GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Gaza-based Hemaya Center for Human Rights warned May 4 of the repercussions of the municipalities’ decision to reduce their basic services to citizens in the Gaza Strip in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
In a letter addressed to both the UNHCR and the UN envoy to the Middle East, the center shed light on the seriousness of the situation in Gaza.
It called for immediate action to support and enable Gazan municipalities to provide public services and take the necessary measures to confront the coronavirus pandemic. The center also called for pressuring the Israeli authorities into assuming their responsibilities toward the residents of the occupied territories by providing a healthy and clean environment and working to fight the pandemic.
To avoid collapsing, the municipalities in Gaza had announced April 28 that they would gradually cut down on basic services they provide to citizens, such as road maintenance and organization of public markets, and that other services would continue only for as long as possible but that this would depend on the available capabilities. They called on local and international institutions to support the basic municipal needs, especially in terms of fuel and supplies needed to fight the virus that causes COVID-19. They stressed that the continuation of this crisis and the gradual reduction of services will have major repercussions on public health and environmental safety.
Head of the Gaza Municipalities Union Nizar Hijazi had warned in a press conference April 11 that the economic collapse, the ongoing crisis of salary decreases, power outages and suspended grants, foreign aid and project financing are all factors that will negatively affect basic services. He said that the Gaza municipalities will not be able to collect waste, let alone provide maintenance or wastewater treatment services.
The general health and environment administration coordinator for Gaza City, Ahmed Abu Abdo, told Al-Monitor that the municipality provides basic services to citizens such as collecting and transporting solid waste, pumping water, treating wastewater and maintaining roads, in addition to services related to organizing markets and cultural exhibitions. He said that due to the coronavirus pandemic, the municipality performed services that were not included in its operating plan and budget.
“Because the services provided by the municipality require direct contact with the materials that can transmit the virus, it is necessary to follow preventive and precautionary measures to ensure the safety of employees,” he said.
He stressed that the municipality launched extensive awareness programs, activated a general prevention system in order to provide disinfection measures for employees and enhanced the relevant safety measures for workers and field teams.
Abu Abdo explained that the municipality has to disinfect public markets and quarantine centers. These measures, he added, among other preventive measures, significantly weigh on the municipality’s budget.
He noted that there are other reasons behind the financial crisis plaguing the municipalities, such as the revenue collection rate that has already declined from 13% to 9% since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, as the municipalities rely on citizens' payments in order to cover the services they provide. In addition, the increasing per capita water consumption and the increasing waste volume have forced the municipality to collect waste three times a day so that waste does not pile up in the streets and cause health problems.
He pointed out that in light of the lack of revenues, the municipality had to reduce the share of diesel earmarked for waste collection and operation of water wells by 40%, and that in the coming days if the municipality does not receive any support this share will be reduced by 60%.
He said, “We are only collecting waste once a day and waste is piling up in the streets.”
Abu Abdo pointed out that the Gaza City municipality incurs the costs of transporting 700 tons of waste per day from Gaza City to the landfill in Hajar al-Deek, and added that the cost of 1 ton amounts to 100 shekels ($28). Water services have also been affected, especially in light of the increased water per capita consumption.
“If the crisis lingers on, we fear that we will have to pump sewage into the sea in order to avoid a calamity,” he added.
According to Abu Abdo, the disinfection and waste treatment of 15 quarantine centers in Gaza cost the municipality about 260,000 shekels ($73,500) per day. The proper waste disposal measures are carried out according to a specific protoco; a dedicated vehicle with trained workers collects the waste with manual disinfection machines and then transports it to the Hajar al-Deek landfill for burial and full isolation.
“The vehicles and workers are then disinfected,” he added.
Abu Abdo said that the municipality is currently disposing of the waste of quarantine centers every two days, and the waste disposal frequency will be reduced to twice a week in the next stage. He expressed regret that they have reached this serious phase and stressed that they need financial support in order to continue to provide services, and called on citizens to pay their bills.
The Interior Ministry in Gaza has yet to comment on the municipalities’ move.
Ezzeddin Khalaf, a citizen from Gaza City, said people are throwing their trash in the street because containers are full. He said, “I am afraid the crisis will continue, which will cause the spread of serious diseases.”
He added that they no longer have a regular water supply, which, coupled with electricity cuts, hinders the operation of water pumps. “Given the state of emergency, the increase in water consumption and waste production is only normal [as more people are home],” he noted.
He said that he continues to pay the monthly municipal bills, and so it is unfair for him and his family to suffer the consequences of the municipality’s crisis and inability to provide services.
Ahmed Qassem, another Gaza City citizen, told Al-Monitor that he has been unable to pay the water bill because he lost his job at a coffee shop that closed at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. He said that he only takes his house waste outside at night right before the collection, in the hope that the crisis will end soon.