Raw sewage flows onto Gaza’s beaches amid energy crisis

The polluted beach in Gaza. Photo from ICRC.
The polluted beach in Gaza. Photo from ICRC.

The stink hits you first. On beaches in the Gaza Strip, in the Palestinian Territories, untreated sewage is being channelled straight into the sea after an electricity crisis that has brought water and sewage treatment centres in the region grinding to a halt. The pollution can also have dangerous consequences for residents: in July, a five-year-old boy died after swimming in the contaminated seawater.

Five-year-old Mohammad al-Sayis died in hospital after ingesting contaminated water while swimming in the sea. His brothers were also hospitalised, but recovered. Mohammad’s father Ahmad told local news: “It’s hot and humid and there is no power, water or fans in the house. The sea is our only outlet."

Locals in Gaza are used to having reduced electricity. But the normal rate of five to six hours of electricity a day was reduced even further when Gaza’s sole power plant ran out of fuel in April 2017 after it used up its fuel stocks, which had been purchased with money lent by Turkey and Qatar.

The sewage treatment plant Sheikh Ajlin. Photo taken by our Observer Ehab Elhelou.

Political tensions between the Hamas government, who seized control of Gaza in 2007, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have exacerbated the problem. Abbas further slashed electricity supply to Gaza in May and June 2017 when he refused to pay for a supply coming from Israel. Later that month, Egypt agreed to provide some fuel in an attempt to stave off the crisis, but it is not sufficient to meet the territory’s requirements for power.

“The water is brown and you can see the scum on the surface of the water”

Our Observer Haitham Ghanem lives in Gaza City, not far from the beach. He told us how it was living through the electricity crisis – and its ramifications.

All of the waste water is being pushed towards the sea. We have a good sewage collection system but when it is collected and it reaches a dangerous level they just open the gates and it flows out towards the sea. It is disgusting. You can imagine the smell. It is so polluted you cannot even go near the water. You can’t find a spot to swim at all along the beach of Gaza Strip. For seven years I have been taking my children to the beach. You just want to take your kids to swim but you can’t – the water is brown and you can see the scum on the surface of the water.

The beach is not empty. But most people go there just to walk, about 50 metres away from the water. You can’t get any closer. People who do want to swim just go as far as they can from the shore. I would never let my children swim at the beach.

I cannot imagine worse than this. We only get electricity for about three hours each day. We can’t keep things cold, we just want to drink cold water during this hot summer [average summer temperatures in Gaza are upwards of 30 degrees Celsius] and cool ourselves down a bit. Most people have started using batteries that they charge during those few hours so they can keep them going for routers and the Internet.

Wadi Gaza beach. Photo taken by our Observer Ehab Elhelou.

“Even sitting at the beach is dangerous”

In August, United Nations human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said that the reduction in electricity has had “a grave impact on the provision of essential health, water and sanitation services”, and called on all parties to resolve the conflict. The United Nations says that at least 100,000 cubic metres of effluent are being pumped into the sea each day.

A video of sewage at Wadi Gaza. Taken from YouTube.

Ribhi El-Sheikh is the deputy head of the Palestinian Water Authority in Gaza. He explained how the electricity crisis has caused the pollution.

Most or all of the waste water is being disposed of in the sea. Some of it has gone through preliminary treatment but it’s not enough; it’s still toxic. It can reach 300mg per litre of BOD [Biological Oxygen Demand – a unit of measurement used to gauge the effectiveness of treatment in sewage systems]; it is meant to only have 60mg. Due to the sea’s natural currents, it is moving polluted water from south to north.

We have around 17 outlets spewing this contaminated water into the sea, and people try to swim far away from these points on the beach. But other outlets are deep under the sea, not just on the beach. More than that, the pollution in the water can contaminate the sand, so even sitting at the beach is dangerous. And the only source of entertainment for Gazan people is the beach.

We need a minimum of 450 megawatts to operate our water and sanitation infrastructure. Currently we are only receiving 100 to 150. We tried to compensate with standby [electricity] generators but they are costly and not available all the time. The result is that large amounts of untreated water and sewage is leaking from treatment centres, some of the water pumping stations are not operating and so consumers need to have domestic water pumps, which not everyone has. These facilities demand a huge amount of energy and it’s difficult to provide the amount of fuel needed to run them at full capacity.