Amira Hass / The Sewage Is About to Hit the Fan in Gaza

Recurrent electricity cuts prevent pumping of sewage water infiltration pond, which is on brink of collapse.

Each day of electricity cuts increases the prospect that Palestinian Water Authority engineer Saadi Ali's nightmare will come true. Ali, in charge of the North Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment Project, lives in constant fear of a recurrence of the calamity that took place in March 2007 when the dirt embankments surrounding a temporary infiltration pond of sewage water collapsed, and the effluent water that flooded the nearby Bedouin village of Umm al-Nasser led to the drowning deaths of five people. About 1,000 people were evacuated from their homes, animals died and considerable damage was caused to property and crops.

The temporary infiltration basin was originally built to lower the level of water in the nearby giant sewage lake that has slowly developed. Last November, the PWA, which is directly accountable to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, was slated to empty the lake and transfer the sewage water to new infiltration basins seven kilometers to the southeast away.

However, the initial operation of the emergency project's pumping station has been delayed for over a month now. Ever-lengthening electricity cuts, the result of Israel reducing the fuel supply to the bare minimum both to Gaza and its power plant, have severely hampered the project's activation.

Ali and the team of contractors and laborers working with him feel powerless in the face of the following threatening facts. The artificial sewage lake has a total area of 350 dunams that is one kilometer long and contains 2.5 million cubic meters of effluent water with depth ranging from eight to 13 meters. The site of the lake overlooks an inhabited agricultural area of over 1,000 dunams with a population of 10,000.

The dirt embankments surrounding the lake could collapse for a variety of reasons: heavy rainfall, stray Qassam rockets, mortars launched by the Israel Defense Forces, exchanges of gunfire.

The long, frequent electric power cuts are much more than simply "inconvenient." They are causing serious environmental harm that will also affect Gaza's Israeli neighbors. The flooding of the region surrounding the sewage lake would not only endanger the lives of many people, it would also inflict damage on fields and fill the open irrigation wells with sludge that would immediately contaminate the aquifer.

"About a month ago, the electric power cuts lasted between six and eight hours, and we tried to navigate our way around them," Ali said in a telephone conversation with Haaretz on Monday from Gaza. "Today, every electric power cut lasts 12 hours, and the power is then supplied for six hours. Since there is a shortage of natural gas for cooking, many people use electricity - when it is available - and the current is too weak to operate the [pumping station's] machines."

Another reason for the delay is the absence of the expert responsible for the operation of the new electric power system. He is a resident of Bethlehem and all the requests that he be granted an entry permit to Gaza have so far been denied.

The Tony Blair Project

In the local jargon, the delay-plagued emergency project is dubbed the Tony Blair Project - a tag that is catchier and shorter than the official name of the two-stage project, the North Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment Project, as phase A, and the North Gaza Wastewater Treatment Plant, the final phase. Blair has been honored with his name being attached to the project because, as an envoy of the Quartet (the Middle East peacemaking forum consisting of representatives from the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union), he prodded donor states to the PA in 2007 to allocate additional resources for the continued financing of this project, which is estimated to ultimately cost a total of $100 million.

However, the two-stage project is unique for another, and much more important, reason: Out of dozens of vital infrastructure projects, including those for sewage treatment, the drainage of rainwater, and the replacement of water pipes, this is the only one whose implementation Israel has permitted for the entire Gaza Strip. NGEST and NGWWTP is the only project Israel has defined as humanitarian, life-saving and one to which its policy on the shutting down of border crossings does not apply. The other projects have been filed under "development."

In 1976, Israel's civil administration constructed a wastewater treatment plant in the northern Gaza district. It was intended to serve a population of 50,000 in the city of Jabaliya and to treat 5,000 cubic meters of sewage daily. After 1994, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and the Palestinian Authority connected additional regions in the northern Gaza Strip to the central sewage system and to the plant, which today serves a population of 250,000.

Experts estimate that 18,000 cubic meters of sewage water reach the plant daily. The increase in volume has created two problems. The effluent water is not thoroughly treated and the accumulating amounts have produced an artificial lake whose heavy foul odor has spread over a wide area over the years. Between 2001 and 2004 alone, the level of water in the sewage lake rose by 2.5 meters. In the 1990s, the UNRWA and the PA commissioned preliminary surveys for the construction of a new sewage treatment facility. However, donor states left the project out of its funding programs until 2005.

The completion of the emergency sewage project has been delayed since late 2005, although the original plans called for completing it within a year, that is, by the end of 2006. The delays are the result of a combination of factors: the election of a Hamas-led government in Gaza, the imposition of a boycott on that government, the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit, and the closure of border crossings.

Because of the delays, contractors avoided bidding for the public tender that was issued in December 2006 for the construction of the new treatment facility; they feared that they would not be able to obtain the necessary construction materials.

Next January, a new tender will be issued. It was only the disaster of March 2007 that led to the renewal of the emergency work and to Israel's granting permission for the transport of raw materials and gasoline for the project into the Gaza Strip.

Negotiations with the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on the introduction of specific components, most of them produced in Israel (such as 2- to 6-inch diameter pipes) went on for months. When security clearance was finally given, another few months passed before the Israeli bureaucratic mechanism operating the border crossings allowed the entry of these components. The military confrontation between Hamas and Fatah has also produced delays.

"If we are lucky, after June 2009, we can begin construction of the treatment plant, which will be 25 times the size of the one that was constructed in 1976," Ali said. "The construction work will take at least three years. However, the most urgent task is to empty the sewage lake."

If the electric power cuts stop, if the gasoline is supplied, if the electrical engineer expert from Bethlehem arrives and if the diesel fuel for the giant generators is provided, then, according to Ali, the "emptying of the sewage lake can be carried out within eight months to a year."

This is what he said in mid-November. Today, given the delay of more than a month in the initial operation of the pumping station, even that projection seems overly optimistic.