Independent Appeal: Bringing clean water to a village stalked by sickness

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The Independent Online

Even if there wasn't a dirty foam-flecked puddle of waste water at the foot of its trunk, you would know there was something wrong with Jamal Abu Sawarha's olive tree from the tell-tale white patches on the leaves. But Mr Abu Sawarha, 51, who is a local leader in this crowded community of shacks and lean-tos in the sprawling village of al Zawaida - one of the poorest in Gaza - is resigned.

Indeed, he believes he has a duty to let fellow residents use his olive grove to dump waste water - even if it makes his olives useless - because it prevents flooding in the street. Such is life without a sewage system.

"If I didn't allow the people to discharge their grey water here ("black" is human sewage), it would go into the road," he explains - the villagers are obliged to use cesspits dug in the ground to deposit human effluent, and there is no capacity for other waste.

But this is by no means the worst of the problem. The lack of any sewage infrastructure is a daily challenge to the 2,000-plus refugees who live here on £100 per month per family of 10 people - but it is also dangerous to public health. This is because Gaza's "fresh" water supply is dependent on an underground coastal reservoir just four to five metres underground and the wells drawing from it are increasingly contaminatedby waste water and, because the aquifer is depleted by overpumping, sea water which is drawn in.

Here, as in the third of Gaza which lacks sewers, residents have to dig cesspits which seep into the aquifers and deposit levels of nitrate and faecal coli far above the level regarded as acceptable by the World Health Organisation.

The residents normally rely on a well two kilometres east of the village for drinking water. But this is inadequate, as well as also being polluted. Local clinics are reporting five to six cases - mainly in children - of diarrhoea a day.

And it is also expensive: to empty the cesspits they have to engage a private contractor at a cost of 100 shekels (£12) per month. Some don't bother - leading to angry disputes between neighbours when one allows the cesspits to overflow into the road or the narrow space between the houses.

At the local UN girls' school - where pupils complain of the smells, mosquitoes and flies generated by the problem - Samya Sheikh, 14, explains how her family's next door neighbours had failed to have the waste dislodged from their cesspits for four months. "My brother's son got an infection because of it. But they only did anything about it two days ago," she said.

Dr Abdul Majid Nassar of the Islamic University, who took his environmental studies PhD at Loughborough University, explains that the impoverished people who can't or won't pay are aware of the water problems but would rather take their children to the clinics, where the medicines are free, than pay to dislodge the waste. He adds: "Treatment is free but prevention is expensive."

Temporary relief is available to some residents thanks to fresh water given by an Austrian charity, which is distributed once a week. But this month the Welfare Association - one of the charities supported in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal - will begin work on a new sewage system as part of a €250,000 (£170,000) project funded by the European Commission. Residents will have to contribute some £4 per month for the new system.

It will remove the cesspits and bring fresh water, but it may bring another benefit - the possibility of new roads to replace the dirt tracks which are virtually impassable when it rains.

"Nobody is going to fix the roads until a sewage network is installed underneath," explains Dr Nassar. "But once we have the sewage and donors know the roads are not going to have to be ripped up again, they just might."

Gaza project axed

* A major US-funded plan for a badly needed improvement in Gaza's freshwater supply has been cancelled in response to Hamas's victory in last January's Palestinian elections.

The severe and growing water depletion and contamination problems of Gaza would have been permanently eased by a large- scale $40m (£21m) USAID project to build a new desalination plant and a north-south water carrier.

But the Bush administration has frozen the project as part of its boycott in response to Hamas taking over the Palestinian Authority (PA) in spring. Gaza's "fresh" water aquifer is increasingly contaminated by waste water and also, because of over-pumping, by the inflow of sea water, making it often too saline even for crops.

The cancellation comes despite USAID not dealing with the PA, but directly with contractors.

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