Updated on September 20, 2017.
In what doctors deemed to be the first death caused by sea pollution, five year-old Mohammed Salim al-Sayis passed away in Gaza on July 29 after suffering from Ekiri Syndrome, a disease caused by the Shigella bacteria, commonly transmitted through a fecal-oral route. al-Sayis first developed symptoms on July 19 after he had gone swimming with his family at the Shaykh Ajlin beach, west of Gaza City. Although al-Sayis’ older siblings also developed mild symptoms and have since been treated, the disease is usually more severe in young children, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, sepsis, and rarely Ekiri syndrome, a lethal complication that impacts the brain.
Al-Sayis’ father told the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights that his son was unconscious when he attempted to wake him up the morning after he had gone swimming. He took his child to the hospital where his situation continued to deteriorate, all while attempting to secure a permit to treat him abroad, often a dead-end process, as in the case of young Salem.
Gaza’s Mediterranean coast is about 25 miles long, but nearly 73% of the coastline (18 miles) has been designated as highly polluted (red areas on the map) due to untreated sewage being pumped into the sea, a 23% increase in polluted areas since just two months ago. According to its latest report monitoring the quality of Gaza’s sea water, the Palestinian Environmental Quality Authority estimates that nearly 110 thousand cubic meters (110 million liters) per day of Gaza’s untreated sewage are being pumped into the Mediterranean.
There are 17 pipelines scattered across the Gaza Strip pumping sewage into the Mediterranean. Under normal circumstances, five water treatment plants are required to treat Gaza’s sewage before dispersing it into the sea. However, a severe shortage of electricity and fuel has crippled the water treatment plants. In April, the Palestinian Authority (PA) decided it would no longer finance Gaza’s electric supply, which is sourced from Israeli companies. The decision left Gazans with electricity for only an average of three hours per day. Coupled with a limited supply of fuel due to Israel’s intense blockade of the strip, the PA’s decision has compounded the territories multiple humanitarian crises.
The environmental and public health impacts are particularly concerning because of the risks of epidemics and as well as damage to marine life. As polluted sea water infiltrates Gaza’s groundwater, many infants risk being exposed to dangerous levels of nitrates. As early as 2009, in the wake of Israeli Operation Cast Lead, the United Nations Environment Programme warned against the increasing incidence of blue baby syndrome, a disorder caused by poisonous nitrates that results in decreased oxygen carrying capacity of haemoglobin in infants. Similarly, mutations in marine life due to human pollutants stand to negatively impact surrounding ecological systems, not only on Gaza’s shores, but also for neighboring Egypt and Israel. One possible spillover is the impact polluted water would have on neighboring water desalination plants.
For most Gazans, the shoreline is the sole escape from the crippling reality they face. With skyrocketing unemployment and poverty, many find solace at the beach, but they now could be exposed to illnesses such as typhoid and cholera, local health officials have warned. Outbreaks can quickly spread at uncontrollable rates since Gaza hospitals have been operating at minimal levels due the electricity shortage as well as a shortage in medical supplies.
It has been estimated that Gaza’s water treatment and sanitation plants need 300,000 liters of fuel per month. A recent understanding mediated by Egypt between Hamas officials and Muhammad Dahlan, Pres. Mahmoud Abbas’ archrival, has raised hopes in Gaza about the possibility of ensuring continued access to fuel supplies, which could be used to run power generators. Shortly after those understandings were announced, Egypt allowed a limited amount of fuel to enter the besieged strip through the Rafah Crossing. However, Hamas was then confronted with a dilemma: should the fuel be used at Gaza’s sole functioning power plant or at the water treatment plants? For Hamas, the former took precedence to stave off brewing anger at its inability to provide solutions to Gaza’s myriad problems.
However, the expectation that solving the fuel and electricity crises would resolve Gaza’s water pollution problems is misguided. In fact, Gaza’s water problem predates the current crises, and relates to the depletion of the underground aquifers, which are becoming more saline as sea water seeps in. This and other environmental problems have only been compounded by ten years of Israeli blockade marked by three debilitating offensives since 2008. Even if these matters were to be addressed, repairing the environmental damage would take much more than restoring basic human living standards to the people in Gaza. As the spillover of this man-made disaster affects neighboring countries that are themselves a major part of the problem, it is clear that only a regional effort, backed by an international determination to end this inhumane situation, can be effective. Until then, Gazans will continue to pay a heavy price, as the world averts it gaze.