Khan Yunis, Safa – Dark and dirty spots mark the beauty of the golden sands of Al-Mawasi and its fertile agricultural land. No visitor or resident can avoid the unpleasant odours hanging in the air. The huge waste water basins near the sea have overstayed their welcome.
Poor planning, weak funding and Israel’s power to veto the construction of waste water treatment plants are the reason why these open sewage tanks continue to exist in the midst of houses and farms.
Waste water has seeped from these basins into the aquifers and, above the ground, into the fertile lands of Al-Mawasi in the Khan Yunis region, the fruit and vegetable basket of the southern Gaza Strip.
We held our breath as we went into the area, wearing protective masks covering our noses and mouths. Those in charge think of these huge basins as a lifeline for the people living there, a solution to their waste water disposal problem. However, they have also made life a living hell for the inhabitants, polluting the water and making it unsuitable for drinking or irrigation; not to mention the odours rising from them and the flies and mosquitos they attract.
The 45-year-old farmer, Ibrahim Al-Majaideh, is standing in front of his farmland of which a large part has been flooded by wastewater. He can no longer use the water well he relies on to irrigate his land. The water in the well has turned black and has become ill-suited for human consumption or use.
Al-Majaideh owns five thousand square meters of land where he grows guava-, palm-, lemon- and orange trees. Many of the trees are decayed and many are gradually following. Al-Majaideh is looking at them, helpless in the face of the sewage encroaching on the rest of his land and bemoaning the unavoidable loss of the entire farm.
The engineers of the Ministry of Agriculture has attributed the problem to the fact that the waste water basins sit on top of sand dunes, allowing the water to seep easily into the groundwater reservoirs, damaging and polluting them – a fact that became clear to us when we visited the worn-out treatment plants and saw that the basins lacked proper lining.
The basins were designed 30 years ago to serve the inhabitants of the Khan Yunis area. The number of inhabitants has since risen from 1 to 1.8 million and the treatment plants do not have the capacity to serve their needs. According to the water authority, each plant receives around 12 thousand cubic meters of sewage water daily, pumped into the sea without treatment. On the other hand, the treatment plants that were built on the ponds need to be renovated and rehabilitated in full, both structurally and in terms of capacity.
The origin of the problem
Former mayor Mohammad Al Farra says that the problem became evident 33 years ago. Waste water ran down the streets of the city and the camp for years, including the pollution and harm that this entailed. He maintains that the residents responded by digging 25 thousand septic tanks into the ground, which led to an increase in nitrate levels in the city water wells of up to 350 mg/l – a figure that goes up to 600 mg/l according to the water authorities.
The maximum level permitted by the World Health Organisation is 50 mg/l, leaving the water in these wells unfit for human use in accordance with a report approved in 1995 by the High Commission for Water of the Palestinian Ministry of Health which shows that the Palestinian standard was set at 10 mg/L of nitrate permissible in water wells.
Al Farra explains that the problem peaked by mid-year in 2007 when sewage levels rose to very high levels in the joint rainwater harvesting/waste water pool in the town of “Al Amal”, not far from Al-Mawasi, threatening to destroy the pool, flood nearby residential neighbourhoods and cause a humanitarian and environmental disaster at any moment.
He adds: “At the request of the Municipality of Khan Yunis, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility hastened to hold an urgent meeting with several concerned national institutions in order to find an urgent solution and save the region’s inhabitants from an imminent environmental disaster.”
Al Farra admits that their recommendations were not implemented because of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, with the Municipality of Khan Yunis unable to implement any new waste water networks between 2008 and the end of 2010.
Efforts to find a solution
In another attempt to solve the problem, it was anticipated in 2008 that the Municipality of Khan Yunis would build a sewage treatment plant east of the Gaza Strip, away from inhabited areas and with the financial aid of the Japanese (13 million dollars) and the Islamic Bank (30 million dollars). Israel, however, did not approve the building of the plant using the plant’s proximity to its border with the Gaza Strip as an explanation.
The other reason, according to Al Farra, is that “the Japanese government backed out of the project after Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, which led us to the discussion of interim solutions.”
With the build-up of sewage flowing through the streets of the city and the camp, and the imminent threat to the 200 thousand inhabitants, a decision was taken in 2007 by the Water Authority, Environment Authority, Municipality of Khan Yunis, Ministry of Agriculture, Khan Yunis Governorate as well as the Ministries of Planning and Local Government to build sewage treatment plants in Khan Yunis, around 200 meters away from residential areas. These plants are now known as the “temporary basins in the liberated territories” where the Occupation used to build its colonies in the Gaza Strip.
The destruction of agricultural land
The project was thus set up in Al-Mawasi in 2008, funded by the International Committee of the Red Cross and experimentally executed by the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility covering 60 dunums (60.000 square metres) and expanded in 2010 to cover 90 dunums then reaching its peak in 2012 to cover 110 dunums covered with guava- and palm trees.
The project sought to prove how effective standardised testing technology of water quality measurements can be in the recycling of waste water and supply farmers in Al-Mawasi region with relatively better quality, less contaminated irrigation water. It was also meant to implement a plan to try to re-use waste water in an effort to reduce shortages in the local aquifer and protect it from pollution. The findings on the ground, however, did not match the goals the project set out to prove.
The CMWU, in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, repeatedly conducted soil and water tests in the area throughout 2011 and until May 2012, to find out what damage the treatment plants caused. The test results we received from the CMWU showed that the salinity level in the groundwater wells, which are used for irrigation, is extremely high, causing the fruit to rot and some trees to die, as evidenced by the decay of the farmland in the area.
Even though the author of this report roamed the area and documented the report with photographs, the Ministry of Agriculture questioned the claim that it is the waste water that causes damage to the crops, maintaining that there are many reasons for such damage and hardly ever only one factor.
Health concerns for citizens
The director of the Ministry of Health’s public health laboratory, Sami Labad, states that the basins have an adverse effect on the residents in the area, because of the smell, mosquitos or the water pollution. He is concerned that the basins may collapse once they fill up and their waters could then flood houses in the area. He cited the 2007 incident in the bedouin village east of the city of Beit Lahia, in the north of the Gaza Strip, when an estimated 15 sewage pools collapsed and flooded 250 homes, killing 9 and injuring 50.
A report issued by the United Nations in 2009 entitled “Gaza on the Brink of Thirst” revealed that the level of pollution caused by the sewage treatment plants has risen to the point where children in Gaza are at risk of nitrate poisoning. The report shows that tests conducted in 9 private wells in the area of Mawasi Khan Yunis showed very high concentrations of nitrate in most wells, exceeding the safety limits set by the World Health Organisation and in one of the wells reaching more than 331 mg/l. The report also indicated that high levels of nitrate contamination could result in a form of anemia in babies known as Blue-Baby Syndrome.
Ineffective efforts to combat pollution
As for agriculture, tests have revealed that liquid waste may suit certain crops and have no particular effect on them, like olives and dates, whereas extra care is needed to reduce salinity when it comes to guava, which is widely grown in the area. Measures must be taken to revise filtration requirements and avoid the sensitive stages caused by increased salinity. The two most important measurements concerning solid waste treatment for irrigation purposes are Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) and the total of Suspended Solids (TSS).
An analysis which was conducted between January and June of 2011 showed that, in accordance with standards set by both the WHO and the Palestinian authorities for the use of treated waste water and as they apply to the types of crops cultivated in the area, the solid waste results show BOD and TSS numbers that are encouraging for the irrigation of palm trees or, in accordance with Palestinian standards, even crops for animals, which are set at 45 to 60 mg/l.
Coastal Municipalities water tests have shown that the concentration of organic matter and the quantities of heavy metals in the soil are less than the level agreed upon for discovery, meaning that salinity levels in the soil are low. The same tests revealed high salinity levels in the water which, according to the tests, indicates that the water in the area adversely affects plants and kills them while also affecting the health of those who consume them. According to the Water Authority, continuous irrigation of crops with this water over long periods of time will lead to salinity and the degradation of the quality of the soil.
In turn, the director of Waste Water Treatment Plants Development at the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, Fareed Ashour, confirms that the Utility made several efforts to stop the treated water from entering the underground reservoir “but the Occupation’s opposition to the building of a treatment plant east of Khan Yunis forced us to move the treatment plant to the farthest limit of the aquifer and there is now evidence of some negative effects and pollutants.”
The solution remains suspended, pending Israeli approval
The director general of the Soil and Irrigation Department at the Ministry of Agriculture, Nizar Alwahidi, confirms that the Occupation’s refusal to locate the treatment plant centrally between the cities of Rafah and Khan Yunis to the east “made the choice of a preferred location impossible and we had to place the plant to the west, in Al-Mawasi, knowing that placing it in the east would have improved the situation, since with its distance from residential areas and, in the absence of fresh water in the area, there would have been no problem with waste water seeping into the aquifer.”
He continues: “We had two choices: to leave the sewage water in Khan Yunis and allow the spread of disease to kill our children or move the plant to the west of the city and spoil our ground water”.
The director of the Strategic Planning Department at the Water Authority, Engineer Jamal Al Dadah, adds that the project was urgent and the national institutions supervising it were obliged to dispose of the waste water in this manner until such time as they received the agreed amounts of money for the development of the project east of the Strip and moved all treatment plants to the east to avoid the outbreak of disease and an environmental disaster.
According to Dadah, Khan Yunis receives 12 thousand cubic meters of wastewater “so there is no escape from dealing with this urgently until such time as the new plant is developed east of the city as a final solution to the problem (Israel, however, opposes this idea)”.
Our field study and the information we collected lead us to believe that the establishment of these treatment plants in Al-Mawasi was meant to prevent a disaster rather than create one but the problem concerning the wastewater pools is that they are not appropriately lined and proofed, with consequent seepage into the fresh water aquifers below and the flooding of the residential areas by the untreated waste water floods once the soil is saturated.
When we confronted those in charge at the Municipality and at the Ministry of Agriculture about the fact that they are not acting to reduce the inefficiency of the pools, neither in terms of their protective lining or absorption capacity, we did not receive any transparent answers and they were content to state that they are aware of the danger.
It became clear to the author of this report that Israel’s opposition to the development of treatment plants east of Khan Yunis, the retraction of funding pledges by foreign donor agencies, the continuing blockade of the Gaza Strip, the population explosion, the presence of these open sewage pools and the weak response to the need to rehabilitate them, will all lead to continuous seepage of poisonous water into the aquifers on which the residents depend for their drinking and irrigation needs.
The real disaster lies in the fact that the government, municipalities and national institutions who supervise the soil and water testing in that region – which revealed negative results in every one of its neighbourhoods – believe that their choices are limited and maintain that their current efforts to combat the polluting of groundwater reservoirs is all they can do in the absence of a favourable political climate.
As hope fades of finding a quick solution to this growing crisis, farmable land continues to disappear and, with it, the people’s dream of obtaining a clean fresh glass of water.
This investigative report was conducted with the support of ARIJ and under the supervision of Dr. Abdullah Sa’afeen