Less than 50m from a black, barrel-sized pipe pouring raw sewage directly into the sea, children are playing in the waves.
The pipe runs from one of three main sewage pumping stations in Gaza, with multiple outlets into the sea. The water authority in the Gaza Strip has been unable to import the parts necessary for the maintenance and repairs at water and sewage pumping stations since Israel imposed its two-year long blockade of the territory, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Gaza.
“We know there is sewage in the water, but the borders are closed and we can’t travel,” said Mariam Al-Halu, who brought her two sons to swim. With scorching temperatures and intermittent electricity, many Gazans seek refuge from the heat in the polluted waters, residents say.
According to a July 2009 report (not available online) on the quality of Gaza’s seawater by the World Health Organization (WHO), seawater samples collected monthly from April to June by the public health laboratory in Gaza were polluted with faecal bacteria, specifically coliforms and streptococcus.
Seventy-one seawater samples collected from 25 points on Gaza beach showed that seven points were polluted, according to the WHO report.
WHO warns that a safe distance to swim from the sewage discharge is a least 2,000m. By swimming just 50m away from a sewage discharge point, the al-Halu brothers were exposing themselves to serious risks.
These range from minor intestinal and infectious diseases to more severe and potentially life-threatening diseases such as hepatitis and meningitis, although the risk of a cholera outbreak is minimal, WHO said.
WHO and the Gaza health authorities launched a public awareness campaign in May at the start of the summer season, warning swimmers and fishermen of the raw sewage discharges and the potential dangers.
However, many beachgoers and fishermen have not taken heed of the potential hazards, despite the signs placed in seven areas along the Gaza Strip’s 42km-long coastline.
About 80,000 cubic metres of raw and partially treated sewage is being discharged directly into the sea each day. The rundown sewage network badly needs repairs but the materials are lacking, according to an April 2009 report by the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) cluster, a group of UN agencies and international organizations responding to Gaza’s water and sanitation crisis.
Clinics and hospitals in Gaza report cases of eye and skin infections and stomach viruses among beachgoers, yet health bodies in Gaza say there are no clear indicators to connect the health issues to faecal contamination.
“The sewage has increased the amount of algae in the seawater and on the beaches, particularly near the sewage outlets,” said engineer Bahha Alagha from the Environmental Quality Authority (EQA) in Gaza.
“The fish eat the algae and are then sold on the local market,” Alagha said.
According to a special report on the marine environment in the Gaza Strip by Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights, consuming seafood fished in areas with considerable quantities of raw sewage water poses a serious threat to human health, because marine environment contaminants can be transferred through the marine food chain.
A committee to protect the beaches, including the EQA, health and interior ministries, and the water authority in Gaza, has been established to address these issues.