By Oliver Tickell
The UN has described the Gaza Strip as a ‘disaster area’ following the onslaught of Storm Alexa and called on the international community to lift the blockade and allow recovery efforts to proceed.
Chris Gunness of the UN Works and Relief Agency (UNWRA), said: “Large swathes of northern Gaza are a disaster area with water as far as the eye can see. Areas around Jabalia have become a massive lake with two meter high waters engulfing homes and stranding thousands
“After so many years of the Israeli blockade, the public health system in Gaza was already acutely and chronically damaged, so the man-made problems inflicted on Gaza are compounded by the extreme weather conditions.”
Stop Press – 16 December 2pm GMT – over 10,000 people now estimated displaced by Gaza floods.
“Any normal community would struggle to recover from this disaster. But a community that has been subjected to one of the longest blockades in human history, whose public health system has been destroyed and where the risk of disease was already rife, must be freed from these man made constraints to deal with the impact of a natural calamity such as this.”
The Gaza Strip was pounded by fierce winds and rain on Friday with acute weather continuing over the weekend. Flooding over half a metre deep – over two metres deep in places – have swept 15 residential areas in northern and central Gaza, causing the evacuation of over 5,000 people. Temperatures have dropped to around 5C, unusually cold for the region at any time of year.
Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) reports that the most affected areas are the neighbourhoods of Jabalia, Beit Lahya, Gaza City, Al Mughraqa, Wadi Al Selqa and Khan Younis camp.
“We’ve never seen anything like it,” says Fikr Shalltoot, MAP’s Programme Director in Gaza. “There is real misery and there simply isn’t the infrastructure to deal with the floods. Local residents have been building makeshift bridges with bricks and wooden planks, while emergency services have been using heavy trucks and boats to rescue those trapped by the freezing water.”
Adding to the problems, floodwaters are contaminated with sewage following the complete breakdown of sewage pumps and sewage treatment works owing to lack of power and the inability of the authorities to import essential spare parts due to the blockade on Gaza, jointly enforced by Israel and Egypt.
Gaza had already been suffering prolonged power cuts with its main power station closed since the beginning of December for lack of fuel. Typically electricity was provided for only 6 hours per day. But following the storm many areas were left altogether without power and even where power is getting through it is only for a few hours a day.
“New emergency schedule started yesterday, electricity hours r downsized to 3 instead of 6, per day”, reported Gaza resident Omar Ghraieb. “Leaving Palestinians in Gaza with a 21+ hours of power outage a day. Add to this the horrible weather, constant rain, floods, wind, thunder & lightning!”
Impending health catastrophe
Patestinian authorities are now warning of an impending health disaster. “We are on the verge of a complete breakdown in the health sector, services, and civil institutes,” said Atef al-Kahlout, General Director of military medical services in Gaza, adding that respiratory and skin diseases would run rampant as a result of constant exposure to sewage water and lack of medical supplies.
Photos and updates from Gaza paint one of the most dire scenarios the Palestinians locked in the Strip have faced – Israeli bombing campaigns aside. As blogger Mohammed Omer reported last week:
“It is cold, there is no power, and I am charging my computer using a car battery in order to get this message out. It is so cold in Gaza that everyone has cold feet and a cold nose. A new storm is hitting this besieged enclave. There is no electricity, and shortages of water, fuel, and vital services mean people just sit and wait for the unknown.
“The sewage system cannot function and Gaza municipalities announced a state of emergency. Schools and most shops are shut, there is no traffic and few people are walking in the street. We had no running water for the past two days – when there is no fuel, water is not pumped regularly into houses. The tank on our rooftop is empty. So we can’t even flush our toilet.
“Fuel cannot enter Gaza through the supply tunnels recently shut down by Egypt’s new government. As a result Gaza’s water-treatment plant is at standstill, with raw sewage waist-deep in some streets and flooding into Gazan homes, bringing with it rats and disease. Tonight, the smell of rotten sewage floods into my nose. I inhale and exhale the stink of rotten garbage. The night air is filled with this suffocating smell.
“It makes me wonder if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is aware of Gaza’s situation. Would he find it acceptable if Israeli citizens lived in the same conditions as Gazans? Or don’t we in Gaza count as humans?”
Israel accused of opening dams
The Gaza Government’s Disaster Response Committee has accused Israeli authorities of opening up dams just east of the Gaza Strip, flooding residential areas in nearby villages within the coastal territory. Committee chairman Yasser Shanti said in a press conference that Israeli authorities had opened up dams just to the east of the border with the Gaza Strip earlier in the day, at Wadi al-Salqa.
He warned that residential areas within the Gaza Valley would be flooding within the coming hours, affecting areas in Moghraqa and other parts of Deir el-Balah in central Gaza, and he called upon residents of areas near the Gaza Valley to evacuate their homes in preparation for the anticipated flooding. The Gaza government has reported that 200 people were forced to flee as a result.
Amid the chaos it is impossible to verify the accusations. The heavy rain has also affected bordering areas of Israel and whether or not dams have been deliberately opened, drainage systems in Sderot and other cities were certainly overwhelmed by the volume of water.
What is certain is that low-lying Gaza, on the coastal plain, lacking functioning drainage and sewage systems, would in any case suffer most severely from the rainfall. Moreover Israel already stands accused of deliberately running down basic santitation services in Gaza in order to make life unlivable for its residents.
And as Gaza resident Fidaa Abuassi points out: “Unlike their neighbors in Sderot Gaza’s refugees have nowhere to flee when heavy rains flood their 25-mile occupied territory, blockaded by land, air, and sea.”
“Gaza is drowning today. You will see people kayaking and canoeing not the type of fun activities the world knows. Houses are flooded by water. People are freezing there. No power. No water. No heat. No fuel. This is a catastrophe. A CATASTROPHE.
“I need to do something to help. I felt so helpless that I wanted to call 911, Red Cross or Amnesty International. Anyone! I want to tell the world that Gaza is living an unspeakable disaster and in a bad need for your help. I cannot be silent. You cannot be silent.”
UN: end the Gaza blockade!
UNWRA Chris Gunness described the Agency’s efforts to protect those affected by the floods: “Four thousand UNRWA workers are battling the floods and have evacuated hundreds of families to UNRWA facilities.
“Our sanitation, manintenance workers, social workers and medical staff have been working through the night and round the clock to assist the most vulnerable, the old, the sick, children and women.
“We have distributed five thousand of litres of fuel to local pumping stations, but the situation is dire and with the flood waters rising, the risk of water borne disease can only increase. This is a terrible situation which can only get worse before it gets better”
UNWRA also successfully prevailed on Israeli authorities to relax the blockade to allow in some emergency supplies. Israel has temporarily opened the Kerem Shalom after a request to Major General Eitan Dangot, the coordinator of Israeli government activities in Gaza, permitting some fuel to enter the territory to operate the downed power station and water pumps.
According to an army statement: “Israel will do everything that is necessary to assist the civilian populations in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria, with an emphasis on providing electricity to the power plant in Gaza”.
However this begs the question of why Gaza’s only power station has been left without fuel for so long, and why Israel has allowed Gaza’s sewage and water supply systems to deteriorate to near breakdown point by refusing permission for fuel and essential mechanical components to enter the territory.
In any case Gaza’s flooding crisis does not look like being solved any time soon. Unprecedented snow has carpeted higher ground across the region, across Israel and into Syria – where it has created harsh conditions for civilians struggling to survive the civil war. As the snow melts, a further wave of floodwaters will wash its way down into Gaza bringing further sewage and debris.
According to Fikr Shalltoot of MAP: “People living in high buildings have also experienced severe shortages of water,mainly due to the lack of electricity that prevented water being pumped to the tanks on the top of the buildings.
“Yesterday, boats were still working to take people from their houses and some bulldozers were also being used to transport people. Some people living on the second or third floor have remained in their homes and are using boats to go back and forwards. The city’s streets have started looking like a port!”
Meanwhile UNWRA is clear that there is only one permanent solution to the Gaza humanitarian crisis. “When all this is over, the world community needs to bring effective pressure to end the blockade of Gaza.”