Parting the brown sea: Sewage crisis threatens Gaza's access to water

The UN warns that if there is no change, there will be no drinkable water left in the Gaza Strip by 2016

A pipe dumps sewage water into the Mediterranean Sea at Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip.
Fadi Abu Shammala

GAZA CITY — Until very recently, Salameh Abu Kash earned his living as farmer. Abu Kash, a heavyset man with thick eyebrows and a clipped beard, lives in Wadi Gaza, a valley in the central Gaza Strip. The wetland here was known for its biodiversity, but after construction of a sewage treatment plant was delayed in 2011, excrement from nearby refugee camps and towns began to be diverted through the valley en route to the Mediterranean Sea. 

“They brought sewage for us and for our children, and we can’t sleep anymore,” said Abu Kash in Arabic the following year. “Farming is ruined. The plants are diseased. There are flies, worms, and it is spreading.” Animals and birds were soon replaced by swamps of sewage, swarming flies and thriving bacteria. Residents began to suffer from an increase in allergies, inflammation, fevers and weakened immunity, Abu Kash said. Disease-ridden mosquitoes feasted on the community at night. The stench was overpowering.

Wadi Gaza is but one illustration of the full-blown water and sanitation crisis that is facing the Gaza Strip. A severe lack of potable water is exacerbated by inadequate sanitation infrastructure, which in turn is connected to Gaza’s chronic shortage of electricity and fuel, all of which is tied to Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip. The United Nations warned that by 2020, Gaza may no longer be livable, in large part because of these interconnected problems. 

The interim solution to the sewage problem in Wadi Gaza can be found in the pipe that now protrudes from the area’s beach, one of seven such pipes along Gaza’s 25-mile coastline that spew brown liquid into the waves. Approximately 24 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage exits those pipes into the Mediterranean Sea each day, according to the Palestinian Water Authority, though desalination expert and engineer Ghassan Qishawi says the number is closer to 32 million. The excrement comes from areas of Gaza, such as the southern town of Khan Younis, where there are no treatment plants, or from areas where treatment plants aren’t yet functional because Israel has delayed or denied the importing of the necessary equipment. Sheikh Ejlin, Gaza’s largest treatment plant, is operational, but it’s crippled by chronic electricity outages and cannot properly treat the wastewater in the four hours a day it has power. Much of the sewage gushing into the sea is coming, only partially treated, from the Sheikh Ejlin plant.

Video: Roughly 24 million gallons of sewage floods the Mediterranean Sea daily

Video by Jen Marlowe
Video by Jen Marlowe

The waste renders Gaza’s waters hazardous for those who want to swim or enjoy the beach. It also makes pulling a living from the sea even more difficult for Gaza’s 3,500 fishermen, who are already severely constrained by the maritime blockade. Foad al-Amodi, 53, the president of the fishermen’s syndicate in Khan Younis, has been fishing since the age of 11. “[The sewage] has a big effect. It annihilated the algae that feeds the small fish,” he explains. “The sewage kills the small fish, which is what the big fish feed on. With sea creatures such as shrimp and squid, the sewage wiped out their eggs.” Amodi describes red, itchy rashes and skin infections that now afflict him and his fellow fishermen.

Wastewater that isn’t dumped into the sea finds its way into the coastal aquifer, Gaza’s sole source of freshwater. Thirty percent of residents are not connected to sewage pipes and direct their waste into sewage ponds or cesspits, which are sometimes private septic tanks and sometimes open lagoons utilized by whole communities. Sewage from these unlined pits seeps into Gaza’s groundwater and sometimes overflows onto roads. Many of the sewage pipes serving the other 70 percent of the population are in a state of disrepair due to years of neglect under Israeli occupation. They leak wastewater into the aquifer, which is on the verge of collapse from a combination of overpumping and contamination. 

Three times as much water is being pumped from the aquifer every year (47 billion gallons) than the rainwater and groundwater that replenishes it (15 to 16 billion gallons). According to Yousef Ibrahim, a former head of the Palestinian Environment Quality Authority, the aquifer has long been declining because of “the increase in population and increase in water usage.” Climate change in the form of a shorter rainy season plays a part in the depletion, he says. Thousands of unlicensed agricultural wells in Gaza and contamination from fertilizer and pesticide runoff put even more pressure on the aquifer, and water projects on the Israeli side of the border have some impact as well (though there are no reliable measurements as to what extent). And as the level of the coastal aquifer drops, seawater (contaminated by sewage) infiltrates. Salty groundwater from the Negev desert also increases the salinity of the aquifer.

Overextraction from the aquifer, combined with the saltwater, sewage and fertilizer penetration, is resulting in levels of chloride and nitrate that are well above the World Health Organization’s guidelines. According to the Palestinian Water Authority, 95 percent of the aquifer’s water is unsafe for human consumption. Although Israel sells 1.2 billion gallons of water to Gaza each year, the vast majority of Gazans drink water that has been treated — and sometimes is still contaminated. 

With the population expected to increase from 1.8 million to 2.1 million in five years, the aquifer crisis will deepen. If current trends continue, the United Nations predicted that 100 percent of the water will be undrinkable by 2016 and the aquifer will collapse. By 2020, damage to the aquifer will be irreversible. 

An open pool of sewage is seen in the garbage-filled Wadi Gaza area of the central Gaza Strip on Nov. 27, 2013.
Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

Rula Abu Shammala, a 25-year-old English teacher from Khan Younis, has running water one or two hours a day. When the water comes, she turns on a motorized pump to direct the water to storage tanks on her roof. But the motor requires electricity, which is available in Gaza only four to six hours a day. The water schedule usually overlaps with the electricity schedule, but sometimes it doesn’t, or no one is home to turn on the pump. On those occasions, Abu Shammala and her family will be without water to shower, clean the house, wash clothes or flush the toilet. It’s worse in the summer. Without electricity and without the beach, showers are the only way to cool down, but that empties the water tank. The family runs out of water up to three times a week. 

The water, when it comes, cannot be consumed. “We buy drinking water from a water truck,” Abu Shammala says. “We cook with water from the truck as well.” The purchased water is from the aquifer and is desalinated at one of Gaza’s small desalination plants. But Gazans can’t avoid their dirty water entirely. Abu Shammala’s 18-month-old nephew once swallowed some tap water during a bath, developed a fever and diarrhea and lost 15 percent of his body weight. He required medical care for two weeks. 

“The inability to treat the sewage and the salinity in the water — these have increased diseases and led to new ones,” says Mohammed al-Khaldi, a researcher who focuses on the Palestinian health system. He spoke of radiation seeping into the soil and groundwater as a result of wartime bombing campaigns. The World Health Organization authored a report stating that heavy metals from war remnants were contaminating the soil and water and possibly radiation and chemicals as well, but testing equipment is unavailable, and Israel has denied requests to import it. According to Khaldi, the contamination has a ripple effect. “The polluted aquifer is used in agriculture, and who eats these vegetables and fruits? The people of Gaza,” he says. According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, diarrhea, acute bloody diarrhea and viral hepatitis have been the leading causes of death from infectious disease in Gaza, and all are waterborne.

The three wars that Gaza has endured in the last six years have made an already intolerable situation worse. In last year’s war, 26 municipal drinking wells and 183 agricultural wells were damaged or destroyed, as well as 20 to 30 percent of sanitation and water pipes, leading to streets being flooded with sewage. Most of the pipes remain under rubble and cannot be accessed for repair. Three sewage treatment centers were damaged, and 500 septic tanks were destroyed. In the war in 2008 and ’09, the North Gaza treatment plant (still under construction) was damaged, as was a sewage basin in the Sheikh Ejlin facility. Some 13 million gallons of wastewater poured out of the damaged sewage basin, reaching up to three-quarters of a mile away. 

Foad al-Amodi, president of the fishermen's syndicate, with his boat in Khan Younis.
Fadi Abu Shammala

There have, however, been small pockets of progress. Raw sewage no longer openly festers in Wadi Gaza but flows through pipes that empty into the sea. A small treatment plant was built there in 2013 as well, though it is not yet operational, partly because Israel delayed the importation of the aerator, a vital piece of equipment, for 18 months, says Yasser Nassar of UNICEF. Still, life has improved for Abu Kash, who now works as a guard at the plant. “The ground is no longer full of sewage,” he says. “The smell is gone.” Health issues have improved in Wadi Gaza, he adds, and the land can be farmed again, though the agricultural yield is lower than normal.

A week after that interview, Gaza’s lack of infrastructure devastated Wadi Gaza again. A flash flood in February overwhelmed the valley, and without the ability to pump the excess surface water — much less the ability to trap the precious water for future use — fields were saturated, animals drowned and homes flooded.

Ibrahim frames the crisis as one of rights. “The human right to health, the right to clean and safe food — these problems are all related to the issue of water,” he says.

Qishawi says the path forward is clear, though daunting. “We have to build a lot of [sewage] treatment plants. We need to reuse this treated water for agriculture, so that the agricultural wells stop extracting from the aquifer. We need to build desalination plants.” Compared with seawater, brackish groundwater is less costly and requires less energy to desalinate, but using seawater would reduce demand on the aquifer. If groundwater extraction is reduced sufficiently and immediately, the aquifer could, over decades, rejuvenate. If not and the aquifer is allowed to fail entirely, it may take centuries to recover. 

Plans and, in some cases, construction for all this are already underway. But according to Qishawi, the blockade must be lifted to prevent further delays and allow for new infrastructure and power to run the plants. That requires funding, he points out, which means international donors must be confident that their investments won’t be negated by another war. 

Regardless of the challenges, anything short of massive emergency intervention spells catastrophe, says Qishawi, who is well aware of the ticking clock. “If nothing is implemented within this short period,” he says, “the situation will be a disaster for all human beings living in Gaza Strip.”

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