Sewage Flood in Northern Gaza Kills 5
Tuesday, March 27, 2007; 3:47 PM
UMM NASER, Gaza Strip -- A huge sewage reservoir in the northern Gaza Strip collapsed Tuesday, killing five people in a frothing cascade of waste and mud that swamped a village and highlighted the desperate need to upgrade Gaza's overburdened infrastructure.
Rescue crews and Hamas gunmen rushed to the area to search for people feared buried under the sewage and mud. Dressed in wetsuits, they paddled boats through the layer of foam floating on the green and brown rivers of waste. Others waded up to their hips into the sewage.
The noxious smell of waste and dead animals hung in the air.
Angry residents drove reporters away and mobbed government officials. When Interior Minister Hani Kawasmeh arrived to survey the damage, his bodyguards fired in the air to disperse the crowd.
In one house, everything from the television to the sink was covered in muck.
"We lost everything. Everything was covered by the flood. It's a disaster," said Amina Afif, 65, whose shack was destroyed.
Aid officials said plans to build a larger waste treatment facility had been held up for years by perpetual fighting in the area between Israel and Palestinians and donor concerns about political instability. However, construction did not appear to have been affected by international sanctions imposed on the Palestinians after the militant Hamas group's election victory last year.
The existing treatment plant in northern Gaza _ located just a few hundred yards from the border with Israel _ stores waste in seven holding basins. With the burgeoning population producing nearly four times as much waste as the plant could treat, officials have put overflow sewage in the nearby dunes, creating a lake covering nearly 110 acres, the U.N. said.
On Tuesday morning, an earth embankment around one of the seven basins collapsed, sending a wall of sewage crashing into the neighboring village of Umm Naser.
The wave killed two women in their 70s, two toddlers and a teenage girl and injured 35 other people, hospital officials said. More than 200 homes were destroyed, health officials said.
The Gaza City mayor blamed the collapse on local people digging dirt from the structure and selling it to building contractors.
"This is a human tragedy," said Public Works Minister Sameeh al-Abed.
Aid officials and the Palestinian government sent bulldozers to build makeshift walls to push back the sewage. Officials will also try to divert the waste into the other holding basins, putting those in danger of overflowing. Another collapse could send sewage flooding into Beit Lahiya, a far larger town, officials said.
"We are doing all we can to prevent any disaster, but the solution is temporary," said government engineer Nidal Musalameh.
Many of the evacuated residents were staying in tents and other shelters nearby, rescue officials said. But officials feared a public health disaster.
"It is an extremely serious situation," said Stuart Shepard, a U.N. official based in Gaza.
Fadel Kawash, head of the Palestinian Water Authority, said the sewage level had risen in the reservoir in recent days. Shepard said the earthen embankments also had been weakened by rain.
But Gaza City Mayor Majid Abu Ramadan, who leads a council of Gaza municipalities, blamed the collapse on lawlessness in the Gaza Strip, accusing residents of stealing the dirt and selling it to building companies for $70 a truckload.
A 2004 U.N. report warned that the sewage facility, built for a population of 50,000, was handling waste from 190,000 people, and flooding was inevitable. It warned that the lake created by the overflow from the seven basins posed a serious health hazard, providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes and waterborne diseases.
Shepard said that since the report was published, international funding for a new plant had been secured but construction could not proceed because of security risks in the area.
Umm Naser is about 300 yards from the border with Israel, in an area where Palestinians have frequently launched rockets into Israel and Israeli artillery and aircraft have fired back. The situation worsened after Hamas-linked militants captured an Israeli soldier last June in a cross-border raid, and Israel responded by invading northern Gaza.
The flooding underscored the fragility of the overburdened infrastructure in the impoverished and overcrowded coastal region of 1.4 million people. The West Bank, too, is suffering from eroding sewage and water infrastructure.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed international "sanctions against Palestinians" for the sorry condition of Gaza's infrastructure. Most foreign donors froze aid to the Palestinian government after Hamas came to power last year, but Shepard said a project to build a treatment plant in northern Gaza had not been affected by the boycott.
An internal World Bank document obtained by The Associated Press said the Palestinian Authority decided in 2003 to dump partially treated excess waste into the ocean, but Israel vetoed the idea.