Middle East Children’s Alliance Maia water project in Afaq Jadeeda
Rafah sewage lagoon, 2006
A dialog between Susan Koppelman of LifeSource & Skip Schiel. We try to clarify the water rights issue in Palestine & Israel based on our many experiences there. Missing from this exchange are Israeli voices. I invite them to join us. This post is dedicated to Fadia Daibes Murad (with special thanks to Cliff Bennett for inspiring it).
Although [increasing] by the day, the water crisis in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) is less and less visible in the daily Palestinian discourse. The more contentious issues like the refugees, Jerusalem borders and security are occupying the minds of at least the Palestinian policy and decision makers. Interestingly enough, and contrary to what prevails in the OPT, many Israeli water advocates are grasping the opportunity of intentional neglect to the water problem in the OPT to serve their national purpose for confirming the status quo with regard to water. They are more consistent than ever in reiterating that there is a water crisis in Israel and that their proposals concerning desalinated water and the import of water from Turkey to solve the Palestinian water problem are feasible.
—Fadia Daibes Murad in “Not Even a Drop…Until the Palestinians Drop”
(continuing the dialog between Susan Koppelman and me)
Thank you for this opportunity to go more deeply into the question of what can Palestinians, and those in solidarity with the Palestinian people, do to improve the water and sanitation situation on the ground within the current reality of the Israeli Occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory and resources. For sure, we agree with the principle that ‘the fact of occupation does not absolve Palestinians of their responsibility’ – to the Palestinian people and to the ecosystem – to minimize harm, to protect water resources and to promote access to safe drinking water – to the extent that to do so is within their means.
I am particularly interested in having this conversation with you because you have spent a lot of time in Palestine meeting with Palestinians and local experts to better understand the water and sanitation situation. You are aware of the disaster that happened in Beit Lahia, Gaza in 2007 when the sewage lagoons overflowed and five residents of the village Um An-Nasser were drowned to death in sewage. You have seen the above ground river of sewage from two illegal Israeli settlements – Ariel Industrial Zone and Barkan Industrial Zone – which flows through Sulfit in a parallel line to the properly submerged sewage network disposing of waste from the Palestinian municipality of Sulfit – it is amazing to see the kilometers of manholes to the proper Palestinian sewage network running just 20 meters parallel to the sewage stream of toxic waste from the illegal Israeli industrial zones/colonies. For the sake of this discussion let’s focus on these two examples, although I’m very happy to discuss others as well, if you would like.
Photo by Bshar Ashour of the Palestine Hydrology Group (PHG)
Um An-Nasser, photo by Ehab Zaheem
In the case of the overflow of the sewage lagoons at the Beit Lahia Waste Water Treatment Plant in the north of Gaza in 2007, it is fine to ask the question: What could Palestinians have done with materials and resources found in Gaza in order to avert this catastrophe? Honestly, I am not certain as to the answer to this question. I’ve always understood this case to be a simple issue of access to materials, but I’ll look into it! Do you know? What I do know is that for years, Israel prevented the Gazan Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) from importing materials needed to finish constructing the emergency phase of this treatment facility, and to this day Israel is obstructing the import of materials and spare parts needed for day-to-day functioning of the plant, as well as materials needed to construct the next phase of the project that would allow CMWU to go beyond basic treatment and treat the waste water to the quality that it can be used to recharge the depleted aquifer in Gaza. In fact, the emergency phase of the Beit Lahia Treatment Plant was only completed after the 2007 catastrophe, at which point Tony Blair finally and famously intervened to pressure Israel to allow in the necessary materials.
Graffiti says, “young girl drowned here”
I am very familiar with calls before this crisis from CMWU – supported by the UN – urging Israel to do the right thing and allow entry of the materials needed to support the banks of the lagoon so that they wouldn’t collapse. As you may know, LifeSource, the Palestinian water rights organization that I work with, is a member of EWASH, a coalition organization of groups working in the water and sanitation sector in occupied Palestinian territory which includes some UN agencies (UNICEF, UN Development Program, and the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA). I remember both EWASH and the UN circulating a press release from CMWU calling for pressure on Israel to allow materials entry to prevent the collapse of the embankment of the lagoon. I am unfamiliar with any suggestion from any UN worker that CMWU had the means to otherwise prop up the overstressed banks of the lagoon. I’m interested to learn if you know of other options that Palestinians had at that time, given that materials entry through the humanitarian crossings with Israel was being prevented.
The film Gaza is Floating produced by LifeSource looks at the sewage situation in Gaza and includes an interview with the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Coordinator for the UN in Gaza that may be interesting to you. The 9 minute version of the film is online at www.lifesource.ps/gazafloating.
By the way, there is a 15 minute version of the film that goes more into some development and engineering questions particular to the sanitation situation in Khan Younis and surrounding villages, and I think is relevant to contextualizing your statement that new lagoons have been blocked by local Palestinians crying NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard): new basic emergency lagoons create more problems, they can be very unsafe, and they are not a solution to Israel’s blockade of humanitarian materials or a substitute for proper sewage treatment facilities. What is needed is the development of sophisticated facilities that fully treat the sewage, not more lagoons for storing it. I too have traveled Gaza touring the water and sanitation situation, and Gazans are eager for proper treatment facilities in my experience. I welcome questions or comments arising from my comments here or from the film, regarding options for Palestinians in Gaza to treat wastewater.
Unknown health affects, Beit Lahiya, Um An-Hasser
It is also a good question I agree to ask what can Palestinians in the West Bank due to treat wastewater given Israeli restrictions on sanitation development. I am sure we both agree that Israel is responsible for the obstruction over a nearly 15-year period of multiple large-scale waste water treatment plants in the West Bank – the World Bank even stated this bluntly in their 2009 report Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development. What then can Palestinians do more locally to treat wastewater or to reuse gray water at the household level is a fine question, as long as it doesn’t absolve Israel from recognizing Palestinians’ human right to water and sanitation and from allowing large-scale wastewater treatment facilities to treat municipality sewage in an efficient way. The reality is that wastewater treatment is very expensive, it is 3 times more expensive I have heard to build a sewage network than a water network. Smaller units for treating wastewater at the household level are unaffordable for most families and for the government to invest in. The fact is that many families are already reusing gray water out of necessity. Families are using the same water they use to wash their clothes to wash the floor, etc. Water conservationists around the world have a lot to learn from Palestinians and others surviving on very little water each day, day after day, out of necessity.
You are right that it is not only the illegal Israeli settlements, but many Palestinian municipalities as well that are dumping untreated wastewater into wadis. Given that Israel has prevented the development of proper treatment facilities, what can Palestinians do with their waste water? In the West Bank, only 31% of Palestinian households are connected to a sewage network, the rest use cesspits and septic tanks. Sulfit is one of the lucky municipalities that has been able to implement construction of a sewage network, but after the sewage is carried away from the residential areas of the municipality there is not a completed treatment facility to treat this waste water. There aren’t proper facilities for dealing with wastewater from cesspits and septic tanks, again because of Israeli obstruction. So, yes, here, mechanisms for treating wastewater that are low-cost, local AND DO NOT REQUIRE ISRAELI PERMISSION could be very useful in allowing Palestinians to finally be able to treat their waste water in an acceptable way as they’ve been struggling to do since before Oslo. Keep in mind non-local options, like reed treatment, are not possible because land that isn’t built up has been claimed by Israel. Bacterial treatment could be an option in the near future if/when the price comes down.
Smelter dumping toxins from the Israeli West Bank industrial settlement of Barkan
Raw sewage from Barkan industrial park
Retaining wall built by Denmark to confine Israeli sewage flowing thru Salfit region
We can go one step further and look at compost toilets as a solution. Surely this is not an option in the refugee camps and other overcrowded areas. I can say from experience that there is a lot of resistance to compost toilets in Palestine. There is a lot of resistance in the US and other parts of the world as well. Are Palestinians who are dealing with the gruesome reality of Israeli occupation to blame if they flush their toilets while Israel obstructs creation of a treatment facility to treat the sewage they flush? Should Palestinians, given the reality of Israeli obstruction of Palestinian sanitation development, be held to a different standard and be blamed for not shitting into a bucket to fertilize their fruit trees?
Trash collection in my experience is such an anomaly. I can understand your tendency to link trash collection with sewage treatment, but, in fact, I think they are unrelated. It is very important to Palestinians to treat sewage and to keep it away from their water supply, for many reasons, including religious reasons. The motivation, determination and perseverance of Palestinians to address this problem is well documented. It is disappointing that trash collection has not been approached in a similar way. I’ve wondered for some time if this has to do with Palestinians’ reactions to Israelis viewing Palestinians as trash and trash collectors. A friend of mine suggested to a Palestinian permaculturist that he organize children in his village to clean up the trash in the streets and he was offended. ‘My people are not trash collectors!’ he asserted. I agree with you that there is value in Palestinians taking responsibility for their trash. Also, it is really frustrating to study the water and sanitation situation, to spend so much energy and resources in supporting Palestinians to come up with creative solutions for having their basic right to water and sanitation, and to see that beyond compost toilets, there seem to be few options for Palestinians to make much observable impact on the ground. If new technology can change this and support Palestinians’ rights to water and sanitation and to self-determination, this would be fantastic!
excellent response, very well-informed and decidedly compassionate, to me and others. i wish i could answer the questions you put to me, i’ll ponder them. i wish i could go to someone like the late water expert, fadia daibes murad, for her intelligent answers and attitudes. (i do plan to briefly quote her in my blog), i’ll think about who else i might contact, someone from phg in gaza for instance who toured me around the beit lahiya spill or fareed in the wb who you might know, not exactly a water expert but knowledgeable about many topics. as you know, reaching people thru the long arm of the internet can be vexing, even when they’re down the street.
i’ll read your letter more carefully tomorrow, may shorten it and other entries of yours and mine, and probably post the blog tomorrow. we can always add to it later, esp if others join in the conversation.
thank you for your presence,
there are many intelligent and creative folks working on these issues! i knew fadia, yes i know fareed, i’ve worked with phg [palestine hydrology group] in ramallah and had contact with phg in gaza. i know many others as well. clemens messershmidt is a geo-hydrologist who’s been living in the west bank for more than 15 years. my colleague recently attended a talk of his in ramallah where he stated the top 3 priorities for palestinian water development: 1. to drill new wells. 2. to drill new wells. 3. to drill new wells. he was very succinct. yes, my response was long indeed!
Children going to the dump instead of school, photos by eman mohammed
“Recycling garbage into art,” Gaza style
Gaza is Floating, a movie by LifeSource
There’s Enough Water for Both,” by Joseph Croitoru, about the analysis of Clemens Messershmidt
My blog post about Fadia Daibes Murad (with links to some of her writing)
PHOTOS: a small sample from my hydropolitics series:
MOVIE: The Rains Returned to Gaza