AUSTIN, Texas — Unreliable electricity, an ongoing blockade on building supplies, and a failing waste treatment plant have spawned a sewage crisis in Gaza that experts warn could permanently damage Palestinians’ access to clean water.
The crisis is now spilling over into Israel and threatening its water supply. According to an Aug. 25 report from Middle East Eye, floods of sewage flowing into the Mediterranean Sea have caused Israel’s Ashkelon desalination plant, the source of 20 percent of the country’s drinking water, to shut down at least four times in recent months.
In the report, Kieran Cooke wrote: “[E]ach day an estimated 90m litres of untreated or partially treated sewage flows into the sea in Gaza — only a few kilometres south of Ashkelon.”
“Tides and winds then disperse the sludge, taking a substantial portion northwards into Israeli waters. The sewage gives rise to blooms of algae which have threatened to block filters at Ashkelon.”
The most pressing issue, according to Cooke, is insufficient power to operate a new water treatment plant funded by the World Bank in northern Gaza.
Palestine’s sewage problems are one of many issues resulting from years of mistreatment under Israel’s illegal occupation. These problems have grown notably worse since Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s brutal 2014 attack on Gaza, which killed about 2,250 Palestinians, including 551 children, and left about 500,000 homeless.
“Poor sewage treatment in Gaza is the result of a rapidly expanding population, an infrastructure damaged during wars with Israel and a chronic shortage of electricity to run the wastewater plants that still function. In 2007, a sewage reservoir overflowed in a village in northern Gaza, drowning five people,” The Associated Press reported in May.
The health of Palestinians who cannot afford clean water is already suffering. The AP’s Fares Akram and Daniella Cheslow interviewed Eitemad Abu Khader, a Palestinian mother of four girls, who lives north of Gaza City in a neighborhood surrounded by pools of untreated sewage.
«I spend my time from doctor to doctor, hospital to hospital,» said Abu Khader, who cannot afford to buy purified drinking water. «My daughters always have rashes.»
Another compounding factor is that Israel restricts Palestinians’ access to their own water supplies. While the World Health Organization recommends that each person have access to 100 liters of water a day, Palestinians living in the West Bank must make do with a daily average of just 73 liters.
A major obstacle to stemming the tide of sewage is Israel’s ongoing blockade on goods flowing into Occupied Palestine. A diverse array of crucial building materials, including cement, steel cables and ball bearings, are routinely blocked at the border. Even everyday supplies like crayons and musical instruments are frequently turned away.
According to an Aug. 16 report from The Los Angeles Times’ Rushdi Abu Alouf and Joshua Mitnick, “The lack of building materials and restrictions on generators and heavy machinery are also hobbling the rebuilding.”
Citing figures from Israeli human rights NGO Gisha, they reported:
“[F]rom the end of the war through the end of 2015, only about 14 percent of the construction materials needed to rebuild Gaza made it through to the area.”
In an Aug. 11 report from Al-Monitor, Eilon Adar, a hydrologist and the former director of Ben-Gurion University’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, warned that time is running out to finish construction and provide electricity to Gaza’s waste treatment plant.
Adar told Shlomi Eldar, a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse:
“Gaza sends wastewater to the area of the nonfunctional treatment plant, causing the water level to rise. A virtual mountain of underground water has been created that will flow to the only place in Gaza that still has drinkable water. That water will become contaminated and then disaster will hit. Once [contaminated] water permeates potable water, it will be almost impossible to fix the situation.”