Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Gaza Strip:
"Sewage Tsunami", following Israeli rocket attack on sewage system

Click on image to enlarge.

"Living on the edge:

"Town surrounded by lakes of waste about to burst their banks"

UMM AL-NASSER, GAZA STRIP -- Ziad Abu Farya has to deal with more problems than perhaps any other mayor on the planet. His tiny town in the north of the Gaza Strip is wracked by unemployment and looming shortages of food and other basic supplies. On any given day, the narrow streets can be the scene of an Israeli military incursion, internecine fighting between Hamas and Fatah, or clashes between warring families.

And then there's the growing probability that a tidal wave of sewage will swamp Umm al-Nasser and its 3,000 residents.

"It could happen at any time, at any moment," Mr. Abu Farya said, walking along the barrier of packed sand that is the only thing separating his town from three million cubic metres of raw sewage.

The foul-smelling lake has filled its reservoir almost to the brim; the current barrier towers over dozens of inhabited tin-and-wood shacks just a few metres away. It's holding for now, but residents look up nervously at the sand barrier and the contained sewage like a volcano about to explode.

The nightmare scenario has already unfolded once this year in Umm al-Nasser, a poor Bedouin town surrounded on three sides by sewage lakes. A smaller lake burst its banks in March, killing five people as dozens of homes were filled with filth and excrement.

The town is still digging out from that disaster, even as it prepares for the next one. Many homes are still uninhabitable, forcing several families to live in tents, even during the fierce fighting last month that saw Hamas seize control of the entire Gaza Strip.

"We have nothing. The sewage took even our documents and our clothes," said Mohammed Abu Khalil, an 18-year-old shepherd who lives with nine other members of his family under a plastic tarp on the still-polluted sand. Their small cement home is less than a kilometre away, still submerged in an ocean of sand and garbage left by what locals call the "sewage tsunami."

International aid agencies that originally pitched in to help clean up Umm al-Nasser after the sewage flood were forced to scale down their efforts as Gaza plunged into a fresh round of violence.

With the larger pond believed to be close to bursting, the next sewage disaster could be "60 times worse," Mr. Abu Farya said. "The last time we were lucky, because it happened during the day, when most people were outside of their homes. If the next one happens at night, thousands of people in this village ...will die."

Even before the March disaster, the United Nations had been warning for years of an impending crisis at the sewage facility. Designed to serve just 50,000 people, the plant now handles the waste of more than 190,000 Gaza residents.

A 2004 UN report found that excess sewage had already flooded about 45 hectares of land, and that 50 per cent of children in Umm al-Nasser had developed problems with their digestive systems.

"[The sewage facility] is overloaded and dilapidated in terms of safety standards," said John Ging, director of Gaza operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. "The scale of the next sewage tsunami will be phenomenal."

What's most upsetting to both Mr. Ging and Mr. Abu Farya is that a solution to the sewage problem is within reach. Plans have been drawn up, under an internationally backed project, to drain the sewage pools surrounding Umm al-Nasser and transfer the waste to the sparsely inhabited extreme north of Gaza.

But work on the project has been stalled for months because of frequent Israeli military operations in the area. Israel has also blocked the import of the steel-reinforced pipes and other needed materials, citing fears that Palestinian militants will steal them to make the homemade Qassam rockets they fire at the Israeli towns outside of Gaza.

Mr. Ging said the Israeli concerns were theoretically valid, but argues that the risks are remote compared to the scale of the threat facing the residents of Umm al-Nasser.

"If [the militants] are stuck for rockets, I'm sure they have other means at their disposal," he said. "Meanwhile, these poor people who have nowhere else to go are going to one day be awakened by sewage water coming through the front door. We know what's needed: there's an alternative plant that has to be built, but it's not happening. It's a disaster waiting to happen."


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