Palestinian civil defense volunteers helping people travel across floodwaters in Gaza City on Dec. 14 following heavy rainstorms.Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Last weekend, torrential rains over the course of two days brought 6 feet of water into the Gaza Strip, transforming its northern region, especially, into a smelly, sewage-filled mess. On Dec. 20, almost a week later, thousands remained displaced, and the cleanup effort is slow going.
Ground floors in hundreds of apartment buildings across miles of city blocks remain damaged by the flood. The heavy, icy rains, amounting to about 85 percent of annual rainfall, also drowned large swaths of northern Gaza’s fertile areas, destroying or degrading rich farmland and the greenhouses on which families rely for subsistence. In the hardest-hit areas, citizens used makeshift boats — some navigating the sewage using gondola-like oars — to rescue families from rooftops and transport them to overcrowded shelters in adjoining neighborhoods.
The rains were a fluke of nature, but the scale of their impact is man-made. Border closures, enforced by Israel and exacerbated since June by Egypt’s tunnel closings, have caused severe shortages of the fuel needed to operate the area’s power plant and water treatment pumps. Now the weight of relentless downpours has collapsed residential cesspools, adding to the fetid waste already flowing through the city.
Under any circumstances, recovery efforts after such a catastrophe would be difficult. But in Gaza, even the tools of disaster relief are subject to the restrictions of the blockade and border closure. Making do with what they have, local contractors have enlisted their front-end loaders to create ditches to let the sludge, raw sewage and other industrial pollutants flow out of residential areas. It is a crude method, but it’s the only option they have without the proper pumps or electricity to power them.
The floodwaters are receding now, but the muddy residue remains. Families returning to their ground-floor apartments will need to sanitize them after shoveling out the mud and sludge. Yet even after their homes are clean, many poor families will need to make a difficult decision: to replace damaged furniture with their limited savings or buy food.
That is not an overstatement. Unemployment in Gaza is rampant. Most construction workers were recently laid off because of closed borders that don’t permit the entry of cement and other building materials. In addition, the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committee, a nonprofit that promotes rural development in the region, estimates that about 10 percent of the farmland in Gaza has already been rendered unusable by the polluted waters.
Making matters worse, as winter sets in and with daily electricity blackouts, Gazans are now spending most of their days in unheated, dark apartments. The situation is worse for those who have been displaced by the rains. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that more than 10,000 men, women and children were forced to evacuate their flooded homes with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Until these families can return to their homes and flush out the sludge, they share overcrowded spaces with relatives or huddle on the floors of 25 nearby schools doubling as shelters. Of course, using schools as shelters means no classes. And let’s not forget that most of Gaza’s schools were already operating with double shifts because they lacked classroom space for all the children.
In November, when I visited Gaza, half the young children I saw were running around barefoot on dirt roads. The parasites these children risk contracting from the soil will be even more threatening in contaminated mud. Yet families are no more able to provide their children with the safe spaces to enjoy their childhood.
The situation in Gaza is appalling. Gazans, who feel isolated and abandoned by the international community, have already suffered the impact of blockades, border closures and years of protracted humanitarian crises. Those of us who work in Gaza constantly worry that the territory’s humanitarian needs will be overlooked amid the plethora of disasters in the Middle East.
During this holiday season of caring, the situation in Gaza should move Americans to help the innocent victims of this man-made catastrophe — by contributing to relief efforts and calling for an end to the blockade.