It had been predicted — Israeli bombing could breach the earthen walls one of the ponds used to collect sewage in the Gaza Strip, and cause a large and potentially catastrophic sewage overflow.
And, it is now clear that there was, indeed, a breach in one of the sewage containment walls in Gaza, caused by some form of Israeli military activity.
Not reported until now, but evident from a United Nations analysis of satellite photos, is an overflow from a sewage pond in the Sheikh Ejleen area in Gaza.
The overflow was “violent”, with “indications of severe land erosion”, according to analysis of the satellite maps together with photographs taken on the ground by a UN Environment Program (UNEP) mission to Gaza.
UPDATE: Sari Bashi, Executive Director of GISHA, the Israeli human rights organization that has gone to Israel’s Supreme Court to try to stop Israeli military-administered sanctions against the entire Gaza Strip, said on Friday 13 March that her office had received an affadavit confirming damage from an IDF attack that hit Gaza’s sewage infrastructure.
FURTHER UPDATE: Maher Najjar, Deputy Director of Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), said in an affidavit to GISHA that “on Jan. 10, one of the sewage lagoons at the Gaza treatment plant, the third one, was hit by Israeli shelling, and the sewage has started to seep into nearby areas. The spillway has reached one kilometer, meaning that the sewage is already running one kilometer past the lagoon, contaminating homes and farmland nearby, which is highly dangerous for residents. There is an additional danger of contamination of the drinking water, if sewage leaks into the valves of the water network. We had given the coordinates of the plant and lagoons to the Israeli military, through the ICRC, and asked that it not be hit…”
Najjar confirmed in a telephone interview from his home in Gaza on Friday 13 March that “one of the earthen shoulders of a sewage lagoon of the main treatment plant in Gaza City had received two hits from F-16s, the shoulder was damaged, and 500,000 cubic meters of raw sewage spilled out”. He said this had happened in the first ten days of January. “The main problem is we are afraid of the pollution from this spill into Gaza’s underground water aquifer [n.b. the only source of water in the coastal strip, which was already not only too saline from over-pumping, but also already polluted.]”
Najjar explained that the land in the area around the sewage lagoon was rather sandy, so “the flood of spilled sewage infiltrated quickly into the aquifer”.
The damage, the UN analysis says, happened “before 10 January”.
Neither Najjar nor his colleagues were in the Gaza treatment plant at the time to witness the attacks, and did not get there until much later, due to the dangerous war conditions.
He said that the Sheikh Ejleen sewage lagoon is right next to, or part of, Gaza City’s the main waste-water treatment plant
In an earlier affadavit, Najjar testified: “I know that sewage is leaking in Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanoun, Jabalia, and parts of Gaza City. The risk to the health and lives of tens of thousands of people is high. We need to stop the sewage flooding immediately. These estimates are based on reports from our engineers, our evaluation of the extent and location of damage to the system, and the population served by each area affected. We also base these estimates on communication with people living in affected areas, including complaints from people calling us and phone sampling of selected areas that my colleagues and I have conducted. I emphasize the need for electricity in order to have water supply. The backup generators, operating for only a few hours each day, do not supply a strong enough current to pump water to the homes, and even when water is pumped to the buildings – without electricity in each building, the residents cannot draw the water up to their homes”.
The Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza lasted over three weeks — from 27 December until 18 January. The IDF ground operation started on 3 January.
The damage to the retaining wall was probably caused by IDF bombing – or perhaps Israeli artillery shelling. There is also a possibility that Israeli bulldozers were operating in that area, and somehow caused this harm … The UN map analysis does not speculate on this.
A spokesperson for Israel’s Ministry of Defense did not return a phone call on Friday.
But the UN map analysis does say that “This map illustrates damages to the sewage treatment plant … in Sheikh Ejleen area. A single impact crater (occurring sometime before 10 January 2009) to the eastern section of a holding pond (70m x 150m) caused a massive outflow of sewage, moving an estimated distance of 1.2 kilometers. The estimated area affected by the outflow is approximately 5.5 hectares. An area affected by a suspected secondary flow further west has also been marked as well as damage guildings and impact craters in the region”.
Indications on the accompanying UNEP photos show:
-“Sewage pond level very low” — the sewage flooded out after bombing or some other form of attack destroyed embankment walls …
-“Wall breach is 22 meters”
-“Indications of severe land erosion due to violent sewage flow”
-“Sewage standing in cultivated fields”.
This is in addition to the damage caused by Israeli military-imposed sanctions that have been in place since late 2007. Because of restrictions on the provision of the special industrial diesel fuel needed to run Gaza’s only power plant, it was feared that sewage overflows from such sewage ponds could endanger human lives, and some 4 million liters of raw or only-partially-treated sewage has been run off into the Mediterranean sea, every day.
This UN’s map analysis — entitled “Sewage Treatment Plant Damage and Outflow Detection, Sheikh Ejleen. Damage Analysis with QuickBird Satellite Imagery Recorded 16 January 2009 – Ground Surves Photos by UNEP 30 January 2009” — was released on 10 March.
In addition to the Gaza sewage overflow — now visible from outer space — it also included
satellite photos of “Rafah Building Destruction along the Egypt-Gaza Border” (presenting a satellite-based damage assessment along the Egypt-Gaza border, in which damaged buildings, infrastructure and impact craters have been identified); as well as 13 maps showing damage assessment overviews for the entire Gaza Strip; and a satellite photo of the UNRWA headquarters.
The UNOSAT websites say that “These maps have been produced or facilitated by UNOSAT for the humanitarian community from public sources. We ask you to kindly credit UNOSAT and/or the original source if this information is used in a report, project etc. Additional products including satellite images (for example from Ikonos, SPOT, LANDSAT or ENVISAT) and thematic maps (for example land cover, digital elevation models (DEMs) and environmental change analyzes) can be provided by UNOSAT on request”.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), based in Gaza, has just released the latest of the casualties and damage in Gaza resulting from the Israeli military operation. “Only now is the true extent of the devastation becoming apparent”, PCHR says. “Confirmed figures reveal the true extent of the destruction inflicted upon the Gaza Strip; Israel ’s offensive resulted in 1,434 dead, including 960 civilians, 239 police officers, and 235 fighters“.