Can Gaza get a handle on its waste problem?

With Gaza's waste disposal crisis now affecting Israeli communities across the border, Israel has approved the construction of a UN-funded waste recycling plant in Gaza.

al-monitor A Palestinian man sifts through garbage lookin for salvageable items at a dump site, Gaza City, Sept. 2, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Mohammed Salem.

Feb 14, 2019

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported on Jan. 28 that Israel has approved the construction of a waste recycling plant in Gaza at the former site of Gush Katif, the largest Israeli settlements before the 2005 disengagement. The report said that in cooperation with the United Nations and other agencies, the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Administration to the Gaza Strip had recently submitted a proposal to construct a UN-funded recycling facility.

Past calls to resolve Gaza's waste problem had gone unanswered because of a lack of funds or Israel refusing to allow the necessary equipment to enter the Gaza Strip due to their dual-use capabilities. Israel's green light leads one to wonder what has changed.

 According to the Yedioth Ahronoth report, the landfills in Gaza have made 90% of Gaza's groundwater unsafe to drink. It also revealed that two weeks ago, part of the Johr al-Deek landfill collapsed, sending waste cascading into the buffer zone between Israel and Gaza and heightening tensions with Hamas when the Israeli army considered entering Gaza to push the trash back into a heap. Eventually Palestinians did the job using bulldozers. In mid-January, Yedioth Ahronoth had reported on how the stench from landfills in Gaza was wafting into Israel and how the location of the dumps was creating rodent and mosquito infestations in border communities in Israel. 

Ashwaq Ghneim, head of the Health and Environment Department at the Ministry of Local Government in Gaza, explained to Al-Monitor, “The Gaza Strip suffers from the accumulation of waste which is not being disposed of in an eco-friendly way. The household waste is either being disposed of in landfills or burned.”

She noted that in the absence of an alternative, the Deir al-Balah landfill, one of three landfills in Gaza, has continued to serve as the dump site for the Deir el-Balah governorate although its lifespan has expired. The lifespan of the Johr al-Deek landfill, the dump site for garbage produced in the North Gaza and Gaza governorates, is supposedly late 2019, but it has already surpassed its capacity. The Sofa landfill, serving the southern governorates of Rafah and Khan Yunis, was expanded in 2016.

Ghneim emphasized that the limited land area and high population density are the key factors affecting the waste sector in Gaza, which has 2 million people living on some 140 square miles. “Every person produces an average of 1.7 kilograms of trash per day in the Gaza Strip, which results in 2,000 tons a day,” Ghneim said.

Abdul-Rahim Abu Qambaz, executive director of the Joint Services Council for Solid Waste Management for the Gaza and North Gaza governorates, spoke to Al-Monitor about the major waste management problems facing the council. One issue is the lack of waste collection vehicles, which has led municipalities to depend on animal carts to collect garbage. He said that 70% of the vehicles are obsolete, and 30% require repair, but spare parts are unavailable.

Abu Qambaz noted that the collection of fees is the municipalities’ main source of funding for waste management, but revenue has decreased by more than 15% due to the siege and difficult economic conditions. Given this, he remarked, a working system cannot be implemented without external funding.

The lack of resources, Abu Qambaz said, led the municipalities in Beit Lahia, Beit Hanoun and Jabaliya to each designate improvised dump sites along the border, because of the lack of big trucks to transport garbage to the landfill. A combined total of some 440,000 tons of waste now fill these sites, generating environmental problems. The dumpsites have polluted their environs and led to insect and rodent infestations requiring a pressing response.

Ghneim said the environmental and health impacts of the dump sites have been disastrous, as they do not meet standards in these areas, leading for example to contaminants leaking into the soil and groundwater.

 “A decision to prevent additional trash from being thrown into the already existing dump sites was made in early 2019,” Ghneim said. “The Ministry [of Local Government] is searching for parties to fund their transportation to the Johr al-Deek landfill.”

Ghneim cited the need for a waste recycling facility in Gaza, noting that individual efforts to recycle waste, such as scrap collectors scavenging in dumps for recyclable items like plastics, are not regulated, organized or adequate. “The facility will help enhance the economic, social and environmental situation in the Gaza Strip,” she said. “New jobs will be created and low-priced raw materials needed for some industries will be supplied.”

According to Ghneim, Israel only gets involved in finding solutions to crises in Gaza when poor infrastructure there begins to affect Israelis across the border. As an example, she noted that in summer 2017, only when the sewage problem in the north reached bordering areas did Israel intervene, in this case by allowing equipment into Gaza for a water treatment plant. At the heart of the ministry’s strategic plan for the future, Ghneim explained, is the disposal of waste by either recycling or export.

Ahmed Hilles, director of the Environmental Awareness Department at the Palestinian Environment Quality Authority, told Al-Monitor that on top of the Israeli siege, municipal mismanagement of the waste sector, lack of vehicles and landfill lifespans, the government simply lacks a Gaza-wide and efficient waste management strategy.

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