Israel is pushing people to evacuate, to find other places, to immigrate to other countries. To not be part of this land or live in it.”
Emergency Water and Sanitation-Hygiene Group (EWASH)
St McNeil, “The Excrement river of Gaza,” Mashallah News, 19 October 2011, available at: http://mashallahnews.com/?p=5579.
Maryam I. is a third generation Palestinian refugee, born and raised in the United States. Currently, she interns at a Palestinian human rights NGO in the Gaza Strip. Follow her on twitter: @48Refugee.