In occupied Palestinian territory, UNICEF and partners tackle the risks of open cesspools
By Catherine Weibel
Gaza, occupied Palestinian territory, 2 November 2012 - White birds fly low over the mirror-smooth pond before landing in the grass, where, much to the delight of 16-year-old Ahmed, some start singing.
“Here you find birds that you cannot see anywhere else in Gaza. You can hear them sing, and, if you’re lucky, you can even catch one and take him home where he will sing for your family,” he marvels. “This is the most beautiful place I’ve seen in my life!” the boy adds.
Mountains of trash are piled on the shore of what is actually a sewage pond.
Sewage ponds are death traps
We are in Beit Lahiya’s wastewater treatment plant, which sits 200 metres from the buildings in this densely populated neighbourhood in the north of Gaza. Despite the smell, the large sewage lakes attract children like a magnet. They offer the only open space in the area and yield different species of birds.
The landscape is treacherous. Even if the floating crust of sewage on top of the pools can support the weight of birds, it cannot support the weight of children. In February, an 11-year-old boy broke through the crust as he chased a bird and plunged to his death. In December 2011, two siblings aged 2 and 4 drowned in another sewage pool in the south of Gaza.
Across Gaza, an estimated 53 open cesspools threaten the lives of children. As nearly one third of households are not connected to a sewage network, many such pools have been established to receive raw sewage. The volume of imported materials to expand and upgrade water and sanitation infrastructure has increased significantly since June 2010, but medium- and small-scale projects cannot be implemented in blockaded Gaza until they have been approved by Israel.
Joint response rolled out
To protect the lives of children, UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies that are members of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene cluster have launched a joint response. With funding from the Government of Japan, UNICEF has started by leading an awareness-raising campaign targeting children and their families in 16 communities living close to the most hazardous ponds, using the communication for development approach.
The programme was developed with the participation of local communities. It calls on parents to watch out for their children when they play outside, and asks children to stay away from sewage lagoons.
Teenage volunteers have been recruited at UNICEF family and adolescent centres throughout Gaza. The youth have attended a training workshop before being sent to raise awareness within their own communities.
UNICEF has also installed billboards in the areas at risk. Eleven sewage ponds will be fenced off, as part of the joint humanitarian response.
Measures address risk
Saftawi is a very poor suburb north of Gaza City where an exposed sewage pond sits next to family homes. It is one of the areas with a billboard warning residents about the risks.
“In June, a 3-year old child escaped the vigilance of his parents and crawled into the water, where he almost drowned”, says Hussam Hassan, a father of 18, whose house stands 20 metres from the pool.
As Mr. Hassan speaks, children walk through festering piles of trash on the opposite side of the pond, dangerously close to the hole of muddy water. They live in makeshift shanties that have sprung up between houses, and scrounge for anything they can sell. “It’s difficult to be living in the smell of garbage and to suffer from the mosquitoes, but it’s even worse to know that our children are at risk of falling in cesspools and drowning metres from our homes”, Mr. Hassan says.
Saftawi is one of the sewage ponds that will be fenced off as part of the joint humanitarian response. However, this solution can only be a temporary one. “We cannot leave a lake of liquid sewage in the middle of a neighbourhood, especially since it sometimes overflows and floods the houses,” says Mr. Hassan. “We need to be allowed to build real sanitation facilities, for the sake of our children.”