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Freezing Cold + Raw Sewage = State of Emergency in Gaza
"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...
Tens of houses east of Gaza City, in the northern Gaza Strip, in Khan Younes and Rafah are flooded with rain today. 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.
Gaza City’s garbage trucks have been at a standstill due to the ongoing fuel shortage. I’d gotten used to the bright orange truck that usually passes by, sounding its horn, a sign for all my neighbors to bring out their garbage for collection.
Now the donkey is our only remaining hope. Since last week—when fuel supplies ran dry—the only sound one hears now is the click-click of their hooves as they pull their carts along the road at 4 a.m. By noon, they have collected all they can on their busy route. In Gaza’s Barcelona neighborhood, garbage containers are overflowing—a normal occurrence since fuel ran out.
I went down to chat with 41-year-old Abu Ghaleb. Alone, on his donkey-cart, there’s no way Abu Ghaleb can manage to clear all the streets of garbage. A shy, slim man, his attention is focused only on collecting sacks of garbage, which he piles onto the donkey cart, empties, then moves on to the next pile.
Prior to the crisis, Abu Ghaleb sold palm dates from his donkey cart, calling customers through a loudspeaker. It’s a business which doesn’t pay well—especially when people have their wages delayed and cannot buy his dates, which begin to spoil on the cart.
Now Abu Ghaleb’s only option is to collect garbage, which earns him around $200 per month—not much to feed his family as well as his donkey. But at least he keeps a sense of humor about the situation. He tells me, smiling shyly, “The fuel crisis means that people like me get some work at least.”
Because the Gaza municipality can’t afford to purchase expensive Israeli oil, it pays 450 people, who work with 250 donkeys, to clear away massive piles of garbage before health risks worsen among the 1.8 million Gazan civilians under siege by Israel.
After collecting piles of garbage and filling his cart to the brim Abu Ghaleb is tired and excuses himself. I am well aware that I may not see him for many days, because he is in such high demand. So my only option is to find a place to dump the garbage from my apartment. The smell is becoming unbearable.
On 8th Street in Gaza City I run into a mother and her small daughter on a donkey cart. I wonder if she is doing work similar to Abu Ghaleb’s and taking her daughter with her. But I soon learn that she earns a living, and supports eight children, by recycling household waste. She can use plastic to cover a broken window or an old frame to make improvised items of furniture.
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.
The political strife between Hamas and opponents—Israel and the Palestinian Authority on one hand, and the Egyptian regime on the other—is affecting the life of everyone here.
According to the United Nations, Turkey donated $850,000 dollars to ease the crisis. But from what I hear from the local municipality, this represents just a small drop in a very large bucket. The 16,700 liters of fuel which was received in Gaza City will last for only a few days. Officials say the Gaza Strip needs 150,000 liters per month for garbage trucks alone.
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, and in the morning I can only hope that Abu Ghaleb will be around with his donkey and cart to try to clear away as much as he can.
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?
I wander down the street to see what others are doing. Abu Karim sits in his supermarket, door closed, unable to tolerate the odor. One of his neighbors tried to lessen the smell by burning his garbage—so now the night air is filled with smoke as well as the nauseating smell of burned plastic. The basic act of breathing is uncomfortable, and I am aware that however I try to describe this mess to Washington Report readers, I cannot do justice to the present crises.
My friend Richard Falk, the U.N. special rapporteur, described the situation in Gaza as a near catastrophe. I can only hope it stays at the “near” level—which is crisis enough—without getting any worse.
As floodwaters continue to invade people’s homes, Abu Ghaleb—and even his donkey—understand the dire situation facing the people of Gaza. It’s one that political leaders can’t—or don’t want to—grasp.
-- Mohammed Omer, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs