Palestinians in Israel’s blockaded Gaza Strip are rediscovering the delights of the Mediterranean after authorities declared the end of a long period of dangerous sea pollution.
“It’s been a year since I went in the water,” said 22-year-old surfer Sabah Abu Ghanem.
“As soon as I get in the water and ride the waves, I feel free and happy; all the negative energy is replaced with positive energy,” she told AFP.
Marine pollution has worsened in Gaza in recent years, where inadequate sanitation solutions have turned the Mediterranean Sea into a landfill.
The problem was compounded by the impoverished and overcrowded enclave’s ailing infrastructure.
The Gaza Strip is home to 2.3 million Palestinians who have lived under a strict land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israel since Islamist Hamas seized power in 2007.
Only the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt is outside of Israeli control and has also remained largely closed.
Gaza’s only power plant, which supplies electricity to sewage plants, has been repeatedly damaged by Israeli attacks.
But six months ago, a German-funded plant in central Gaza started operations and now treats 60,000 cubic meters (more than 2 million cubic feet) of wastewater per day, equivalent to half the enclave’s wastewater, according to Mohammed Masleh, an official with the Environment Ministry from Gaza.
– ‘I missed swimming’ –
This is only the first phase of the project and eventually the plant could treat all the wastewater in the area.
The quality of the sea water in Gaza has already improved significantly.
Now two-thirds of the enclave’s beaches are suitable for swimming, according to samples collected by the Gaza Strip authorities, Masleh said.
With the start of the school holidays and hot summer temperatures, the beach offers a refreshing solace to residents of Gaza, a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean Sea, Israel and Egypt.
According to Maher Najjar, deputy director of the Coastal Water Agency, this is a turning point for the enclave, which has poured $300 million into wastewater projects over the past decade.
The new sewage treatment plant in Bureij has generators and solar panels for power supply.
Najjar said it processes 60 tons of solid waste every day, all of which previously would have ended up in the sea.
But even though Sabah Abu Ghanem is back on her surfboard, she is still reluctant to bring her children, who “have sensitive skin and could get infected”.
Umm Ibrahim Sider, sitting on the beach in Gaza City with her children and grandchildren, was also cautious.
“I said nobody should go in the water, but when the kids saw all the people, they went in and we couldn’t stop them,” said the 64-year-old Palestinian.
One of her grandsons, Ibrahim, 13, insisted on staying in the water even though his eyes were red from the salt.
“I missed swimming in the sea,” he said.
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