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Archive for September 3rd, 2012

Untreated waste water in Wadi Gaza, near Gaza City, pollutes rivers, the sea, and groundwater

Posted by African Press International on September 3, 2012

Photo: ICRC
Untreated waste water in Wadi Gaza, near Gaza City, pollutes rivers and eventually the sea, as well as groundwater

JERUSALEM,  – Polluted water in the Gaza Strip is seriously affecting people’s health and the situation looks set to get worse, the UN warns in a new report.

Gaza’s rapidly growing population of about 1.64 million – expected to increase by 500,000 by 2020 – could soon lose its main source of fresh water, the underground coastal aquifer, which could become unusable by 2016, with the damage irreversible by 2020, it says.

Clean water is limited for most Gazans to an average of 70-90 litres per person per day, compared to the minimum global World Health Organization (WHO) standard of 100 litres a day, according to Mahmud Daher, officer-in-charge of the WHO in Gaza.

“We have respiratory diseases, skin diseases, eye diseases, gastroenteritis, which can all be linked to polluted water,” said Mohamed al-Kashef, general director of the international cooperation department in the Gaza health ministry.

According to a UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) 2010 update, diseases associated with water account for about 26 percent of diseases in Gaza. However, Daher is more careful to make the link. “There is no evidence that the current water situation is a major public health problem. But what we know for sure is that viral diseases and parasites are connected to polluted water.”

Nitrate contamination of the aquifer is believed to be a threat to infants and pregnant women, says UNICEF.

One of the child-diseases connected to polluted water is methaemoglobinaemia, or the so-called “blue-baby syndrome”, which has occurred among babies born in the Gaza Strip. It is believed that high nitrate contamination in groundwater is causing the disease.

Diarrhoea, which has become very common in the Gaza Strip, is most likely linked to poor hygiene standards in enterprises which desalinate water, says Mahmud Daher, adding: “It is not clear if the problem is the water, or water together with other sources.”

Remedial action

“Damage to the coastal aquifer will be irreversible without immediate remedial action,” says the UN report.

An average of 160 million cubic meters (mcm) of water is taken from the aquifer per year, but it is only fed with 50-60 mcm from rainfall and water-runoff from the Hebron Hills every year, resulting in a huge gap between availability and usage. As a consequence, ground water levels have been falling, allowing seawater intrusion.

Meanwhile, the report projects demand for water of 260 mcm in 2020, an increase of about 60 percent from today.

“When I shower my daughter, I need to shower her a second time with bottled water, because you can literally feel the salt sticking to the skin,” said Sami Abu Sultan, a development aid worker from the Gaza Strip dealing with water purification projects. “Most people believe that the drinking water we get is not healthy at all.”

And they seem to be right: 90 percent of the water from the aquifer is not safe for drinking without additional treatment, the UN report says.


“The water supplied to people here does not meet any health criteria that exist in this world,” Mohamed al-Kashef told IRIN. “The pollution of the water leads to many diseases, especially for children.”

''When I shower my daughter, I need to shower her a second time with bottled water, because you can literally feel the salt sticking to the skin''

One source of pollution is the intrusion of sea water into the aquifer, while some 90,000 cubic metres of sewage pumped into the sea every year and fertilizers from farmland irrigation further contaminate the water with nitrates.

“The UN is optimistic in saying that 90 percent of the water is not usable. I would say 95 percent”, said Munther Shoblak, general director of the Gaza Strip’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU).

He added that nitrate levels are reaching up to 500mg per litre in some areas, or 100-150mg per litre on average, compared to the international standard of 50mg.

About half a million people in the Gaza Strip are not connected to the sewage system, forcing them to use cesspits and open channel flows which often contaminate the environment and pollute the aquifer.

Because the water provided through the municipal systems is polluted, some 83 percent of households buy desalinated water, spending up to a third of household income. But even this water is often not clean enough. And those who cannot afford to buy water use private and agricultural wells, which are often contaminated and polluted.

Desalination plans

Efforts are under way to improve the situation through desalination of seawater, which would decrease the amount of water that needs to be extracted from the aquifer, while providing cleaner drinking water.

“Solutions are on track”, said CMWU’s Shoblak. “As a short-term goal, 13 million cubic litres should be desalinated by 2015. We will focus on the most vulnerable areas where pollution is particularly high. And in the long run, large desalination plants should produce at least 100 million cubic litres a year, before 2020.”

Funding for the short-term goal is partly provided by the Islamic Development Bank and the European Union, Shoblak said, adding that the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) has been pushing the long-term plan forward. It is planning to set up a desalination plant with a capacity of 55mcm annually in a first phase, and 110mcm in a second phase.

But despite efforts to solve the crisis, a real cure might yet be far away. “Even with remedial action now to cease abstraction, the aquifer will take decades to recover,” says the UN report.



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A tunnel-free future for Gaza? – Car smuggling through the tunnels is rampant

Posted by African Press International on September 3, 2012

13,000 cars are estimated to have been smuggled into Gaza through these tunnels in 2011

GAZA CITY, – This month’s border attack in the Sinai Peninsula, which killed 16 Egyptian soldiers, has bolstered calls to shut down a network of underground tunnels between Egypt and the isolated Gaza Strip. The tunnels have been used for years to smuggle goods into Gaza and, Egypt alleges, fighters into the Sinai.

But Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, sees this as an opportunity.

Publicly and in discussions with Egyptian officials, Hamas has been pushing to use the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza for commercial trade. Ghazi Hamad, deputy minister of foreign affairs, has said a free trade zone might soon “liberate Gaza“.

“Once the Rafah crossing operates as a hub for goods, the tunnels will become history,” Azzam Shawwa, a former Minister of Energy in the Palestinian Authority (PA), told IRIN.

The tunnels are the main commercial trade routes in and out of the Gaza Strip, part of the occupied Palestinian territories.

Israel has kept its borders with Gaza closed except for the Kerem Shalom crossing, where the passage of goods is heavily restricted. The Agreed Principles for Rafah Crossing, signed by the Palestinian Authority and Israel in 2005, included plans for formal trade, but the deal was frozen when Hamas came to power in the Gaza Strip in 2006.

Gaza-Egypt relations have also been strained over the blockade of Gaza, though they have improved since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power last year. The recent attacks – and their humanitarian impact – have made the calls for change all the more urgent.

“In the end, what happened in Sinai might turn out to have a positive impact on the future relations between Egypt and Gaza,” Mustafa Sawaf, former chief-editor of the Hamas-affiliated Filistin newspaper, told IRIN.

Since 5 August, when Egypt closed the crossing and started shutting down some of the tunnels, the import of fuel and construction material has reportedly declined by 30 and 70 percent, respectively, and power cuts have reached up to 16 hours a day, according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Photo: Andreas Hackl/IRIN
A furniture factory in Gaza. Might the door soon be open to exports?

A free trade zone would provide Gaza with more facilities, energy and access to goods, Hamad, who is also the chairman of the border crossings authority in the Gaza Strip, told IRIN, “but it wouldn’t turn Gaza into some kind of Taiwan. We have to remain realistic. It should bring people back to a normal life”.

Prospects for free-trade zone

With a free-trade zone, Gaza could potentially import and export goods and raw materials through the Egyptian seaport of Al-Arish without paying custom duties to Egyptian authorities.

Another option would be an industrial free zone allowing Palestinians from Gaza to pass freely into industrial areas in Egypt for work, said Shawwa.

Asked whether a free-trade zone would be in Israel’s interest, Ilana Stein, deputy spokesperson of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told IRIN, “We have to wait until there are serious suggestions by the parties, Palestinians and Egyptians. Once something clear is there, we are ready to discuss it.”

But analysts said that the Rafah crossing is not designed for any of these possibilities and would have to be upgraded. In addition, Egypt, struggling to provide its 90 million people with the fruits of its recent revolution, is unlikely to want Palestinian workers vying for scarce jobs amid rising poverty.

Tunnel profiteers

There is likely to be internal opposition too. While Fatah, the political party ruling the West Bank, has supported Egypt’s move to shut down the tunnels, saying they “serve a small category of stakeholder and private interests”, analysts say there could be significant resistance to attempts to permanently shut them down.

Some US$500-700 million in goods are estimated to pass through the tunnels every year, charged by the Hamas government with duties of at least 14.5 percent since early 2012, according to a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Several influential families in control of the tunnels profit from every item that passes through them. It costs $25 to smuggle a person through and around $500 for a car; in 2011, 13,000 cars are believed to have come into Gaza through the tunnels.

“Eight hundred millionaires and 1,600 near-millionaires control the tunnels at the expense of both Egyptian and Palestinian national interests,” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying in The Economist.

''There is a class of people benefitting from the tunnels… But Hamas can solve that by involving them in legitimate trade.''

The tunnels have recently contributed to a construction boom, with apartments, parks and mosques being built with help from investors like the Saudi-led Islamic Development Bank. The transition to a tunnel-free future will have to address these interests.

“It is true that there is a class of people benefitting from the tunnels,” Nathan Thrall, senior analyst at ICG, told IRIN. “But Hamas can solve that by involving them in legitimate trade.”

Hamas would also earn more money in customs than it does in the current situation, where middlemen profit too. “I don’t think that this is as large an obstacle as others,” Thrall said.

Complex politics

One of the other main obstacles is how Israel will react.

Calls for improved trade relations with Egypt have sparked fears that Israel would use the opportunity to rid itself of all responsibility for Gaza: Once Rafah is opened to commercial goods, Israel could argue it no longer has to keep open the Kerem Shalom crossing – the only official entry point for imported goods. “That would be the end of Israeli responsibility for Gaza,” said Thrall.

Such a move could undermine efforts to reach Palestinian unity by further disconnecting Gaza from the West Bank. For this reason, even Hamas is careful not to push too hard for imports into Gaza.

“We don’t want to see Israel closing Kerem Shalom,” Hamad said. “Israel just wants to push us towards Egypt. But we do consider Gaza as part of the Palestinian homeland.”

“It’s a serious discussion,” added Shawwa, the former PA minister. “Do we want an independent economy of Gaza? That might take us into a new era of Palestinian separation.”

Kerem Shalom is the only crossing point where commercial and humanitarian goods are allowed to enter Gaza from Israel, and even when open, aid agencies have struggled to consistently import enough supplies to meet operational needs.

Some analysts speculate the newly elected president in Egypt, Islamist Mohamed Morsi, will make a trade zone conditional on the success of Palestinian reconciliation, while others say that he could also move forward in the absence of Palestinian unity.

“The relationship between Egypt, Israel and Hamas is complex,” said Abdel Monem Said, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Morsi knows he can’t really allow Palestinians in Gaza to starve. And there is pressure from inside the [Muslim] Brotherhood to support Hamas.” On the other hand, Egypt is constrained by close security cooperation with Israel in Sinai, he told IRIN.

“By allowing people to pass, Morsi would do enough to meet his humanitarian obligations,” said a European diplomat in Jerusalem who requested anonymity. “The security issue with Israel is more pressing at the moment.”

Mkheimar Abu Saada, a political scientist at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, says Egypt is in a very delicate situation: “On one hand, they don’t want to be seen as cooperating with Israel by imposing a siege on the Gaza Strip like Mubarak did. In the meantime, they don’t want to be blamed for terminating the relationship with Israel.”
As such, Hamas acknowledges its hopes for a free trade zone are unlikely to be realized in the near future.

For now, it is focused on “more realistic options”, like allowing more people to cross Rafah and exporting from Gaza – with some success. After Egypt gradually eased restrictions at Rafah in May, Morsi agreed with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh last month on increasing the number of crossing travelers to 1,500 per day and increasing the amount Qatari fuel allowed to pass.

“I do think there are some chances that Rafah will be used for commercial purposes and not only exports,” Hamad said, “but maybe it is still too early for Egyptians to give an answer right now.”

ah/ha/rz source


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Politics trumps humanitarianism

Posted by African Press International on September 3, 2012

Photo: SyriaFreedom
Civilians fleeing the northwestern city of Sermin in April. The UN says at least 1.2 million people are displaced inside Syria

DUBAI,  – This week’s media headlines about the Syrian crisis have focused on a walk-out by the Syrian delegation at the Non-Aligned Movement summit, after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi called the regime “oppressive”; and a TV interview in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said he needed more time to win the war.

But the humanitarian situation of hundreds of thousands of people in need of assistance inside Syria has been – as usual, aid workers would say – largely neglected.

As violence spreads to previously unaffected areas, internal displacement has reached unprecedented levels. Three million people are in need of food assistance or agricultural support. Many more have been affected by a crumbling economy and a lack of social services, especially health care. Meanwhile, funding for humanitarian aid has not matched the strong rhetoric on Syria in the international community. .

Increasingly, aid workers feel it is time to speak out. .

“We have kept silent for quite a while. The political debate has been predominant,” said Radhouane Nouicer, the UN’s top humanitarian official in Syria. “We need to remind people that beyond the political debate, there are also people who are suffering and who are not having their needs met.”

Here are excerpts of IRIN’s interview with Nouicer, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria.

IRINGive us an update on the humanitarian situation.

RN: People have to realize that the situation has further deteriorated in recent weeks and that the violence has spread and intensified. Areas which used to be rather safe have become part of the war zone, like Aleppo and even Damascus… We are estimating the number of internally displaced people to be 1.2 million. This comes in addition to the people who have been affected even if they have not been displaced: affected by the war; by the problems; by the non-functioning public services; the unemployment; the miserable conditions that are prevailing. I would highlight particularly the [lack of] medical services, hygiene, water and sanitation, basic shelter and basic household items.

IRINWhat kind of assistance is reaching the people?

RN: We keep trying to scale up our activities. We are doing more than we used to do 2-3 months ago. The World Food Programme (WFP) went from 500,000 beneficiaries to 850,000 in August, and we are planning to reach 1.5 million people in the month of September.

Mattresses, blankets and other household items, as well as cash assistance for some families, have now reached over 250,000 people. The World Health Organization’s assistance has reached more than half a million people. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reached a similar number with vaccinations or with food for children, and other types of assistance.

The positive element in this is that there are more NGOs – eight international NGOs and over 40 national NGOs – now associated with the humanitarian response and trying to make a little difference in the life of the affected populations.

IRINPreviously, the UN had complained about bureaucratic slowdowns, government red tape, a lack of access that made it difficult to adequately respond to the needs. Has the government fulfilled its promises to ease those restrictions and issue more visas to international aid workers?

RN: The government has become more receptive to the concept that there is indeed a humanitarian crisis. They have been more receptive in recent weeks and even more engaged. We have organized many meetings with the representatives of the different ministries involved in the humanitarian situation and we have been allowed to enter into some kind of association with more local NGOs.

There is a security problem which is hampering the [aid] convoys. This is a reality, but that does not only fall on the government, but also on the rules and constraints of the UN in handling UN convoys. Sometimes, the road itself is not safe enough and convoys have to be deferred or the route has to change.

There are pockets where live hostilities are taking place and that indeed is off our limits. We cannot enter. Nobody can, unless the hostilities cease. Otherwise, there are many areas under so-called opposition control, which are accessible and which receive their rations as planned.

There is space for more flexibility. We still need clearance to send convoys. That is not really very problematic, but we would have been much happier without it. Still, the mechanisms are in place to send as much aid as we can.

IRINThe UN has requested US$180 million to respond to the needs in Syria. That appeal is only half met. How big of a handicap is the lack of funding?

RN: We have been able to really scale up in terms of food distribution, but the other sectors are still crippled by the lack of funding. In addition to the procedures and the insecurity, you have the problem of funding, which is a big handicap for the health sector, for the shelter sector, for the cash assistance to destitute families, for education and sanitation. That is still a major problem for us.

IRIN: Why has humanitarian funding failed to match the strong rhetoric on Syria in the international community?

RN: I keep asking the same question to donors. It is legitimate for the donors to also ask us – the UN – to enlarge the donor base and seek donations and contributions from other states. So far, we have failed… and we keep relying on the traditional donors – it is a fact of life.

This operation has been very much politicized. The predominance of the political debate has maybe made many countries not pay enough attention to the humanitarian conditions. That’s my only interpretation.

We kept calling on other states [to donate]. The reactions have not been positive. We still keep hope and we continue our demarches through direct contacts and meetings. We keep hope that very soon they will join in and help. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is now mobilized to join the humanitarian team inside Syria – working on the basis of the funding that has been collected during Ramadan in some Gulf states.

IRINSome donors said they needed assurances that the UN could deliver effectively and with accountability, given the challenges of the Syrian context. Have you proven yourself in that regard.

RN: We have provided enough evidence that there is a possibility to deliver; there is a possibility to send convoys and to monitor the distribution; to identify and assess the needs; and to scale up the operations. Now we need more fuel to go further with this.

IRIN: In recent days, Turkey has said repeatedly that it cannot accept more than 100,000 refugees, and has even called for camps within Syria to ease the burden on Turkey. What will happen if neighbouring countries stop taking in refugees?

RN: This is a new concept – that there could be a ceiling on the number of people that you can or cannot accept. One has to remember that Syria has hosted more than one million Iraqis and 500,000 Palestinians. [So Turkey’s stance] is a quite surprising concept. If it becomes a fact that neighbouring countries stop accepting Syrian refugees – and there is no sign of that at this stage; we haven’t seen anything of that kind; the borders remain open on all fronts – but if that happens and people are forced, to some extent, to remain within their territory, there must be an international mechanism put in place to assist them. That mechanism does not exist for the time being and the UN has nothing to do with that for the time being, because we cannot violate international law and enter Syria from Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and help people in areas not in control of the government. We are still working with a sovereign state. We are an international organization that has to abide by international law.

IRIN: What would that mechanism look like?

RN: The mechanism – if agreed upon by all parties involved – would be a type of cross-border mechanism, which means you bring assistance to people inside Syria. It has been put in motion in many other situations, but it must be done in a legal manner within certain parameters. I’m talking about a hypothesis where people are stuck at the border and cannot enter the [neighbouring] countries. We are not there yet. That was the case in Turkey for a few days, while it got more camps ready, but now it has been eased.



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