A group of local Israeli leaders have warned Israel and the United States that the sewage crisis in Gaza could lead to the spread of disease and cause long-term environmental damage.
Gaza lacks the power to run a new sewage facility in the north of the region for more than a few hours a day because of the ongoing electricity crisis. The facility was introduced as a stopgap measure to relieve the burden on the existing plant.
As a result, raw sewage piles up on the beaches of Gaza and southern Israel, contaminating the groundwater in the process. The sewage problem has forced beach closures in Gaza and Israel, as well as the stoppage of groundwater pumping stations.
Calling on Israeli and American leaders to provide Gaza with electricity to run the plants, the group warned the entire region is “on the verge of a health crisis that does not take into account political borders.”
In a letter written to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and handed to US Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt during during his recent visit, the group added that it is “an absurd situation” in which Israel tries to curb the effects of the untreated sewage instead of providing the power to treat the sewage before it harms the environment.
The letter, signed by Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council Head Alon Schuster and others also warned that: “Without providing a fundamental and long-term solution to the crisis, it will be coming to our doorstep. In addition to the threats of tunnels, mortars and missiles, we will also be dealing with the pollution of the sea and beaches, pollution of drinking water and pollution of the water of agriculture in the area.”
‘Already a crisis’
More than 100 million liters of untreated sewage are being discharged into the sea every day, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, citing tests by the Water Quality Department in Gaza. In addition, nearly 75% of Gaza’s beaches are contaminated.
“For several times this summer, the [Gaza Environment] Authority decided to close the whole beach area due to pollution and to prevent the transmission of diseases by swimming,” said Attiyah al-Bursh, spokesman for the Authority.
“It’s already a crisis in Gaza,” echoes Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, “and it threatens to get much worse if pandemic disease were to break out, like cholera or typhoid.”
“Pandemic disease will not be stopped by a fence and threatens Palestinians, Israelis, and Egyptians.”
For months, Gaza’s two million residents have had less than four hours of power a day. Israel reduced the electricity to Gaza at the request of the Palestinian Authority, which was trying to pressure Hamas to relinquish control of the coastal enclave.
Gaza has been forced to make do with the limited power it gets from Egypt and Israel, supplemented by occasional supplies of fuel from Turkey and Qatar.
The breaking point
The United Nations has warned Gaza may be unlivable by 2020, pointing to the electricity shortage as the breaking point.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who stopped in Gaza this week as part of his first official visit to the region, said Gaza is “one of the most dramatic humanitarian crises that I have seen in many years working as a humanitarian in the United Nations.”
Guterres called on Israel to end its blockade of Gaza and to improve the living conditions of the two million Palestinians who live there.
Infighting between Hamas, which runs Gaza, and the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, has left Israel positioned – often precariously – between the two. Sending supplies and electricity into Gaza alleviates the looming humanitarian emergency, but it also risks strengthening Hamas’ grip on Gaza.
Israel’s Energy Minister, Yuval Steinitz, was against reducing power to Gaza, saying in June that the Palestinian Authority was using Israel as a tool against Hamas.
In a statement to CNN, Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) which carries out civilian policy in the West Bank and Gaza, said it was working to “reduce and minimize the consequences of cross-border environment hazards that harm the residents of Gaza and flow to Israel.”
A spokesperson for COGAT said it recently coordinated the crossing of nine generators into Gaza to assist with water treatment. In addition, 150 liters of pesticides were taken into Gaza to help control the spread of disease and minimize damage to Israeli and Gazan crops.
But all of these are temporary measures.
COGAT said it has suggested permanent solutions, such as connecting Gaza directly to gas lines or a major power line that would allow the transfer of 100 additional megawatts of power into the coastal enclave.
A COGAT spokesperson says these plans have yet to be promoted by the Palestinian Authority.
Correction: The attribution of the statement from COGAT has been updated.