A Palestinian rides his trike through a flooded street following the heavy storms of 2013. Photo: AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED via Flickr / Globovisión (CC BY-NC)
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As flooding in Gaza worsens, the most basic of human rights are under threat
9th February 2016
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has worsened after floods and purposeful destruction has taken its toll in recent months, writes Vanessa Amaral-Rogers. The eight year blockade by Israel and conflict with Egypt has already hit Palestinian families hard but now Gaza is at even greater risk as Egypt diverts seawater into life-line tunnels.
The rain water mixed with sewage ruined their houses' furniture including beds, closets, kitchens. The municipality staff were trying to pump the water out of the houses but their capacity was limited due to the shortages of fuel and power.
The last few months have been particularly difficult for those living in temporary accommodation when torrential storms and flooding hit Gaza.
After Israel's 2014 military offensive displaced over 100,000 people by destroying their homes, many now live in temporary shelter.
Some families are living in the rubble of their former homes or shipping containers and are heavily at risk from the elements. Others are living in caravans, but even these offer little protection against this year's floods and brutal winter cold.
The Southern communities of Khan Younis, Rafah and Khuza have been hit the hardest and limited emergency aid is being provided.
Winter storms have worsened the issue with municipalities declaring a state of emergency. Storms have blown the roofs off houses and schools have been forced to shut down due to power failures.
Medical Aid for Palestinians' Gaza Director, Fikr Shalltoot said: "It was a catastrophic situation in Rafah, where more than 100 families were obliged to flee their houses. The rain water mixed with sewage water ruined their houses' furniture including beds, closets, kitchens etcetera. The people in the upper floors were unreachable as the ground floors were full of water.
"The municipality staff were trying to pump the water out of the houses but their capacity was quite limited due to the shortages of fuel and electricity. People were desperate and in great need for support; therefore MAP cooperated with a local partner and distributed 228 Blankets, 228 Mattresses and 114 hygiene kits to these families in Rafah."
The Palestinians have little hope of rebuilding their homes as they have no access to building materials unless the Gaza blockade is lifted and construction material is allowed to enter the territory. In the West Bank, more than twenty homes have been recently demolished by Israeli bulldozers including homes funded by the European Commission and the UN, and more evictions are planned.
No electricity, no water, no way out
When an Israeli airstrike took out fuel storage tanks at the Gaza Power Plant in 2006, it marked the beginning of an electricity crisis. Since then blackouts of between 12-16 hours per day are common whilst only 45% of demand is being met.
With insufficient electricity to power water pumps and wells, wastewater treatment plants have had to reduce their treatment cycle. Drainage systems have been unable to cope with heavy rains since the destructive 2014 attacks and the territory has been flooding yearly.
Over-pumping of the water and sewage system has led to its deterioration in an attempt to counter dwindling water supplies. The 2014 attacks had also seen Israeli warplanes targeting water pipelines and wells. Partially treated sewage is being discharged into the Mediterranean at the rate of 25,000 cubic meters per day, whilst there is a constant risk of back-flow into the streets increasing the likelihood of disease caused by poor sanitation.
In a policy brief titled 'Drying Palestine: Israel's Systemic Water War' issued by Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network, Muna Dajani wrote from Jerusalem of the damage that consecutive Israeli military aggressions have caused to Gaza's water systems and pollution into the Mediterranean sea:
"Ninety-five percent of the water that Palestinians in Gaza have been consuming for decades has been proven unfit for human consumption. Electricity shortages that have lasted for almost a decade have limited water treatment capacity and thus the availability of water to households, as well as increased the discharge of untreated wastewater into the sea.
"Even before the summer assault on Gaza, 90 million liters of untreated or partially treated wastewater were being dumped and continue to be dumped into the sea each day due to insufficient treatment facilities."
Water, water, everywhere
Nor any drop to drink
Since the ousting of the first ever freely-elected Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the siege between the borders of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula has tightened. The Egyptian army, which now governs Egypt after a coup, closed the border with Egypt and constructed a crude canal to pump seawater into the Gaza Strip.
The aim was to "destroy the smuggling tunnels" which are allegedly used by terrorists, although an Israeli minister has now claimed this was at the request of the Jewish state. The tunnels are a life-line to the area, allowing essential materials to enter the country. It is thought that 95% of the supply tunnels have now been destroyed.
The natural underground aquifers have already been severly depleted by Israel, and are now threatened by the influx of saltwater into the soil. Almost all the water in Gaza comes from the coastal aquifer, which is shared with Israel. "Due to the absence of any policy coordination between Israel and the Gaza Strip with regard to the Coastal Aquifer, both authorities are currently over-extracting", says EWASH.
In an area which should have ample freshwater resources especially the West Bank, Palestinian water resources are under Israel's jurisdiction and legal restrictions have been placed on access. New water infrastructure cannot be built without the express permission from the military.
Even rain-collecting containers can be destroyed. According to a 2009 report by Amnesty International, soldiers shot water tanks to pass the time, since "water tanks are good for target practice; they are everywhere and are the right size to aim at and calibrate your weapon, to relieve your frustration … or to break the monotony of a stint of guard duty."
The UN had previously expressed concerns that by 2020, Gaza would be uninhabitable. With the speed at which Israel and Egypt are sending the population into destitution, this could be even sooner.
Vanessa Amaral-Rogers is a freelance journalist writing mainly on environmental themes.
Campaign: Medical Aid for Palestinians, in partnership with the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA) and Avaaz, are calling for easing of restrictions on the entry of building materials into Gaza and an end to the blockade and closure of the territory.
Petition: 'Global Leaders: Lift the Gaza Blockade' (Avaaz).
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