oPt: Fighting the scourge of open sewers in Gaza

31 January, 2012
Sewage cesspool in the Qatatwa neighbourhood of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. Credit: OCHA oPt
Sewage cesspool in the Qatatwa neighbourhood of Khan Younis, southern Gaza Strip. Credit: OCHA oPt

On 6 December 2011, two children drowned in a sewage cesspool in the Qatatwa neighbourhood of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Wesam Abu Sahlouh, 4, and his sister Malek, 2, lived in a small refugee house nearby the cesspool. They managed to crawl through a hole in the fence surrounding the cesspool while playing outside. Their bodies were found by a relative several hours later.

Their deaths were a horrifying reminder of the conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza, as they struggle to survive a blockade that denies them access to basic goods, and the wherewithal to create a healthy living environment.

Across Gaza, nearly a third of households are not connected to a sewage network, and they rely on self-installed and unregulated cesspits. Large amounts of partially treated sewage are discharged into the sea daily.

The Qatatwa neighbourhood, located in the area of a former Israeli settlement, forms an extension to a nearby refugee camp. It has expanded significantly over recent years, but a lack of infrastructure and construction materials means it has not been able to connect to the sanitation network.

Some residents have taken the initiative and installed their own sewage systems, which drain into a 2,500 m2 cesspool in the adjacent sand dunes. A weak fence had been installed around the cesspool, but it failed to stop children from getting inside. Another child had fallen into the cesspool in August, but was rescued.  

Following the tragic deaths in December, OCHA visited the site with water and sanitation aid experts, and brought together community leaders to find a solution. A local Palestinian NGO has installed a new fence around the pool, but a longer-term solution is needed.  

OCHA is working with health and sanitation organizations that form the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) Cluster. They will start a project with money from the Humanitarian Response Fund (HRF) to improve sanitation.

The sewage network in the Khan Younis governorate has the lowest coverage rate in the territory, connecting to only 40 per cent of households.

The region also depends entirely on a temporary wastewater plant installed by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 2007. But the plant is now at full capacity. The governorate is waiting for a more permanent UNDP project to be implemented.

Back in Qatatwa, Ahmed and Fidaa, the distraught parents of Wesam and Malek, said they had waited many years for children and underwent extensive treatment to fulfill their wish.  

“Eleven years of pain and discomfort were wasted the minute I saw my children being pulled from the pool,” said Ahmed. He said he could not bring himself to sleep at home anymore, preferring to sleep nearby at his in-laws’ house.

“The children’s milk is still in the house.”

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