Joharah Baker: This Disaster Should Have Been Avoided

By Joharah Baker

As if the residents of the Gaza Strip did not have enough on their plate. Estimated at one of the densest areas on earth, with 1.4 million people cramped in an area of 360 square kilometers, Gazans have long suffered from poverty, unemployment and political strife, both internally and that perpetuated by the Israeli occupation.

Now, the small, predominantly Bedouin village of Um Nasr in the northern Gaza Strip is literally swimming in waste.

Yesterday, a sewage reservoir collapsed, flooding Um Nasr, population 5,000, in filthy water. So far, five people have drowned, several dozen others have been injured and at least 250 homes have been destroyed. Four people are still reported missing. Apparently, an earthen barrier surrounding one of the seven basins in the reservoir broke after being considerably weakened by the heavy rainfall in the area and more importantly by years of neglect.

While residents, rescue workers and Palestinian Authority officials rushed to the scene to try and help those still suffocating under the rancid waters, there is no telling the extent of the long term damage such an environmental disaster could generate. Besides the immediate effects such as the deaths, injury and damage to homes and facilities, a number of other factors will have to be taken into consideration including disease, pollution and future sewage water management.

It is not as if this problem sprung up from nowhere. A 2004 United Nations report warned of the potential dangers of the overburdened reservoir. It said the sewage facility had been built to serve a population of 50,000 but given the population growth in that area, it served as the only reservoir to 190,000 people. That is four times the amount of waste the basins designed to accommodate.

However, construction of a new reservoir or at least renovation of this one was put on hold repeatedly. Palestinian officials have been quick to point fingers in a number of directions, namely at the Israeli authorities. Officials say they repeatedly warned the Israeli army against firing missiles towards the reservoir, saying their targeting would eventually lead to a collapse of the basins’ walls.

Still, the majority of blame for such a disaster must be put on the overall situation of the Palestinians, the Gazans in particular. For years, Gaza endured the lion’s share of Israeli occupation measures, with Um Nasr only a few hundred meters from the border with Israel. This means Israeli security measures have always been tight, even after the so-called Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. According to the UN, after the 2004 report was released and the sewage lake created by the overflow of the basins was considered an environmental hazard, international funding had been provided for a new facility. Actual construction, however, had been blocked because of Israeli “security considerations.”

The international economic blockade on the Palestinian Authority since Hamas’ rise to power did not help. Several major development projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been frozen because of a lack of funding and even those which did have the okay to proceed have been hindered by the incessant Palestinian infighting over the past several months. Gaza has been the battleground for the fiercest clashes, the strife even spilling over into yesterday’s tragedy. The convoy of interior minister Hani Qawasmi was reportedly shot at by angry protesters when it entered Um Nasr yesterday to survey the situation. Ministry spokespeople insist the shots were not aimed at Qawasmi personally, but were the result of pent up anger at the situation as a whole.

Ultimately, the environmental disaster that took place yesterday cannot be taken out of its political and economic context. It was the outcome of several factors that converged and clashed, wreaking destruction and havoc. The years of neglect under the Israeli occupation played a key role, as did the clamp on international aid. Let’s be honest – such a calamity would never happen among Israeli Jews, even the poorest among them. The fact that the Palestinians have no real authority which can act independently and freely in the service of its people means there will always be the looming threat of such disasters. Even if Palestinian authorities intended to repair the reservoir and had all the means to do so, if their efforts were hindered by Israel’s presumptuous “security considerations”, then their hands would inevitably be tied.

Add to this, the Palestinians’ own shortcomings. One cannot but think Palestinian authorities could have done more to prevent this otherwise avoidable mess. However, the Palestinians have seemingly been more engrossed in their internal political struggles than the actual welfare of their citizens.

It is not our place to say what should have been done or what precautions could have been taken so the outcome would not have been so tragic. What we can say is that perhaps this unfortunate mishap and the loss of innocent lives could serve as a wake up call to our leaders and to those with a stake in this conflict. The Palestinians cannot lead a dignified life while there is an Israeli occupation ruling practically every aspect of it. This has been made clear by yesterday’s events in Um Nasr.

Equally as important, the Palestinians themselves must realize that instead of armed men patrolling the streets of Gaza and fiercely defending this or that faction, our energies would be much better utilized if we poured them into bettering the lives of our people.

No doubt, those who lost their lives and homes yesterday are not interested in how many ministries Hamas or Fateh was granted or to which group the armed men in their streets belong. They would rather have a concerted effort from all of our factions, institutions and groups to make sure something as senseless as this will never, ever happen again.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org. (www.MIFTAH.com) 

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