Public Health Disaster Faces Northern Gaza Strip as Sewage Treatment Plant Floods Village, Killing 6


27 March 2007
Ramallah, 27-03-07: Six Palestinians have been killed in the Gaza Strip today, drowned in a flood of sewage that swept over the village of Um Al Nasser in the Northern Gaza Strip as the banks of a nearby waste water treatment pool burst. Two elderly women, two children and a teenage girl were amongst the dead.

A further 18 people have been injured, and 11 people are still missing. At least 96 homes have been damaged or destroyed by the flood, and up to 300 families were forced from their homes. The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) has set up a camp consisting of approximately 250 tents which can house up to 800 people, and is providing food rations to those displaced from their homes.
Vehicles with suction pumps were sent by all Gaza Strip municipalities to assist in the rescue operation, pumping the mixture of sewage and mud from the village until the onset of darkness and an electricity cut forced them to stop.
The Palestinian Medical Relief Society’s (PMRS) primary healthcare clinic, the only medical centre in the village, was affected by the flooding but has now been cleared and remains on 24-hour alert, providing primary healthcare services to those injured in the flood. PMRS continues to assist with the rescue and relief operation along with UNRWA, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Islamic Relief and other agencies. Medicins Sans Frontieres is supplying the village and make-shift camps with tanks for potable water.
Two PMRS teams are helping to evacuate people, to search for those still missing under the sewage, and to transfer the injured to two nearby hospitals. Dr Mohammed Yaghi, head doctor at the PMRS clinic in the village for five years, knows many of the village’s 5,000 inhabitants. He was overwhelmed with calls from patients when the flooding began, and started to receive cases at the clinic as soon as it had been cleared. Forty-six people have been treated at the clinic so far. Dr. Yaghi said “this has been a tough day for everyone. It was particularly heartbreaking when an 11-month-old child whom I had treated at the clinic just two days before for a common cold, was found dead in his house along with his grandmother.”
The devastation was caused as one of the pools that forms part of the Beit Lahiya Waste Water Treatment Plant exceeded maximum capacity. Built in 1976, the plant was originally designed to serve up to 50,000 inhabitants in north eastern Gaza. Today, the total population served by the plant is now over 200,000.
The relocation of Bedouin communities to the village by the Palestinian Authority in 1995 in an attempt to prevent the encroachment of then–Israeli settlements into the area further exacerbated the existing burden on the waste water treatment facility. In addition, a combination of overcrowding and poor planning meant that residential areas were built in close proximity to the plant, with one of the pools standing just 20 metres from the village.
Local and international agencies have long warned of the environmental and health threats posed by the treatment plant. Construction of a new plant was planned east of Jabalia, yet a number of obstacles have prevented this plan from being realized including prohibitions by Israel of any works on the new site; a lack of funding due to Israel’s continued refusal to transfer tax monies collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority; and the prolonged closure of Gaza’s borders by Israel, preventing the entry of materials necessary for construction and repairs. [1] In 2006, the Rafah, Karni and Sufa crossings were open an average of just 57, 71 and 60 percent respectively in relation to the number of days they were due to open. [2]
The plant was also badly affected during the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip in June 2006, when the bombing of Gaza’s only domestic power plant meant that there was a lack of electricity to pump sewage from the pools. In addition, Israeli air strikes and artillery shelling damaged part of the plant and repairs were prevented as the situation was too dangerous to allow workers to access the area.
The public health and humanitarian implications of the disaster are clear, as people have lost their homes and are now living in tents; as the risk of water-borne diseases has increased immeasurably; as the local population is affected by a lack of clean drinking water; as groundwater resources and land are further polluted; and as the foul gases emitted from the sewage and the mosquitoes that find a perfect breeding ground in the area are no longer confined to the pools themselves. [3]
People are in of basic items such as toilets, mattresses, blankets, showers, baby milk, pampers, and hygiene kits. PMRS is also already experiencing a shortage of certain vaccines at its clinic, including the MMR vaccine, although it is still too early to forecast what burdens will be placed on the clinic in the coming days.
PMRS expects the numbers of dead and injured to rise in the coming days.
[1] Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights. 27 March 2007. Despite Frequent Warnings, an Environmental Disaster Hits the Bedouin Village, Wall of Sewage Water Basin Collapses Killing Four.
[2] UN OCHA. 23 March 2007. The Humanitarian Monitor: The Occupied Palestinian Territory. February 2007, No. 10. Page 10.
[3] For further information on the health implications of the pools prior to the disaster, see Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights. June 2003. On the Brink of Disaster: The Beit Lahia Treatment Plant and Human Rights. Page 15.