By Rami Almeghari in Gaza
The Um Al Nasser village, on the northern Gaza-Israel borders, woke up on Tuesday to tens of thousands of gallons of sewage water flooding it’s small cottages.
Many of the villagers fled the scene, while weaker ones could not. Two elderly women and three children drowned in dirty water, facing a horrible fate, while at least 20 others were injured. Rescue teams rushed to save those who could be saved. The Bedouin village of Um Al Nasser was established by the Palestinian Authority in 1999 to house some one thousand Palestinian Bedouins, the majority of whom are shepherds or manual labourers.
Disaster struck on Tuesday when a 6.5 acre septic cesspool containing 20,000 cubic meters of sewage water collapsed completely. It had weakened over time and had sustained several hits during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Dr. Moawiya Abu Hasanain, spokesman of the emergency department at the Palestinian health ministry, said that what happened in Um Al Nasser required the health ministry to declare a state of emergency. The sewage flood could result in health complications and diseases in the area.
Sixty cottages have been completely destroyed and 226 others have been partially damaged due to this humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of families are now living in tents that have been supplied by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Why has this crisis happened? A question we asked the municipality officials of Um Al Nasser in light of repeated warnings by the Palestinian Environment Authority that a collapse of the cesspool was likely.
"We were surprised at 9:30 yesterday morning that a 26-dunum cesspool containing 20,000 cubic meters of sewage water, collapsed", Kamel Abu Qayeda, secretary of the Um Alnasser municipality initially answered. "The problem of sewage water disposal is not only faced by the municipality or the village of Um Alnaser, it is also encountered by the northern area in general, including the municipalities of Jabalya , Beit Lahya and Beit Hanoun", he maintained.
The collapse was likely, a warning that has not only been uttered by the official Palestinian body, but also by the local inhabitants of the village. Said Abu Safra, who has lost his 65 year-old mother and 3 year-old nephew said that the villagers had complained repeatedly of leakage of sewage water from the cesspool, reporting to the local government about such a concern, yet no one has responded positively.
Abu Safra said: “Let me give you an example, a neighbour of mine saw some leakage of water in the cesspool; so he informed those in charge. Yet, officials responded by claiming that the actual life of the structure would hold up for another month. ”We call on our brothers to come here and see the misery the village has just suffered", he appealed.
The villagers of Um Al Nasser are now living in the open air in cold spring weather, while their houses, personal belongings and some of their loved ones have been lost. They are waiting for food, assistance and shelter from an already untenable Palestinian authority, which has been exhausted enough by an economic embargo which has been internationally-imposed since last January’s parliamentary elections.
Head of the Palestinian environment authority, Yousef Abu Safiya, has stated that there are 40 other similar cesspools in the Gaza Strip which desperately need renovation. This would curb the breakout of similar humanitarian disasters in the future.
On March 24th, the Union of Gaza Local Municipalities announced that 25 Gaza municipalities are on the verge of complete paralysis due to inability to provide services to residents in light of the economic embargo that has led to the highest rate of poverty yet- approximately 80% of Gazans are now living below the poverty line.