20 July 2007
Mike Bailey, Oxfam's Civil Society Programme Co-ordinator, reports on the current situation.
As the days go by, I find I get more and more shocked by the plight of the people here and what they are being forced to cope with. Today I visited a village called Umm Al Nasser. This is a remote community that has a population of about 5,000 people and is currently surrounded by a lake of sewage.
I spoke with Saad Abu Sfara (44 years old), the head of a family of 10, who has been deeply affected by this situation. Although he used to work in Israel, he is no longer permitted to do so. Now, he runs a small shop which generates 20 Shekels (approximately $4.50) a day - this is his only income. In addition to this, he has a few goats and sheep and four olive trees which he uses to sustain his family. These give him basic milk, eggs, meat, and oil, but this is still nowhere near enough.
In March 2006, Saad's mother and nephew were killed as a result of the sewage floods. Such floods are a chronic problem in Gaza. There is no proper sewage drainage system to pump waste out to sea. The only option is to dig deep holes where the sewage collects until, ultimately, it overflows and spills into residential areas.
Saad's house was completely destroyed during the flood. He and his family had to move to his neighbour's home because they had nowhere else to go. His aim now is to earn enough money to be able to rent a house for his family so they have a home of their own. This is currently out of his reach as rent would cost him at least $150 a month. The income from his shop would not even cover his rent, let alone other essentials such as food and water. His wife helps him by collecting dry grass to use as fodder for the animals. Since the siege of Gaza began in June, the price of fodder has gone up because imports are not arriving, and the family can no longer afford to buy it.
Saad's children often suffer from parasitic diseases due to the sewage lake and the unsanitary water they are forced to drink. The nearest health facilities are only 3.5kms away, but the family struggles to pay for the cost of transport to get treatment for his sick children. There are no playgrounds, and the only area in which the children can play is polluted by the sewage, so they essentially play in bacteria. The children need to go to school, but the family does not have enough money to cover the school fees, books, or uniforms.
After sunset, Saad's family cannot leave the house as they are close to the Israeli border and they fear being killed. The nearest source of water is a municipal well, but it was contaminated recently because of the sewage spilling out, which caused his neighbour's child to fall very sick. Each month, Saad spends 120 shekels (approximately $25) just to get clean water for his family. This is about one quarter of his monthly salary.
When asked about the future, Saad believes it will be very dark, and he has little hope that the situation will improve. He dreams about the day when the Palestinian Authority and the municipality will tackle the waste problem and drain the sewage lake so that he and his family can live the life they used to.
A couple of days after my first visit, I returned to Umm Al Nasser and met Saad again. He said that his village had been without water for two days because the municipality did not have the fuel to operate the wells. Thankfully this situation has now changed because Oxfam GB provided fuel to the Coastal Municipality Water Utility (CMWU). There is water available once again, but the question is for how long?