Updates from Gaza for Water Day 2018

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How often does one see government officials continue as planned with a scheduled public appearance after an assassination attempt against them en route? Last week, after a bomb detonated near the convoy of the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister, he continued on to inaugurate the Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment plant. That tells us how important this project is for Palestinians in Gaza.

Gaza is home to nearly 2 million people, living in an area the size of metro Philadelphia. When the UN declared last year that it needed to move up by two years its 2015 prediction that life in Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020, a big reason for declaring life to be untenable now is the territory’s water situation.

Some 97% of Gaza’s water is undrinkable and unhealthy. Millions of gallons of raw or partially-treated sewage seep daily into the aquifer and out into the sea, contaminating Gaza’s water tables and the beaches and seashores of Gaza and neighboring areas. The existing sewage treatment plants have been overwhelmed by three wars in the past 10 years, outdated equipment, parts prevented from entering Gaza due to a decade-long blockade of its borders, and a lack of steady power to run the plants at capacity. Even at full capacity, existing plants would not be enough.

Big Progress on Water and Sewage Treatment (WASH) in Gaza

Just in time for World Water Day, though, the Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment (NGEST) plant and several other large and medium-sized sewage and desalination plants give Gaza residents reasons for hope.

With our local Anera staff, I visited the NGEST plant just 12 days before the Palestinian Prime Minister did. After 14 long years, interrupted by conflict and military campaigns and a blockade on materials and electricity, they completed construction of the World Bank’s longest standing, unfinished project. The facility is finally ready to start collecting and treating sewage, turning it into treated, reusable water. When fully operating, the plant will benefit 400,000 people directly, and even more indirectly. I could feel the pride among members of the local community to see this project come to fruition. The plant stands as a monument and a reminder that Gaza has not been forgotten or abandoned.

Anera President Sean Carroll gets a tour of the Khan Younis desalination plant.

Anera President Sean Carroll (the author) gets a tour of the Khan Younis desalination plant.

There are three other large plants that are completed or currently under construction, with financial and technical help from several international donors, and highly trained and capable Gaza engineers and project managers. At the just-finished Khan Younis desalination plant, I drank pure water, straight from its state-of-the-art pumps and pipes. This will provide huge savings for families who now spend far too much of their stretched income on bottled or trucked potable water. Also in the works are two more sewage treatment plants in central and southern Gaza. Together, the three sewage plants will process all or nearly all of the sewage generated by Gaza’s overburdened population, and turn it into reusable water through recovery wells and distribution networks for irrigation.

Involving Local Gaza Communities is Critical

Community buy-in is critical for the long-term sustainability of the water and sewage treatment plants. While these large facilities are cut off from the population, behind fences and walls, and too big and complex for direct community involvement and knowledge, there are important community-level water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) projects too.

Local participation and leadership is central and critical to the system of community pumps, neighborhood water networks, smaller desalination plants and wells that reside in and among urban population centers and farming areas. To succeed fully and to build sustainably healthy communities, there must be community involvement and ownership.

As an international organization with a 50-year history of working in Gaza, Anera responds to and involves local communities. By connecting communities to vital water and sewage plants, building pumping stations, rehabilitating wells and installing irrigation systems on small farms, Anera empowers communities with knowledge, understanding and oversight of the infrastructure. When Anera builds a community pumping station, it is run by the community. When we visited one pumping station, the station manager told us they sometimes open the area surrounding the pump house for meetings or even weddings. Similarly, for treated wastewater to be used for agriculture, farming families and cooperatives can and must play a role in changing minds about the use of often stigmatized “grey water.” From neighborhood to neighborhood, community to community, these kinds of initiatives are changing lives in Gaza and bringing hope.

Time will tell what recent politics, including the attempted assassination of Palestinian Authority officials, will mean for Palestinian reconciliation and peace in the region. What is more certain is that continued support for the recent impressive progress towards sustainable, healthy water life-cycles can only be good for improving lives and prospects for peace and development.

Sewage treatment pools at the Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment plant.

Sewage treatment pools at the Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment plant.

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