At least six dead in flooding from Gaza sewage breach

3,000 residents from Umm Naser village evacuated; Hamas blames int'l sanctions.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
At least six people were killed Tuesday when the wall of a large cesspool collapsed, flooding the northern Gaza Beduin village of Umm Naser with mud and some 56,000 cubic meters of raw sewage, Palestinian officials said. Ziad Abu Farya, head of the village council, described the scene as "our tsunami." Umm Naser is around 800 meters away from the border between Gaza and Israel. "We lost everything. Everything was covered by the flood. It's a disaster," said Amina Afif, 65, whose small shack was destroyed. Dozens were injured and about 11 people missing, with some reports saying up to 10 people were killed. The rest of the village's 3,000 residents fled or were evacuated by rescue crews. A 70-year-old woman, two toddlers and a teenage girl died in the sudden flood, and 25 people were hurt, said Dr. Muawiya Hassanin of the Palestinian Health Ministry. In addition, 387 houses were determined to be "unhygienic" and 96 of those were either destroyed or deemed unsafe to live in. The cause of the collapse was not immediately clear. Rescue crews and Hamas gunmen rushed to the area to search for people feared buried under the slide of sewage and mud. An official in Gaza City said Tuesday night that the raw sewage was presenting a particular danger to health and that the situation was not yet under control. The Palestinian Medical Relief Society, which has a functioning health center in the area, planned to test all people in the region for diseases possibly contracted from the sewage. Results would take seven to ten days, Dr. Abdul Hadi, the group's Gaza director, told The Jerusalem Post UNRWA was providing some 300 tents while the International Red Cross and the Palestine Red Crescent were distributing hygiene kits, food parcels, portable latrines, mats and blankets. UNICEF was handing out clothing to the victims. Officials said local and international institutions were coordinating their relief efforts and working at a "high emergency status." Israel's Mekorot Water Company offered to give humanitarian assistance to the village at the instruction of Infrastructures Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer by helping pump the sewage using a 700-meter hose and other equipment, as of Wednesday morning. The Palestinians planned to use the hose to move sewage temporarily to prevent a further disaster to an open area which was a former settlement in the north of the Gaza Strip close to the village. The assistance came after an appeal by Palestinian Water Authority Director-General Fadel Kawash. Earlier, Defense Minister Amir Peretz offered the Gaza Liaison Administration any assistance necessary. Sources at the administration said that they had been in touch with their Palestinian counterparts and offered medical aid, as well as the raw materials needed to fix the wastewater wall that caved in. On Wednesday, Israel representatives of the Palestinian Water Authority and World Bank are to meet at the Erez Crossing to consider further options. A local Palestinian official blamed shoddy infrastructure for the disaster. UN officials said they had been warning of such a catastrophe for more than two years. A 2004 United Nations report warned that the sewage facility was at its maximum capacity and flooding was inevitable unless a new waste treatment plant was constructed. It said that even without overflowing, the effluent lake posed a serious health hazard, providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes and waterborne diseases. Stuart Shepard of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the wave of waste released Tuesday sent the health risks even higher. "It is an extremely serious situation," he said. Shepard said that since the report was published, international funding for a new plant had been secured but construction had not been able to go ahead because of the high security risks in the area. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum blamed international "sanctions against Palestinians, including Gaza and the West Bank" for the condition of Gaza's infrastructure. Most foreign donors froze aid to the Palestinian government after Hamas swept to power in a 2006 general election, but Shepard said the Umm Naser project had not been affected by the boycott. Dr Yousef Abu Safia, chairman of the Palestinian Environment Authority, called the situation "a disaster." Abu Safia told the Post that the original facility had been built by Israel in the 1980s, was meant to service about 50,000 people and was not capable of handling the current population of some 250,000 dependant on the system. "We started planning and calling for funds about 10 years ago", he says. "We have been anticipating this for that long." Abu Safia explained that the lagoon which collapsed was a smaller one built to ease the workload of the larger pool. He said there were plans to change the infrastructure in the area, and construction began two years ago with foreign aid, but several more years and more money were needed. The recent political sanctions against the PA had slowed down the work, he said. "Foreign experts are unable to come to Gaza," he said. Angry residents drove reporters out of the area and mobbed government officials who arrived at the scene. The Water Authority's Kawash said that the level of sewage in the pool had increased over the past few days, creeping up the earth embankments around the pool until one collapsed, "causing the sewage to pour toward the village." Kawash said Gaza's poor infrastructure was to blame for the accident. Several major sewage treatment projects funded by foreign donors, including one in Umm Naser, were frozen after Hamas won elections last year. "We had a project to treat sewage in north Gaza, it was worked on for two years," Kawash said. "We built a pressure pipe line and pumping station," he added. "But it was stopped after...[the] troubles began." Yaakov Katz and AP contributed to this report.