Besieged by bad smells

The breakdown of Gaza's overworked sewage system threatens to spill over into an international ecolo

In Gaza, flies swarm by day and mosquitoes bite by night as an ever-present putrid smell thickens the air. The smell of sewage fermenting in the summer heat permeates everything. Gaza reeks.

Umm Hamada, 39, is unable to treat her water and can do nothing to eradicate the smell or stop insects from entering her house through the open sewage system. "When night falls and there is no electricity, it smells worse," she said. The miasma has made several of her seven children ill. Her neighbour, carrying a pyjama-clad six-year-old, pipes up: "We can't sleep, not only because of the smell, but because of the mosquitoes."

Sewage management first became a problem for Gaza in 1967, when Israel invaded and occupied the Gaza Strip. The occupation forces constructed three new sewage treatment facilities to serve the population of 380,000 people: one in Beit Lahiya, one near Gaza City, and a third near Rafah, which consists primarily of a treatment lagoon and is incapable of processing the bulk of sewage it receives. In nearby Khan Younis, septic tanks remain the primary waste treatment method, but they are prone to flooding and failure.

During the 1980s, Israel added a handful of treatment lagoons and small sewage processing stations. Established at a fraction of the capacity needed for the rapidly growing and increasingly dense population, they were quickly rendered obsolete. In 2008, these ageing facilities remain, overburdened by a 400 per cent increase in population.

Israel's frequent attacks on Gaza, and its moratorium on imports since the election of Hamas in January 2006, have further debilitated the overworked system. Parts fail and cannot be replaced. Ponds overflow, pipes burst and machines break down - and sewage overflows into streets and homes and on to Gaza's beaches. In several areas, the sea is opaque with the black deposits of untreated sewage.

Many in Gaza fear the beaches, where sewage pours on to the Mediterranean coast at a rate of between 30,000 and 50,000 cubic metres of partially treated waste water and 20,000 cubic metres of raw sewage a day.

"What ends up in the sea is the water normally reclaimed for agricultural purposes upon proper treatment," says Monther Shoblak, an engineer and director of Gaza's Coastal Municipalities Water Utility. "Gaza's power woes have exacerbated the situation. After Israel destroyed the main electricity station in 2006, when we are able to generate electricity, it is pumping sewage away from homes that takes priority. This leaves little for treatment."

Today, tide pools and aquatic life continue to deteriorate. As the raw waste settles on the ocean floor it seeps into Gaza's aquifer, contaminating further the area's already overtaxed source of drinking water. "Ninety per cent of Gaza's drinking water is considered polluted under the international standards specified by the World Health Organisation," says Shoblak.

Given time, the contamination will leak over into both Israel and Egypt. This will become an international, rather than a local, ecological, human and economic problem. It's a man-made disaster, unnecessary and wholly solvable.

Umm Hamada does not know how long she will have to wait for the stench of sewage to clear. It may be her grandchildren who live to enjoy the smell of fresh air.