UMM NASER VILLAGE, Gaza Strip – Dozens of bulldozers and trucks worked furiously Wednesday to shore up a network of sewage basins in northern Gaza, a day after the collapse of one basin flooded a village with waste and killed five people.
Palestinian and U.N. officials moved people displaced from the village of Umm Naser to white tents on higher ground and scrambled to prevent the collapse of the other overloaded sewage pools.
Another collapse could send sewage flooding into the far larger town of Beit Lahiya, causing a wider spread disaster, local officials said.
"We're providing them with temporary shelter, and we're also starting the process of finding a quick solution for them until we finish the sand embankments around the pools and they can return to their houses," Ismail Abu Shamalha, the governor of northern Gaza, told The Associated Press.
The collapse early Tuesday sent a wave of sewage into the village, killing two women in their 70s, two toddlers and a teenage girl, and injuring 35 others, hospital officials said. Abu Shamalha said nearly 100 homes had been destroyed.
The accident highlighted the desperate need to upgrade Gaza's inadequate and outdated infrastructure. Aid officials said construction of a larger sewage treatment plant in the area has been held up by constant Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
John Ging, head of the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, warned of a larger spill if a new sewage plant isn't built quickly.
"The real threat now comes from another facility up there which is equally overloaded, except that this time it's one and a half million cubic meters of waste water and sewage that could spill out into the area and cause an even bigger disaster," Ging said.
On Wednesday, Israel sent two large floating pumps into Gaza to help the Palestinians lower the level of sewage in the flooded area, said Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli army's Civil Administration. One man seriously wounded in the flood was hospitalized in Israel, Lerner said.
Though international sanctions against the Palestinian Authority have frozen some sewage projects, those measures did not appear to have affected the facility near Umm Naser. Gaza City's mayor, Majid Abu Ramadan, blamed the collapse on local people digging dirt from an earthen embankment around the structure and selling it to building contractors for $70 a truckload.
The existing sewage plant here — located just a few hundred yards from the frontier with Israel — stored incoming waste in seven holding basins. But with the burgeoning population producing nearly four times as much waste as the plant could treat, local officials were forced to store the overflow in the nearby dunes, creating a lake of sewage covering nearly 110 acres, according to the United Nations.
An embankment around one of the seven holding basins collapsed, pouring its contents into the neighboring village of Umm Naser.
In one house, everything from the television to the sink was covered in muck. The town was filled with the noxious smell of waste and dead animals.
"We lost everything. Everything was covered by the flood. It's a disaster," said Amina Afif, 65, whose small shack was destroyed.
A 2004 United Nations report warned that the sewage facility, built to service a population of 50,000, was handling waste from 190,000 people and that flooding was inevitable.
Umm Naser is about 300 yards from the border with Israel, in an area where Palestinians have frequently launched rockets into Israel and Israeli artillery and aircraft have fired back.
The incident Tuesday underscored the state of the infrastructure in this impoverished and overcrowded coastal strip of 1.4 million people. The West Bank, too, is suffering from eroding sewage and water infrastructure.