By Suzanne Baroud
In a place just a few miles from sandy beaches and soaring sky-scrapers, white stone villas and sky-blue swimming pools, it seems the epitome of irony and injustice that over 1.5 million people would be subjected to drinking sewage-contaminated water. When there is such a fine line bordering wealth and poverty, privilege and need, how unsettling to realize that just a stones throw away, mothers and fathers must nourish their families with poison. As if the occupier could not find one more creative way to torment his victim.
The greatest outrage is that such a reality is the decided policy of the Israeli government. It is decried by the most prominent human rights and humanitarian groups throughout the world, and yet it is increasingly enhanced by Israel and shamelessly backed and justified by the US. It is indisputable that the calamity of contaminated water in the Gaza Strip is a resolute policy of the Israeli government.
The problem of sewage management in Gaza is not a new issue, and in fact dates back to the direct Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1967. At that time, Israel built the sewage treatment facilities which are still in operation today, built then to serve a population of 380,000 people, a number that has grown to 1.5 million.
The depleted source of clean drinking water and the ever-growing sewage crisis in Gaza is leading to areas of overflow, the largest of them called “the great lake” which occupies some 30 hectares of land and holds approximately 2-3 million cubic meters of waste water.
With archaic facilities to serve a group that has nearly tripled in number, and with the lack of basic necessities such as fuel to power the pumps necessary to keep the facilities running, the result is the spillage of toxic sewage into the ground and ground water and even directly into the sea.
The United Nations publication, IRIN recently interviewed Rebhi al-Sheikh, the head of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) in Gaza, who stated that at present, 75 percent of Gaza’s drinking water is polluted.
In January 2008, UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur, John Dugard travelled to Palestine and assessed the situation, one that he described as “catastrophic" under Israel-imposed restrictions.
I recently spoke with Dr. Suma Baroud about the range of problems and health issues that result from the existence of run-off areas such as the great lake. She explained, “As a medical practitioner working in the field of primary health care in the Khan Younis region for the last 10 years, I have learned from my anecdotal observation that there are a myriad of overwhelming problems and ailments inflicting the health of Gaza residents, especially children as a result of the ever-growing lakes of sewage like that of the ‘great lake’ or the ‘Majari’ as we call it.
Many children are treated in our health centers for illnesses induced by infestations of small organisms such as amoeba. These ailments progress and lead to internal diseases which affect the small and large intestine and hamper or impede their functions, such as abdominal colic, diarrhea and constipation. Other complications include anemia, failure to thrive, and mental disturbances. More, we have seen growing numbers of children who suffer from conditions such as insomnia, low self-esteem and self-confidence.
Add to this a big number of patients who are treated in our clinics in summer for skin infections resulting from insects bites. There is an overwhelming problem with such insects which thrive in the conditions under which we suffer, with intense heat and standing sewage and water.
There is tremendous pressure on the Ministry of Health due to over-consumption of medications that fight these diseases and their subsequent complications.”
An uncountable number of rights groups have brought the plight of Gaza to the fore in recent weeks, including the International Committee of the Red Cross who recently told IRIN that, “The environmental situation in Gaza is bad and getting worse."
30,000-50,000 cubic metres of partially treated waste water and 20,000 cubic metres of raw sewage end up in rivers and the Mediterranean Sea. Some 10,000-30,000 cubic metres of partially treated sewage end up in the ground, in some cases reaching the aquifer, polluting Gaza’s already poor drinking water supply.
The International Crisis Group recently pressed Israel, Egypt, the PA and the Hamas Government to do everything possible to make necessary commodities available such as fuel, which is essential to the containing of Gaza’s huge sewage problem.
In an article recently published in the California based publication, the Coastal Post, US Presidential Candidate Ralph Nader bashed Israel for its multi-faceted execution of institutionalized violence against the people of Gaza, and called the US to account for its out-right complicity with Israel’s inhuman and illegal practices: “Israel’s siege has also caused extensive loss of life in Gaza from crumbling health care facilities, electricity cut-offs, malnutrition and contaminated drinking water from broken public water systems. The victims here are mostly children and civilian adults who expire unnoticed by the West. The suffering of Gaza civilians is ignored by 98% of the US Congress, which gives billions of taxpayer dollars to Israel annually.”
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), "Gaza is on the threshold of becoming the first territory to be intentionally reduced to a state of abject destitution, with the knowledge, acquiescence and – some would say – encouragement of the international community."
In early March of this year, a report drafted by eight British human rights groups and humanitarian groups condemned Israel’s policies in a “scathing” report which declared that the humanitarian crisis in Gaza was the “worst since 1967”.
"As we speak, sewage is literally pouring into the streets," said Geoffrey Dennis, head of CARE International.
Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said Israel must protect its citizens, "but as the occupying power in Gaza it also has a legal duty to ensure that Gazans have access to food, clean water, electricity and medical care."
She added: "Punishing the entire Gazan population by denying them these basic human rights is utterly indefensible. The current situation is man-made and must be reversed."
The 16-page report — sponsored by Amnesty, along with CARE International UK, CAFOD, Christian Aid, Medecins du Monde UK, Oxfam, Save the Children UK and Trocaire — calls on the British government to exert greater pressure on Israel and to reverse its policy on not negotiating with Gaza’s Hamas rulers.”
As Amnesty’s Kate Allen pressed, the urgency of this issue cannot be emphasized enough. Spillage so great that its masses are designated “the great lake”, such abuse and mistreatment of a population regarded as “protected persons” is nothing less than pure outrage. The international community must take action immediately to ensure the protection Gaza deserves, for as Allen declared, this abhorrent action is undeniably man-made and must be reversed immediately.
– Suzanne Baroud is an American writer and editor of several books. She is the managing editor of PalestineChronicle.com.