Gaza's Valley of Slow Death
Wadi Gaza – Wadi Gaza is a source of pollution known to “officials” who remain unfazed as slow death creeps on its 16,000 inhabitants. In all, 59,000 square meters of wastewater spill into its basin every day.
Carcasses of lifeless animals block the path of its shallow stream. Those still alive munch on the weeds growing along its filthy edges. Down its bank, houses made of straws and others of rocks intrude on the garbage hills. The stench emanating from this health peril was the beginning of a thread that led to an investigation of the causes of Wadi Gaza’s pollution.
Wadi Gaza is a wetland of surface water that streams following winter which falls on al-Khalil (Hebron) mountains and the Naqab hills. It runs for almost 105 kilometers and covers an area of around 3,500 square kilometers penetrating the Gaza Strip for 9 kilometers.
Its main tributaries are Wadi al-Sharia that springs out of al-Khalil mountains and Wadi al-Shallala that springs from the northern hillsides of Naqab. They meet almost 2 kilometers east of the Israeli borders with the strip. It thus starts from the armistice line east of Gaza and reaches the coastline where it spills into the [Mediterranean] sea. Due to its location, Wadi Gaza is rich with vertebrates and invertebrates. It is a vital component of Palestine’s fascinating nature and rich plant life.
It is the largest basin in Palestine and had been Gaza’s most noteworthy nature reserve. Separating Gaza city from the central governorates [of the strip], it was transformed into a sanitary abomination and an endless grievance of the population. The reason is the continuous theft of its waters by the Israelis, who have blocked its flow with dams in 1970, in addition to the sustained pouring of wastewater and solid waste by the strip’s municipalities and citizens.
Wadi Gaza’s inhabitants, officially estimated at 16,000, suffer from several types of allergies, skin rashes, and fungal infections. But according to a survey we conducted in the area, they do not know the reasons behind these illnesses. Samples from its water and soil, analyzed at the labs of the Water and Soil Institute of al-Azhar University in Gaza, indicated an extremely high level of fecal coliforms and organic matter, reaching millions of cells per sample. Palestinian Environment Minister Youssef Abu-Safia warned citizens not to live there or plant anything in the land. Tests have also shown that oxygen levels are low, making it unsuited for any kind recreational, agricultural, or residential projects.
This investigation reveals that six municipalities, including that of Gaza City, are pumping their sewage into the valley, in addition to burning and burying their solid waste on its bed and banks. The author of the investigation took pictures of waste spilling from Central Governorate, Gaza City, and the town of al-Zahraa. Heads of municipalities and their experts confirmed the information and admitted to dumping their sewage there. But they all threw the responsibility of destroying nature in the valley on someone else.
Impact on Health
Ibrahim Tawtaa’s home is the closest to the stream. His children and grandchildren suffer from skin rashes that cover all their bodies due to insects, such as mosquitoes that permeate the place, affecting their lives day and night. This is confirmed by pictures we took of them and the types of medicines they take.
Still, Tawtaa began constructing a sewage line for his home and the houses of a number of relatives which will flow into Wadi Gaza, replacing the septic holes close to the house. This is in spite of his complaints of the stench of the valley and the high level of pollution.
Dr. Jomaa al-Munirawi, lab technician at the health center in Mighraqa which saddles both sides of the valley, said that the pollution led to the spread of many diseases among the inhabitants of both sides of the valley, such as Typhoid and Hepatitis. According to the center’s records, “four or five people a month catch these diseases in Mighraqa. There is also an increase in white blood cells counts which leads to Pharyngitis, Influenza, and coughing, in addition to various skin diseases.”
This information is confirmed by medical laboratory specialist in al-Zahraa clinic, the western camp, Mighraqa, and by Bashir Abdul-Wahed at al-Nuseirat private central laboratory. He says: “I discovered some diseases and parasites. Some parasites should not exist in a conservative society, like the Palestinians. But I was surprised to find things like Ascaris [large intestinal roundworms], tapeworms, and Gardia Lamblia [parasite] that have disappeared from Gaza City, but are still prevalent in Wadi Gaza.”
“There is also a threatening worm that hits the human muscles. I have been working for ten years and I had never encountered it. But I found it two months ago in Wadi Gaza,” he explained.
Abdul-Wahed said that the inhabitants suffer from anemia. The valley is spreading infectious diseases, including worms that infect humans and reach their blood in due time.
Yasser Bayoumi, a microbiologist in charge of analysing drinking water in the Sabha al-Harazin clinic labs in Gaza, claimed that the Palestinian Health Ministry lacks accurate reports on the types of diseases carried by Gaza’s wastewater to nearby populations, like those of Wadi Gaza.
Sewage Pumping Channels
Bayoumi said that “university research uncovered these diseases. The ministry’s lab analysis of the water confirms that it causes intestinal diseases, such as Typhoid and Cholera as well as skin diseases, when it gets into contact with the skin. It also causes infection of the middle ear”.
Our journey in Wadi Gaza and its surroundings began at the eastern borders between Israel and Gaza, until we reached its mouth on the Mediterranean in the west. An unpublished 2011 study by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) shows how the valley was transformed illegally into a waste dumping ground. Household and other solid waste has piled up along its sides, and “caused detriment to its environment, wetland, groundwater, and even the marine ecosystem.”
Ibrahim Abu-Sultan is an engineer and director of the Health and Environment Department in al-Nuseirat camp municipality – adjacent to the valley and the largest camp in the central governorate. He said his municipality began pumping untreated sewage into Wadi Gaza around 1999. The volume increased following the establishment of large-scale sewage networks in 2002, when a large number of citizens stopped using their cesspools.
“Sewage from Deir al-Balah, al-Maghazi camp, al-Zuwaida, al-Bureij camp, al-Nuseirat camp, and al-Zahraa city, with a total population of 240,000 is pumped into Wadi Gaza directly, without being treated. This is not to mention the water that Gaza municipality claims to be treated,” according to Abu-Sultan.
Acting Director of the General Administration for Environmental Policies and Planning in the Environmental Quality Authority Bahaa al-Agha said that “between 1999 and 2000, greywater (kitchen, bathroom, and floor cleaning water), which does not contain fecal pollutants, from central camps amounted to 1,500 cubic meters. Today in 2012, more than 60,000 cubic meters of wastewater is pumped [into the valley] every day.”
The situation has become more threatening due to the stoppage of treatment plants due to power outages, according to The Impact of Israeli Violations in 2008 on the Ability of the Palestinian National Authority to Protect Human Rights published by the Independent Commission for Human Rights. The report indicated that sewage treatment plants completely stopped working. As a result, 77 million liters of untreated wastewater is pumped into the sea every day, leading to a serious environmental pollution.
But the Environmental Quality Authority – formerly the Environment Ministry – which is in charge of the valley, represented by its director Dr. Ibrahim Abu Youssef refused to provide us with any reports about the pollution in Wadi Gaza. This is despite the fact that they exist, according to other authorities such as municipalities, the Coastal Municipalities Water Unit, and the ICRC.
Abu Youssef insisted on defending the municipalities and threw the blame at Israel and the UNRWA.
“Imagine you are the head of a municipality and have between 15,000 to 20,000 cubic meters of wastewater. The capacity of the treatment plant in the city is between 5,000 and 10,000 cubic meters. What would you do with the rest?” he argued. Abu Youssef added that “the Israeli siege of Gaza Strip prohibited the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in the central region. This forced municipalities to pump sewage water into Gaza Valley.”
He said that UNRWA is responsible because it did not construct sewage networks. The survey we conducted on 100 of the valley’s inhabitants shows that more 95 percent of the sample are not connected to sewage disposal networks. They depend on cesspools inside their homes. These are eventually emptied into the valley.
UNRWA refused to comment on these allegations.
In the Sheikh Ajlin wastewater treatment plant run by Gaza City municipality, we discovered that the amount of sewage water reaching the plant from Gaza city alone was between 55,000 and 60,000 cubic meters daily. This is in addition to 20,000 cubic meters that are completely untreated, coming from the central governorate. But the plant was designed with a maximum capacity of 32,000 cubic meters, according to Recycling Unit Director Omran al-Dahdouh, an engineer. “Water coming into the treatment plant is classified, according to international standards, as strongly and severely contaminated. It is pumped directly into the valley or the sea. A small quantity is used in agricultural ponds.”
“The plant does not have sterilization capabilities, which means that pollutants, pathogens, and organisms are deposited in the water. In spite of this, the monthly preventive medicine reports of the Health Ministry are positive, indicating the lack of dangerous viruses such as AIDS, Hepatitis, and others,” Dahdouh explained. One of the treatment plant’s reports indicated that fecal coliforms in Gaza’s wastewater reached more than 20 million colonies per 100 ml of water. International standards and specifications say it should not exceed 2,000 colonies per 100 ml.
Threat to Fish Populations
The laboratory results of our sample of the valley’s water showed that the number of bacteria was very high, as indicated by the low levels of oxygen in the water.
The ICRC report considered the valley to be a pool of wastewater full of chemical and poisonous compounds, dissolved organic materials, bacteria, viruses, parasites, and worms. They do not only impact agriculture, but have an effect on marine environment and fish populations.
The ICRC Report
Prior to 2004, agricultural land spread over 10.14 hectares (1,250 dunums) of the valley’s surface. But currently only 20 to 30 percent remains. The rest was ruined due to the burial of solid waste or development into residential areas.
The valley has become a wastewater current flowing through the five kilometers of the western region [of Gaza Strip]. Around 50,000 cubic meters of wastewater coming from Gaza City and the central municipalities meet at a point 2.5 kilometers east of the sea and flow towards the coast.
Threat to Groundwater
According to the ICRC study, Gaza’s water is considered saline due seawater and wastewater seeping into the aquifer. We obtained documented results of analysis conducted on groundwater in 11 wells along the valley. They showed that dissolved solid materials in the western section — 4.5 kilometers long and 400 meters wide and stretching from the sea to the Salaheddine main road — begin at 1,810 milligrams per liters and reach 4,450 mg per liter.
Salinity is also concentrated in private agricultural wells along the river due to the above reasons. According to the study, two of the wells in the western section of the valley have a concentration of 1,800 and 1,300 mg per liter respectively. This is in addition to extensive pollution of groundwater near the river’s mouth with fecal coliforms. Two private wells were shown to have a concentration of 147 and 174 cells per 100 milliliters respectively. This means it is not suitable for human consumption or even for agricultural purposes.
The ICRC study also shows that groundwater at the river’s mouth is contaminated with nitrates, up to 1000 percent higher than international standards. Nevertheless, private agricultural wells have a slight concentration of 22 to 34 milligrams per liter. The ICRC says that the concentration of nitrates should not exceed 50 milligrams per liter in potable water, but this is exceeded at several points in the river.
During our several visits to the valley, we observed the continuous and illegal mining for pebbles from its bed. This led to wastewater seeping into the aquifer, especially since these pebbles act as the primary layer separating contaminated water from the groundwater, which is very close to the surface, according to the study.
Older seepage led to raising the levels of lead, cadmium, and zinc, from solid waste such as batteries and electronic equipment dumped in the valley, in the groundwater. The concentration of lead in two adjacent wells near the mouth reach 0.228 and 0.37 milligrams per liter. The two wells are also contaminated with cadmium and zinc.
According to environmental researcher, Dr. Zuhaid Quraiqeh, “increased levels of lead cause anemia and lack of hemoglobin in the blood, damage to the kidneys, liver, brain, and central and peripheral nervous systems, renal pain, gout, chronic kidney inflammation, and renal failure. Lead could also cause inflammation of the liver that may develop into cirrhosis, esophageal varices, and the rise in the acidity of the stomach and duodenum.”
Associate Professor of Microbiology at the Islamic University, Dr. Abdul-Raouf al-Manahme said that masters students’ research “indicates high levels of organic pollutants in the aquifer all along the valley.”
According to Quraiqeh and Manahme, organic pollutants “exhibit the feature of bioaccumulation, which means that they enter into living organisms through food, water, direct contact, or inhalation. Then they remain inside their bodies. These pollutants degrade at an extremely slow rate and remain in the environment or human tissue for many years.”
“They are toxic, whether in large or small quantities. They affect human intelligence, the endocrine system, and fetuses.”
According to Munirawi and several daily records that he provided, dozens of people are infected by such diseases every month, reaching more than 200 sometimes. There is a steady daily increase [in number of patients] of no less than 2 percent.
Threat to the Soil
On the other hand, Quraiqeh who has conducted several studies on the environment, mainly in Wadi Gaza, spoke about soil pollution in the valley. “People living in the valley will become sick, even after 50 years, because they are using pesticides, such as [internationally banned] DDT, abundantly. These remain in the soil for 50 years.”
He confirmed the results of our analysis. “If you want to live in the valley’s vicinity, you have to remove human and animal waste, in addition to a deep layer of the soil. Additionally, the water in Wadi Gaza is polluted with chemicals. It is saline and has levels of chloride salts that exceed internationally accepted standards for drinking water. Unfortunately, when we take a sample and analyze it, we find that salinity is so high that it cannot be used by neither animals nor humans.”
Due to the scarcity of scientific research on the health impact of the valley’s pollution, in addition to the lack of information at the Health Ministry and other relevant authorities, the researcher conducted a random survey of the population on both sides of Wadi Gaza, to collect information about their lives.
The survey showed that 85 percent of the residents visit distant clinics for treatment at least once a month. This is almost 13,000 people out of the 16,000 who live the valley. The results also indicated that 70 percent of the sample grow vegetables next to their houses, even though studies have shown that the soil is not suitable for agriculture.
The ICRC study said that the al-Aqsa Martyrs hospital in the central district recorded between 20 and 46 cases of meningitis. The main reason was due to swimming in contaminated water, such as at the mouth of Wadi Gaza in the Mediterranean. There are also the testimonies of local residents who said they find worms while cleaning fish caught near the wastewater dumping ground in the river.
Results of Survey
100 percent of the sampled residents complained from rodents and insects in their homes, especially mosquitoes, rats, cockroaches, and snakes. This led, also according to the survey, to the spread of allergies, skin rashes, fungal infections, and scratching, affecting 90 percent of the population.
70 percent believed that the pollution and the prevalence of mosquitoes had a negative impact on their children’s academic achievements.
95 percent said that mosquitoes, unpleasant odors, insects, and rodents are main issues due to their proximity to Wadi Gaza.
80 percent used antibiotics and more than 95 said that the government does not care for their health.
35 percent of the valley’s inhabitants drink from wells they dug personally near their homes, in spite of contamination by human and other fecal matter seeping through the cesspools. But they believed it was completely unclean and 65 percent do not drink it.
More than 95 percent of the inhabitants of the valley accuse Gaza city, Bureij, and Nuseirat municipalities of polluting the valley.
This is confirmed by Manahme who said that “the sea is now unable to clean itself or kill viruses near the mouth, due to the continuous flow of wastewater.”
Through his research and experience, he spoke about discovering the presence of salmonella, which causes intestinal disorders and diarrhea in general, in addition to Gardia and amoebas.
The sea is usually capable of getting rid of such pollutants, if they were present at normal rates. But their quantity now is very high. They are thriving there, according to Manahme.
A study conducted by Ahmad Halas, the Director of the Environmental Awareness Department at the Health Ministry and the researcher in the Water and Soil Institute at Gaza’s al-Azhar University, on Gaza’s sea water, especially at Wadi Gaza’s mouth, found that 48 percent of the sea water is polluted.
“We took 156 samples from the sand and water on Gaza’s coast. They are full of pinworms, dientamoeba, and other infectious parasites that can cause serious health problems,” Halas said.
This constant flow of diseases, a blatant aggression against the Palestinian environment and citizens, is ignored by the government. Blame is tossed around between officials in the absence of an actual project to dispose of wastewater in a healthy manner, which could save Wadi Gaza and its residents from impending environmental doom.
This investigation was conducted with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and coached by Saad Hattar and Dr. Abdullah Saafin.