Storm disaster in Gaza ‘man-made’

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Originally published by Ma’an News Agency on December 17, 2013.

As thousands in the Gaza Strip remain displaced and streets across the coastal enclave are still flooded Tuesday, it is increasingly clear that the devastation caused by storm Alexa was not a purely natural phenomenon.

Emergency response crews have been crippled by a lack of electricity to pump water and a lack of fuel to operate generators. But these conditions of scarcity are not a result of the storm. They were a fact of life even before the rain started falling, due to the Israeli-led siege and the severe limitations placed by Israel on imports and exports.

The severity of the storm’s effects and the seven years of siege the region has endured are connected by a near-total economic blockade that has led to a slow but steady collapse of infrastructure as well as a deeply weakened capacity for emergency response, a United Nations official charged Sunday.

“Long term de-development of Gaza is the context in which (the storm) occurred,” Chris Gunness of the UN’s Palestine refugee agency UNRWA said in an interview.

“It’s fairly obvious that it’s a combination of man-made problems and natural problems” that produced the latest disaster in Gaza, Gunness added.He pointed out that despite the tremendous amount of work being done to relieve the crisis, it is an “overwhelmingly grave situation.”

“Before the rains, there was sewage flooding in the streets because sewage pumps did not have electricity to pump waste water,” Gunness said, referring to a number of incidents in recent weeks.”You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out who’s responsible for that.”

Despite Israel’s opening of the Kerem Shalom border crossing into Gaza on Sunday to deliver 450,000 liters of fuel donated by Qatar, the official remained pessimistic.”Short-term measures are essentially meaningless to people living in Gaza,” he said, adding that “these solutions are only about the hours to come, but we need to be thinking about the coming decades.”

“We in the UN have always said that this policy is unsustainable … When the natural disaster ends, we need to look at long-term solutions,” he added, stressing the need for limitations on exports from Gaza to be lifted.”Gaza would not be so aid-dependent if it could export. People would have disposable incomes to buy the things they need,” he added, pointing out that if the limitations of trade were lifted Gaza would be “transformed.”

In the meantime, however, Palestinians in Gaza remain swamped with dirty, cold water, as rescue workers and clean-up crews work overtime under desperate conditions to address an increasingly dangerous humanitarian crisis.

Apocalyptic scenes

The days-long storm has battered Gaza on a level unprecedented in decades. At last count, somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 residents have been displaced from their homes, while streets across the coastal enclave are flooded with dirty water, in some places up to half a meter.The images coming out of Gaza are apocalyptic, as the civil defense services and residents alike take to fishing boats to rescue those trapped in their homes days after the storm’s initial onslaught.

Even those who managed to stock up on food and water in anticipation of the storm’s approach found themselves stuck in record cold temperatures for days, as the electricity supply fell at times to one or two hours. In some areas the power went out completely for two full days, leaving people to warm themselves under blankets as their homes were pounded by ferocious winds.

The water supply was, as always, erratic, cutting in and out depending on when pumping stations had enough electricity to send it out. And generators were rendered useless for many, as the severe fuel shortage that began in November meant that even those institutions lucky enough to have back-up generators often had trouble getting them to work.

The lack of electricity, in turn, crippled emergency response efforts. Even as thousands of Gaza employees worked day and night to address the crisis, the lack of power meant that pumping water from flooded areas became a task of monumental proportions.

Some 1.7 million people crammed into 40 sq. km. were effectively trapped and left to their own devices. Devices which have suffered significant deterioration themselves after nearly seven years of intense blockade.

Israeli authorities say that the blockade was imposed after Hamas won democratic elections in 2006 as a form of political sanction. But that has failed to have any clear result except to punish civilians, while Hamas maintains control over an increasingly impoverished and isolated population.

Israeli authorities, meanwhile, are keen to remind the international community that they are committed to helping the people of Gaza, a fact they publicize with frequent token gestures of goodwill.

The Israeli armed forces announced Friday that it had opened the Kerem Shalom crossing to transfer heating gas and four water pumps to help with the crisis.

But the same siege that created a situation of widespread fuel shortages and power blackouts also had the effect of rendering the water pumps ineffective for the large parts of the day when Gaza’s electricity network goes dead.

Among other victims of the siege is the Gaza port, which took a severe beating in the storm. Gaza officials announced Monday that the port and the fisherman’s dock, which sustains the families of 1,000 local fishermen, had suffered $100,000 in damage over the last four days.The reason for this tremendous damage, officials argue, is that port officials were unable to secure the facility with enough barriers as Israel severely limits the import of concrete.

“Without drastic action the daily lives of Palestinians in Gaza will soon be dramatically worse than they are now. There will be virtually no reliable access to safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory,” a 2013 UNRWA report entitled “Gaza 2020” predicted.

As large swathes of Gaza remain flooded and the Israeli blockade continues with no end in sight, it would appear that this dystopian vision of the future has already come to pass.

Gaza will weather this storm, as it has every storm and assault before in its long history. But as long as the Israeli siege persists, meaningful repair and development will remain impossible.