Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Death Swamps

It was bound to happen. All of the major humanitarian organizations issued endless reports and warnings about its imminent flooding. But even if the funding was available, the permission to expand and renovate the facility was not granted by the necessary "Authorities" who built it (on a major acquifer) in the first place.

I'm referring to the collapse and flooding of Gaza's northern sewage treatment facility, known locally as the "Death Swamps", which you can see here on wikimapia.

5 people died when the cesspool that has been created as a result of the facility working almost 4 times its normalcapacity flooded today-including two toddlers and two elderly women.

(Photo by Darryl Li)

"This was not only foretold, it happened twice before, in 1988 and 1993," tells me human rights consultant, and friend, Darryl Li, who has worked for Israeli, Palestinian, and International HR groups. Darryl's last trip was in August, to this very facility.

According to Darryl, the sewage facility is a collection of seven manmade lagoons at the edge of the former settlement bloc. "When working properly, the facility cleans waste water and then redeposits it into the aquifer. It has long been described as a major environmental problem: it is overtaxed and untreated sewage has long been polluted the groundwater in the area, and the facility has flooded at least twice."

The facility stopped functioning entirely in the weeks after the power cutoff last year (when Israel bombed Gaza's power plant), and later functioned at very low efficiency levels with generators. Water level consuquently rose dangerously high.

The embankments of the cesspool have also been the target of frequent Israeli shelling, threatening their integrity, says Li.

[photo: Darryl Li. A crater created as a result of Israeli shelling near the sewage facility.]

Donor funding has been pledged for years, but the facility now falls in the border "security zone" and no guarantees have been forthcoming about construction, or to allow the water to be transferred from Bayt Lahiya to the new site.

The only emergency solution is to basically pump the raw sewage out onto Gaza's sea
coast. This would pollute Gaza's sea coast and Ashkelon's desalinzation plant immensely.

According to a UN OCHA report issued in 2004, 110 acres were already flooded by waste from the plant by that year, and the area was growing. 50% of the children in neighbouring villages had digestive problems related to the overlfowing sewage and contmination of drinking water in the area.

"In November 2003, an international donor withdrew support from an earlier agreement to fund a new treatment plant through a concessional credit. The donor was concerned by continuing political uncertainty, and by anticipated delays in project implementation. The donor also feared that international technical consultants might not gain access into Gaza," read the report, in reference to Israeli restrictions (then, and now even more-so) on the entry of foreigners into Gaza.

OCHA recommended the construction of an additional basin that would reduce the volume in the lake, and eventually, the constructin of a new treatment plant.

[Picture: Darryl Li]

New donors expressed interest later that year, but local officials say Israel has threatened to disrupt (by way of bombings) any construction effort. And now of course, with all major funding stopped, and barely enough money to pay government workers, let alone renovate a majore sewage treatement plant, there is little hope that anyone will take on this project.

Says Li: "This is life in a 'disengaged' Gaza: It is not enough to be locked into an open-air prison by Israel. Nor to be turned into a beggar by the international community for voting in a democratic election. Nor to be torn apart by internal feuding. Now Palestinians have to drown in their own shit? I can't wait to hear the latest excuse about how this, too, is their own fault."

Monday, March 12, 2007

BBC reporter kidnapped in Gaza

I was saddened to learn that my friend and colleague, Alan Johnston, the BBC's Gaza correspondent, was kidnapped today.

Alan and I crossed paths many times when I was in Gaza, particularly when I did some freelance work for the BBC or went into their studio to record a radio segment, but also on the field-during Disengagement and other, more mundane press conferences.

Alan and I used to always joke about the day he would get kidnapped-what kind of biscuits his captors would serve him, and how he would take his tea (catch-and-release kidnappings in Gaza have in recent years become so frequent as to become banal). I always used to tell him that he had such a comforting and mellow voice-so much so that I could hardly imagine him getting angry, even at a kidnapper.

This isn't the first time they've tried to come for him of course. As a pre-caution, Alan's office removed the "BBC" sign by their multi-lock door in Gaza.

Alan is one of those few foreign reporters who are actually stationed in Gaza at a time when most opt to remain in their comfy confines far away in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and parachute in when the occasion arises.

All of the major groups (Hamas, Fatah, even al-Aqsa Martrys Brigades, who vowed to dispatch their own little search party to find Alan) have condemned the kidnapping, though I am sure press releases are of little comfort to someone in captivity. A friend in Gaza tells me word on the street is that the Dogmosh clan is behidn the kidnapping( they are a sort of mafia-ish family clan located in Gaza City responsible for a spate of kidnappings and tit-for-tat killings of Hamas security forces. The Dogmosh family were seeking to pressure police to release clan members detained for criminal actions).

Kidnapping has died down as phenomenon in Gaza, though whether that is because there are less foreigners, more security, or simply less public support is anyone's guess.

It is such a low and reprehensible act that everyoen seems to detest in Gaza (but clearly not those who keep doing it). My guess is , the reason it keeps happening is because in order to persuade the groups to release their captives, they are offered all sorts of carrots-in the past this has come in the form of pay raises, job promotions, or simply employment.

It has been a tactic many have staunchly disagreed with, saying it simply provides rewards the actions of the kidnappers and provides others with an incentive to continue doing it. The defense has been that at least such actions have prevented a single act of kidnapping form turning bloodly, as in IRAQ.

In this case, I would say the demands will be greater-the BBC is a big name, and if it is indeed the Dogmosh clan behind it, it was committed as a strategic time, only days before the formation of the Unity Government. The clan will likely be demanding the release of their detained members or some sort of official pardon.

Here's hoping for Alan's quick release...our thoughts are with you Alan.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Kiss me! I'm turning three!

Its Yousuf's birthday today-and my little boy, the star of my blog, is turning 3!

Where did the months go? Seems like just yesterday that I was nursing him to sleep to the rhythmic battery of artillery fire...but that's another story.

We celebrated his big day last week with some friends and family. A little too much sugar was involved, though that is to be expected I suppose. I think I figured he had enough when his cheeks turned bright red by the end of the day.

My attempt at a "choo choo" train cake, at Yousuf's request, complete with candy cargo and mountains of jello (an improvisation added in the last minute after my jello molds failed to deliver)

Who needs cake when you have frosting?

Posing with baba

"It's too heavy I can't turn it over!"