Beating pandemic disease in Gaza

Beating pandemic disease in Gaza
© Getty Images

Addressing the impending humanitarian crises facing Gaza is critical. What was once considered a "white elephant" of Mideast international development is now offering a road map to a safer existence for Palestinians and Israelis a like. Sewage treatment might not sound like a path to peace, but despite on-going border security and Jerusalem status issues, access to safe water and sanitation has become a shared priority for all parties.

With no modern sewage treatment plant in Gaza, seawater and sewage from two million people has been seeping into groundwater, their drinking water. A report issued by the United Nations in 2012 predicted Gaza would be unlivable by 2020, just two years from now.

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The newly opened North Gaza Emergency Sewerage Treatment (NGEST) plant promises a safer and healthier future for both Palestinians in Gaza and Israelis. The 14-year saga of its development is a metaphor for both Mideast politics and progress; and its future, like those of the inhabitants of this region, remains precarious.

 

In the works since 2004, NGEST, a project led by the Palestinian Water Authority out of Ramallah, with the support of the World Bank, was supposed to be completed within a few years to treat a third of Gaza’s sewage. But in 2007, Hamas’ takeover of Gaza resulted in delaying timelines when equipment and construction material, including cement, became suspect for possible dual use, making it extremely difficult for construction supplies to enter Gaza through Israeli-controlled boarders. By 2013, the plant was finally 95 percent complete, but due to Israeli government policy to not increase electricity sales to Gaza, as long as rockets were being launched from there, NGEST was not operational and came to represent a ‘white elephant’ of development to the international donor community and the reason why no large projects should be advanced in Gaza.

But some of us saw in NGEST a shared solution to a shared threat. A host of diseases brew in untreated sewage — from parasitic Cryptosporidium, Giardia and Hepatitis A, to Leptospirosis and tetanus. Fatalities caused by Shigellosis, a rare disease, were recorded in Gaza in summer 2017. The near-eradicated poliovirus was found in sewage samples in Israel as recently as five years ago; and deadly pandemic diseases, like cholera, pose a threat to the whole region.

We at EcoPeace, a joint Israeli/Palestinian/Jordanian organization, released reports and held conferences to convey the obvious: polluted groundwater and raw sewage pouring out of Gaza beaches into the Mediterranean Sea — at over 100 million liters a day — posed not only a humanitarian crisis to Palestinians but equally posed an environmental, water and national security threat to the region.

In March 2015, following negotiation with the Palestinian Water Authority, Israel finally reversed its decade-long policy of not increasing water sales to Gaza. In fact, it was Israel’s military head of COGAT, Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, under Israel's Ministry of Defense, who became the main advocate for increased water sales.

This increase in water sales was important, but insufficient. Following the closure of Israeli water wells due to the still uncontrolled flow of untreated sewage from Gaza into Israel, the on-going fear of an all-out cholera outbreak in Gaza led us to start sampling the sand on Israeli beaches in 2016. We wanted to see if we could find the cholera strain and force decision makers to pull their head literally out of the sand and see that no fence will hold back sewage and associated diseases.

Fortunately, our laboratory tests came back negative for cholera, but we discovered no less serious a concern. Israel’s massive Ashkelon desalination plant which produces 15 percent of Israel’s drinking water, had to be closed down due to Gaza sewage polluting the seawater, intake pipe and the membranes at the heart of its desalination process. When we went public with this news, Israeli refusal to sell much-needed electricity to NGEST as a punitive response to rocket attacks was finally reversed.

Reframing the electricity supply issues as water security and national security issues brought Israeli Water and Energy Minister Steinitz, and even Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, on board with these much-needed policy changes, but the situation, of course, remains incredibly precarious. Last fall, it was the Palestinian Authority that asked Israel to cut electricity supplies to Gaza as part of its punitive measures to try to force Hamas to agree to a reconciliation deal. It looked like we were back to square one yet again. But a letter from all the Israeli mayors around Gaza, fearful of pandemic disease, kept pressure on decision makers on all sides.

Against all odds, NGEST recently started operation. Even the roadside bombing in Gaza that targeted the Palestinian Prime Minister did not stop Prime Minister Dr. Rami Hamdallah from continuing to the opening ceremony of the NGEST site.

As the U.S. and international community looks toward progress in Mideast peace talks, it would do well to look to the pragmatic for success and recognize that water security is a potential game-changer. Measures being advanced in the US, including the Taylor Force Act and cuts to UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, should be evaluated for unintended consequences that further erode water security.

Sewage treatment inside the new NGEST tanks is cause for some hope as it reflects a heightened level of determination among those who recognize that time — and sewage — flow against us all.

Gidon Bromberg, Nada Majdalani and Munqeth Mehyar are the Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian co-directors of EcoPeace Middle East.