Gaza Valley faces environmental disaster 21Aug13 August 21, 2013

by Rasha Abou Jalal     -  Al Monitor   –    20 August 2013

timthumbPeople driving through the municipalities of the Gaza Strip can easily tell when they have reached the Wadi Gaza Bridge. They are overcome with a bad smell that forces them to hold their nose to avoid inhaling the odor of waste and sewage coming from the valley, which has turned into an environmental disaster.

Wadi Gaza is one of the main natural features of the Gaza Strip. It stems from the hills of the Negev and the southern highlands of the city of Hebron. It is about 105 kilometers [65 miles] in length, and it extends from the armistice line east of Gaza to the Mediterranean coast. The highest point of the valley reaches 30 meters [98 feet] above sea level, and the length of its path across the Gaza Strip spans 7 kilometers [4.3 miles], according to the Palestine News and Information Agency Wafa.

Not many citizens live on the banks of the valley anymore due to municipal neglect. Furthermore, the Palestinian families there live in constant fear that Israel will open the dams it has set up on its borders with the Gaza Strip, which would cause a major humanitarian disaster.

In January 2010, the Israeli authorities opened the dam of Wadi Gaza without prior warning. This led to the inundation of dozens of houses and the displacement of about 100 Palestinian families. At the time, Gaza’s Civil Defense announced in a statement to Maan news agency that it saved seven people who were drowning.

Fred Bleiha, an old shepherd who grass feeds his cattle every morning in the valley, said, “The area has transformed from a natural reserve that attracts tourists into a high-risk environmental disaster.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, 62-year-old Bleiha added, “People have abandoned the area. While it was once characterized by a clear atmosphere, pure air and clean water, it has now, however, turned into a nuisance to the citizens who live nearby.”

With a wooden stick that he uses to herd his sheep, he pointed to a nearby area and said, “I had a house here made of tin, along with a livestock farm next to it containing 150 sheep. However, when Israel opened the Wadi Gaza dam a few years ago, the flooding killed most of the livestock.”

“The valley disappeared, and all aspects of life vanished. Even the wild ducks, water storks and gulls have stopped coming here because the valley turned into a garbage dump and an estuary for the sewage,” he added.

Meanwhile, Mohammed Shoomer, 42, confirmed that the residents of ​​Wadi Gaza are suffering during both summer and winter. “We are suffering through summer and winter due to municipal neglect in this region. Just a couple of decades ago it was one of the nicest agricultural and residential areas in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

Shoomer told Al-Monitor that the residents of the valley must cope during summer with unpleasant odors as well as the spread of harmful insects and rodents. In winter, however, they suffer from a rise in the water level in the valley, which inundates the region’s population once the dam is open. This leads to the displacement of residents, kills their livestock and destroys their crops.

Shoomer said that all of these obstacles and risks that threaten the future of the region have led to real estate prices dropping to the lowest level registered in all the areas of the Gaza Strip. “Residents of the neighboring cities do not want to buy a single square meter of land in this region, due to the size of the environmental and health risks that surround it,” Shoomer added.

He said that he put his land and house up for sale at a very cheap price more than three years ago, but his offer did not tempt anyone.

According to Mohammed Jaber, a real estate agent in Gaza, Wadi Gaza has become “scorched land,” and is not subject to the going rates seen in other areas. This is because of the deteriorating environmental conditions that are not encouraging for buyers.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Jaber explained that the price of a square meter of land in this area does not exceed 100 dinars [roughly $140], despite the fact that it overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. Meanwhile, the price per square meter in nearby areas is around 300 dinars [roughly $422].

He called on the government, the municipal authorities and donor countries to rescue the Wadi Gaza area and work to completely end its problems and bring it back to life.

Many factors have transformed this valley from a protected natural destination — home to a variety of beautiful wild birds — into a garbage dump, a mouth for wastewater and a meeting point for rodents, harmful insects and rotting carcasses. These factors include the Israeli dams built along its course as well as the lack of local environmental controls and municipal interest, according to Raed Safi, an environmental expert specialized in water issues in the Gaza Strip.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Safi said, “Wadi Gaza was made of clay soil that was very good for agricultural crops,” but the absence of attention, legislation and municipal laws, he added, have contributed to the deterioration of the region’s environmental conditions.

He said that the municipalities that oversee the eastern areas of Wadi Gaza use the course of the valley to pump about 70,000 cups of wastewater per day into the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and called on municipalities to stop using the valley as an estuary for wastewater.

On the other hand, Safi said, “The Israeli [authorities] have robbed us of this water, by constructing dams inside Israeli territory that dried up the valley’s waterway to the Gaza Strip.”

Safi further pointed out that Israel is trying to downplay the value of this valley and not involve it in the discussions on a final solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, claiming that they need to seize this water to preserve aquifer water.

For his part, the head of the Environmental Quality Authority, Youssef Ibrahim, explained that due to the water flow stopping across the valley as a result of the Israeli dams, along with the fact that the central municipalities rely on the course of the valley to get rid of sewage around the area, a serious environmental disaster has emerged in the valley.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Ibrahim said, “The municipalities are now facing a bitter reality that is significantly affecting their services, due to a lack of support and a lack of fuel to run sewage treatment stations. This, however, does not mean that we should remain helpless without developing solutions to these serious problems.”

He explained that his authority is always in contact with the municipalities, and is working on cleaning the course of the valley and preventing people from using it to escape their problems. He stressed the need to develop laws and legislation to hold account all those who encroach upon the sanctity of the valley.

Ibrahim pointed out that there are many foreign projects capable of returning the valley to its initial state, thus cleaning up the wastewater and converting it into a natural reserve. However, he noted, “These projects have been stalled due to the Israeli siege and given that the machinery needed to implement these projects was prevented from entering.”

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