Emergency aid reaches Gaza – until next crisis

January 2, 2014
Sarah Benton

This posting has 4 items:
1) Catholic Relief: CRS Responds to Flooding in Gaza;
2) WAFA: Bank of Palestine to Provide Aid to Families Affected by Winter Storm in Gaza;
3) IRIN: Powerful storm and power shortages fill Gaza with waste water;
4) New Internationalist: In Gaza, steadfastness is no longer enough;

Flooded field, Gaza Strip. “The flooding of Wadi Gaza endangers the lives of citizens because there are built up homes, farmlands and livestock pens that are completely flooded,” said Mohammed al-Agha, the minister of agriculture.

CRS Responds to Flooding in Gaza

Report from Catholic Relief Services
December 31, 2013

CRS is helping some 1,500 people recover from unprecedented flooding brought on by torrential rains in mid-December in the Gaza Strip. CRS Communications Officer Liz O’Neill talks with Matt McGarry, CRS’ country representative in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, about CRS’ response to the needs of communities impacted by the storm.

Liz: How is CRS helping families hit by the sudden flooding in Gaza?

Matt: So far we have been able to distribute emergency kits to about 250 families in Gaza who were impacted by the flooding (defining a family as six members made up of men, women and children). The families that we’re serving are some of the most vulnerable. They were quite poor and heavily affected by the economic situation and the blockade in Gaza prior to the storm. They have been badly affected by the storm, so we’re really proud of the work that our team has done and the assistance we’ve gotten from the community. The work we’ve done with our partners and the many volunteers who assisted in the distribution enabled us to get the relief items to these extremely vulnerable families just in time.

Liz: Could you describe what living conditions in Gaza were like before the storm hit?

Gaza is a very precarious situation under the best of circumstances owing to the restrictions on movement and access, the difficulty getting commercial and humanitarian goods into Gaza and getting goods out of Gaza, the high rates of unemployment—over 30% generally and much higher than that for youth, the continuing contamination of the aquifer and the restriction on the distance out to sea fishermen are able to go. It’s a precarious situation under the best of circumstances, a knife’s edge away from descending into a significant humanitarian crisis. The volume of rain in mid-December, the release of flood waters upstream, the overflow of containment pools, the lack of fuel in Gaza and the destruction of homes in some areas combined to create these critical circumstances. There was major flooding and the displacement of thousands of people who were forced to take shelter in schools. So, when you take a place like Gaza which is already in the midst of a man-made humanitarian crisis and then you add in these extreme, really unprecedented weather conditions, it quickly pushes it over the edge into a full-fledged humanitarian emergency.

Has the situation regarding fuel changed improved or worsened?

Paradoxically the fuel situation has got better. Given the severity of the winter storms, the urgency and the clarity of the humanitarian situation in Gaza prompted the governments of a number of surrounding countries to provide additional access to fuel. In this case, with funding from Qatar and other foreign entities and with assistance from the United Nations, fuel came into Gaza from Israel. Now, the actual amount of fuel flowing into Gaza has increased and that’s enhanced the ability of the power plant to provide power, which has kept the lights on for slightly longer than the four hours per day that many households were down to before the winter storms. So paradoxically, the natural disaster component has somewhat alleviated the man-made disaster and improved the access to fuel. But that certainly hasn’t offset what is an ongoing problem. We are concerned that as Gaza fades from the headlines, the situation will return to normal and the fuel constraints will go back up, returning to those near-disaster conditions that we had just a few weeks before the storm.

How long will CRS’ response last?

Now that we have finished the immediate emergency response phase, we are looking ahead to the early recovery phase. With a crisis like this, there’s the immediate response, but then we need to look at the longer-term impact. In this case, the floods have severely damaged agricultural resources in Gaza. Many farmers, who are wholly dependent on agriculture, often greenhouse agriculture, for their livelihoods have lost literally everything. In some of these flood plains, which hadn’t seen water like this in living memory, crops were just completely washed out. We’ve had teams in the field working with those farmers to look at the extent of damage. We are in the process of soliciting donors for support to launch agricultural recovery activities. We benefit from some of our previous experience in Gaza and in other parts of the region using vouchers, working with farmers to replace assets using cash for work to rehabilitate some of the damage done to farmland. So although the immediate phase is wrapping up, there’s a lot of lasting damage that will need to be addressed quite quickly and comprehensively.

Bank of Palestine to Provide Aid to Families Affected by Winter Storm in Gaza

December 25, 2013

The Bank of Palestine is providing $50,000 to UNICEF to help Palestinian children and families in the aftermath of the severe winter storm that hit Gaza, in an initiative whereby Bank of Palestine staff on the ground are volunteering their time to help with the distribution of relief supplies, a UNICEF press release said.

“We are most grateful for this very timely and generous support from the Bank of Palestine which will help UNICEF provide children and families staying in shelters or temporary housing with essential hygiene supplies and children’s clothing,” said June Kunugi, UNICEF Special Representative to the State of Palestine, “This will help protect their health and keep them warm.”

Following four days of torrential rains, hundreds of houses in Gaza were flooded, leaving many people trapped inside homes inundated by rising waters. Approximately 6,000 people, half of them children, had to be evacuated to shelters across the coastal enclave.

‘Being a bank that is close to the society and part of the communities in which we operate, there was no question about us stepping up to provide urgent humanitarian assistance for the vulnerable Palestinians that were affected by this recent tragedy,” said Hashim Shawa, Chairman and General Manager of Bank of Palestine. “I am also proud that our employees have joined the bank’s efforts and are volunteering to help the victims of the storm,” he added.

The effects of the harshest weather for decades have further exacerbated the already overstretched Gaza’s water and sanitation facilities. Even before the winter storms hit, they were intermittently operational due to fuel and electricity shortages, resulting in daily blackouts of around 12 hours.

Bank of Palestine had already supported UNICEF’s assistance to Palestinian children in 2010. Following Operation ‘Cast Lead’, it contributed $250,000 to support 20 family centres set up in Gaza to help children and their caregivers recover from the impact of the military operations.

Powerful storm and power shortages fill Gaza with waste water

December 2013

GAZA – Hamdi Al Shami, 54, woke up in the highly populated Zeitoun area of Gaza City, on 11 December, to find raw sewage flowing down his street at a height of more than 2m. It was just one of several sewage overflows to occur in his neighbourhood over the last five weeks.

On 13 November, more than 35,000 cubic metres of raw sewage overflowed when the Zeitoun pumping station failed, affecting 3,000 nearby residents. Just as the mess was being cleaned up, the area was again inundated – this time with approximately twice as much waste – when heavy rains fell over the Gaza Strip between 11 and 15 December. In Gaza City, one of the worst-hit areas, the municipality estimated that hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of sewage and rainwater overflowed from pumping stations and manholes, flooding streets and homes.

“It was horrible. We lost many things when the sewage came from everywhere around us – the doors, manholes and sinks. This cannot be forgotten,” said Al Shami, speaking about November’s flooding.

That flooding was attributed to a combination of factors: power outages disrupting the city’s sewage pumps and a shortage in capacity, spare parts and facilities because of a seven-year blockade against Gaza. At the time, residents were told that a rapidly established power connection to the Israeli grid would prevent future problems. But with the recent rainfall, the situation in Al Shami’s neighbourhood has only worsened. He was stranded amid water and sewage for days.

“It hit us again, but harder this time,” Al Shami said on 12 December. “With every passing hour, the water level was rising. It was incredible. We called rescue teams to help us before it is too late.

“It was not only the electricity issue; we were also cut off from basic needs and clean water,” he added.

With power outages and pump shortages, the Municipality of Gaza estimated it would take up to two weeks to drain the water and clean the sewage off the streets. It has brought in water pumps from other areas and expanded the artificial pond at Nafaq St. to speed up the process.

According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the flooding affected 21,000 people, including thousands who were displaced and sought shelter for days in schools or with relatives. Two people died and 108 were injured, mainly in southern Gaza, OCHA said, in the worst storm the Middle East has seen in decades.

OCHA said Gaza received 75 percent of its average seasonal rainfall in those four days. The Ministry of Agriculture’s estimate put the figure even higher, at about 111,000,000 metres, or 92 percent of average seasonal rainfall.

Humanitarian response

In recent days, people have gradually been returning to their damaged homes, but the storm has exacerbated pre-existing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) concerns caused by fuel and electricity shortages.

Ahmed Yaqubi, a water resources consultant at the Palestinian Water Authority, told IRIN that Gaza facilities were not able to handle such large quantities of rain water. Continuous power and fuel shortages hindered efforts to pump water, leading to flooding in several areas, especially in Gaza City.

“Subsequently, recent flooding has had impacts on environment, health and economy in Gaza. For example, rain water mixed continuously with sewage water, and a possible sanitation issue is raised because of that,” Yaqubi said.

Aid agencies are assessing the needs and appealing to donors for support.

Among the most immediate needs, according to the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) and the Municipality of Gaza, are mobile water pumps and power generators – a number of which were damaged during last week’s storm – in addition to fuel and spare parts for repairs and maintenance. There is also a long-term need for expanded and more developed water facilities.

This year’s Consolidated Appeals Process for humanitarian support is funded at around 63 percent ($252 million has been received of a total request of $401 million), with the WASH sector notably underfunded, at around 31 percent of targeted funds.

Power shortage

Living on a street next to the local sewage pumping station had not been in problem for Al Shami until last month, when an acute shortage of electricity in the Gaza Strip – caused by the closure of Gaza’s only power plant – pushed the territory’s 291 water and sewage treatment facilities onto backup generators. Sewage overflows have since been reported in several areas, and risks of overflow were high in others.

OCHA called the situation “one the most serious energy crises in recent years, with potentially serious humanitarian ramifications”.

Human Rights Watch said the fuel shortages and subsequent power cuts in Gaza were increasing “the risk of a massive public health crisis”.

After Egyptian authorities closed down most of the tunnels that had allowed the smuggling of cheap fuel into Gaza – part of a clampdown on militant activity in Sinai – the power plant struggled to obtain fuel at an affordable price. It closed on 1 November and reopened 45 days later after donor funding. The running costs of private generators also shot up.

Some fuel continues to enter Gaza through the remaining tunnels, but estimates in November put the figure at less than 20,000 litres per week, down from nearly a million litres per day prior to June.

Power cuts over the last seven weeks have regularly lasted 12 to 16 hours each day, leaving many of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents without access to basic clean water, sanitation and hygiene, say aid agencies and human rights groups.

In addition to overflowing in the streets, sewage is being dumped into the sea in far greater quantities than before, and in lagoons and open channels. (Even before the power crisis, 90 million litres of raw or partially treated sewage was being dumped in the sea daily.)

The Turkish government agreed at the end of November to donate US$850,000 to pay for four months’ worth of fuel to run hospital and water treatment plant generators, but that has not yet succeeded in stopping the sewage overflows, which have been aggravated by heavy rains.

In response to the recent storm, Qatar donated $10 million for the fuel needed to operate the power plant for one month, allowing it to re-open in mid-December. The plant has been gradually returning to its standard schedule, which, under normal circumstances, includes an eight-hour cut that shifts from area to area.

Impact of blockade

The health risks are a concern to Ashraf Bargout, also a resident of Gaza City’s Zeitoun area, who has seen his children fall into the dirty water several times. He is struggling to clean it up.

“Why does no one answer our calls to solve this issue once and for all? We don’t want to see our houses flooded, or our children drowning or becoming sick,” Bargout told IRIN.

When the sewage flows down the streets, he sends his children away to stay with relatives.

“Does the world wait for a catastrophe to happen before moving? We fear the worst for our families. Look around and see how our children can live or survive, or how our life can be normal, with a flood.”

CMWU urged the international community to support efforts to help Gazans during winter. Staff say they are trying to fix broken equipment but that spare parts are hard to come by because of the difficulty of moving goods from Israel into Gaza. They have started distributing some fuel to municipalities to run the most important services.

Tony Blair, representative of the Middle East Quartet of peace mediators, called for prompt actions to find a lasting solution. He encouraged the Israeli government to reopen crossings into Gaza and allow the movement of goods and people to rehabilitate its economy.

“The impact of the storm has increased the urgency for immediate intervention in order to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in the Strip, and has again illustrated the need for a more lasting solution to the problems facing the people there,” he said.

And the situation could yet worsen.

“It is the beginning of the season and more waves are expected to come. We need an urgent action to avoid further issues,” Yaqubi, of the Palestinian Water Authority, told IRIN.

A strategic vision should be developed to deal with such situations, he said, including storm-water harvesting projects, such as digging roadside wells and creating collection ponds that would store extra water for the aquifer, in addition to continuously maintaining and cleaning the drainage system.

Water services sharply reduced

“Sewage is not our only problem,” said Bargout. “Our house receives water for just a few hours every two to three days. How ironic is that? While we’re waiting for water from the tap, we receive the sewage water from the sink and everywhere.”

Before the storm, due to the power crisis, only 15 percent of Gaza’s population received water for domestic use daily. Twenty percent received it every two days, 25 percent every four days, and 40 percent every three days. When the water comes on, it is generally just for five to six hours.

The 25 small-scale desalination units used to provide water to around 160,000 Palestinians in Gaza are also affected by the fuel shortages; as a result their production dropped by 75 percent.

Water is a delicate issue in Gaza, which has seen increasing pollution of the main aquifer through waste water and sea water intrusion.

The Palestinian NGOs Network (PNGO) and local human rights organizations in Gaza blame the Israeli blockade policies, and also Palestinian authorities: “Both governments in Ramallah and Gaza have failed to take any effective steps to overcome this crisis and its consequences, and accordingly all daily basic services needed by the population have disastrously deteriorated,” said the PNGO.

Amnesty International demanded Israel immediately lift its blockade on the Gaza Strip to allow the delivery of fuel and other essential supplies into the territory without restrictions.

“Since June 2007, when the Israeli blockade was tightened, Gaza’s energy, water and sanitation infrastructure has been inadequate to fulfil the basic rights of its inhabitants. They were already poor due to prior Israeli restrictions and decades of neglect,” the organization said.

It also called on the Egyptian authorities to facilitate the construction of new power lines to increase the electricity supply to the southern Gaza Strip. It said Palestinian and Israeli authorities must work together to find a sustainable solution to the fuel crisis.

Meanwhile, Al Shami says he is undertaking additional precautions to prevent further flooding into his house.

“No one knows what will happen later,” he said.

In Gaza, steadfastness is no longer enough

Ella David speaks to two Palestinians following the evacuation of 10,000 people from their homes.

New Internationalist, December 2013

From the other end of a crackly telephone line, Abeer’s voice sounds tired and distant. ‘People in Gaza are reaching the maximum that they can cope with. Poverty, financial crisis, the Israeli siege, political isolation with Egypt, and now this: a natural disaster.’

Palestinians are known for their sumad (steadfastness), but the strain for the 1.7 million people on this tiny blockaded Strip is reaching the point where sumad is no longer enough.

Gaza, along with the occupied West Bank, makes up the Palestinian territories. It is often referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison since the Israeli government – with the support of the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, Egypt and the ‘Quartet’ (the UN, US, EU and Russia) – imposed an economic embargo, siege and blockade in 2005 in an attempt to force Hamas out of power.

The siege came after decades of occupation: first by Egypt from 1948-67; then, following the Six Day War, by Israel, which seized control of Gaza along with the Syrian Golan Heights, the West Bank (occupied by Jordan from 1948-67) and, temporarily, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsular.

Abeer, a young Gazan journalist, says that winter has become known as the bad season. ‘In December 2008, there was the Israeli Operation Cast-Lead [22 days of airstrikes that resulted in the deaths of 1,400 Palestinians]; in November 2011, there was Operation Pillar of Cloud [167 people were killed by airstrikes in the week-long military assault] and in winter 2013, it’s the storm, the electricity blackout, the sewage in the streets. Farmers have had their crops ruined: all this because of the war and natural disasters.’

But the only thing natural about the current crisis in Gaza is the rain.

Some 10,000 people were evacuated from their homes following heavy flooding on 12 and 13 December and have been staying in temporary shelters at schools and mosques. The UN estimates that it will take another week to remove all the floodwater from the streets, and while government officials are securing longer term accommodation for many affected, it may be months before everyone can return to their homes.


From 1 November to 14 December, Palestinians in Gaza had no electricity for around 16 hours a day.

In better times, Gaza is still without power for eight hours a day.

Trucks carrying fuel purchased with Qatari money started crossing into Gaza at Kerem Shalom in mid-December. Dr. Rafiq Muniha, general manager of Gaza’s power plant stressed the situation is far from resolved.

“This will reduce the crisis but it’s not solving the problems. Instead of getting six hours of electricity, consumers might get eight hours’ supply. Also we’re only talking about supplies for one month.”

“Unfortunately this is the situation in Gaza,” Dr Muniha adds. “It’s deteriorating year by year and there are no strategic solutions.”

Back in Jabaliya refugee camp there is growing anger and frustration. Depending on whom you speak to it is vented at Israel, the PA, Hamas, UN agencies and other international players. There is a sense here that with no sign of a long-term political solution to solve Gaza’s underlying problems, it will continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.

“We feel nobody is listening to us,” says Ibrahim Nasrallah. “We are not living, we are barely surviving.”

On Saturday, normal electricity outage finally resumed, thanks to a donation of 450,000 litres of fuel donated by Qatar. Abeer feels that the donation is too little, too late, but it means that Gaza’s sole power plant is back on, for now. There is enough fuel to last for three months.

‘The electricity blackout caused raw sewage to flood the streets because it couldn’t be treated: treatment facilitates require electricity to function properly,’ explains Yousef Al-Helou, a Gazan correspondent for Real News Network. The icy flood water has spread the sewage and hampered clean-up efforts.

The future looks bleak. The electricity switch-on is partial and temporary. The recent winds blew metal roofs away from homes already battered from last year’s airstrikes and the floods have caused yet more damage, but rebuilding without materials is impossible. The threat of an environmental and public health crisis is omnipresent and the UN estimates that by 2025 Gaza will run out of drinking water. Only five per cent of the water Gazans’ extract from their coastal aquifer currently is safe to drink.

Collective punishment

For eight years, the Israeli government has banned most goods from entering or leaving Gaza – including construction materials and even some medical supplies. The current crisis has been caused, however, because Egyptian authorities have destroyed 95 per cent of the tunnels that Gazans used to smuggle materials, animals and people to and from Egypt.

The Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt is the only official way in or out of the overpopulated Strip. Closures decreased following Egypt’s 2011 Revolution but since former Egyptian President Morsi’s removal by the Egyptian military on 3 July, openings have become increasingly sporadic: currently the crossing is open one to three days every two weeks. Yousef tells me that he waited for the crossing to open for 10 days before finally being able to leave in September. ‘Thousands of people are stuck on each side during a long closure’ he adds. Egyptian authorities are reportedly trying to pressurize Hamas into reconciling with the Palestinian Authority, but they have also accused Gazans of showing solidarity with Morsi.

Yousef is frustrated that Egypt’s refusal to support the Hamas government has led to the collective punishment of all Gazans. ‘Two-thirds of Gazans did not vote for Hamas and yet they are punished by Egypt and the international “community” because of a political party [that, while unpopular, was democratically elected]. Meanwhile, no-one is putting pressure on Israel to end the siege.’

Severe flooding has mixed with the existing sewage water, increasing the risk of a public health crisis. Yousef Mashharawi
The Israeli government controls the official electrical supply to Gaza, Yousef explains. ‘It became too expensive to keep powering our electrical plant after Egypt closed the tunnels where fuel was brought in more cheaply.

The plant produced 30 per cent of our electricity and 60 per cent came directly from Israel with 10 per cent from Egypt; the supply from Egypt has now stopped. The cause of the electricity shortages is because electricity supply is down by 40 per cent’ – and the political will for a solution is not there.

‘Is Hamas doing enough to help people during the current crisis?’ I ask Abeer. ‘It is doing all it can to support families, to give food [and on 20 December it announced that it will also give compensation] to the people whose homes have been flooded. But it is under siege by Israel and isolated by Egypt – it is so hard,’ she says. ‘Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh spent a night in a school with people affected by the floods to show his solidarity. The Palestinian Authority is in a similar position to Hamas but the response from them is always disappointing.’

An unnatural disaster

The cost of essentials is rising for Palestinians in Gaza. With rising inflation increasing the cost of bread, rice and cooking gas, many are finding it difficult to manage with a shrinking income. ‘Young, educated Gazans can’t find jobs,’ says Yousef.’ People can no longer afford to power their generators to make up the power shortfall due to the past six weeks of high use. Many families are being forced to use unsafe wood fires to cook food, and aid dependency is on the rise.

‘This is the season that people are meant to enjoy time with their families. All over the world, people are preparing for Christmas,’ says Abeer. ‘But there is no support from anyone.’

I ask her how people across the world can help. Abeer doesn’t know. ‘There needs to be a political solution,’ she sighs. Until that happens, Gazans struggle on – they have no choice.

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