James Rowley, the UN's Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs in the Palestinian Territories, visited Gaza this week and is warning that the Strip is currently facing an urgent crisis as a result of the Israeli blockade and the closure of the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt. Rowley said that he was there "yet again to raise the alarm about the situation in Gaza". Since the coup in Egypt in July of this year, the tunnels that supported the Gaza Strip's economy have been closed and the effects of this have been severely felt by Palestinians in Gaza. Rowley also noted that the closure of the tunnels has led to a "near total collapse of private sector construction".
The UN official "highlighted that the situation has gotten even worse (since 2012)." Focusing on the most serious problems currently facing the strip, James Rowley said that "water availability in particular presents an existential crisis for Gaza as the coastal aquifer is quickly becoming unusable, bringing into question whether or not Gaza will be habitable in only a few years' time." Listing other concerns, Rowley noted that food insecurity had jumped from 44 to 57 per cent. Rowley also pointed out that due to the blockade and the closure of the tunnels, all 20 UN construction projects, worth $60 million, have now been suspended.
"Prices of basic goods have also increased due to a lack of Egyptian goods on the market. The World Food Programme is reporting that the price of rice has increased by 33 per cent and bread by 11 per cent since June 2013. This is at a time when thousands of workers have lost their jobs, and even those with a job are not necessarily protected from food insecurity."
Rowley concluded by saying that the UN is not calling for the re-opening of the tunnels but a "lifting of the blockade." He warned that, "until now the provision of large-scale humanitarian assistance has avoided the outbreak of a full fledge malnutrition crisis … Yet, assistance cannot keep pace."
Below is the statement released by the UN of James Rowley's speech in Gaza:
Good afternoon, thank you all for coming. We are here yet again to raise an alarm about the situation in Gaza. We stood near here in August 2012 to release the UN document, Gaza in 2020: A Livable Place, which so clearly outlined the long-term problems Gaza faces in the areas of the economy, demographics, basic infrastructure and social services. Water availability in particular presents an existential crisis for Gaza as the coastal aquifer is quickly becoming unusable, bringing into question whether or not Gaza will be habitable in only a few years time.
This June we held an event to raise awareness of the ongoing blockade of Gaza, now in its seventh year. The effects of this illegal blockade are well known – massive unemployment, the near destruction of the private sector – a crippling of those components of the economy that can create wealth and jobs. We know from our 2012 food security survey, which we conduct in partnership with FAO, WFP and the PCBS, that this ongoing process of de-development saw food insecurity jump from 44 to 57% of families and that already last year Gazans were, on average, spending 55% of their income on food: over half the families surveyed had reduced the quality of their food and almost one third had reduced the number of daily meals. That was already the situation last year.
We are here today, unfortunately, to highlight that the situation has gotten even worse. In our view every indicator for Gaza is negative, not even neutral, but negative. We are extremely concerned about the broad deterioration of the economy and the humanitarian implications for Gaza's population as a whole. and Palestine refugees in particular.
The latest changes in Egypt and with Israel have exacerbated an already dire situation. The physical movement of people from the Gaza Strip via Rafah is dramatically reduced. Trade via the smuggling tunnels with Egypt — a necessary lifeline given the shortages and poverty created by the blockade — are reduced to near nothing, with unemployment and food insecurity on the rise, and continued provision of all public services at risk due to fuel shortages and the recent shut-down of the Gaza Power Plant.
The closure of the tunnels has led to a near total collapse of private sector construction as it compounded the constraints due to the pre-existing ban on construction materials from Israel for the private sector, which saw only limited exceptions for four weeks in September and October. This sector employed some 24,000 people, about 10% of the workforce, almost all of whom are now out of work. More than 5,000 of those jobs were being created by the construction projects implemented by UNRWA in Gaza, but as of today all 20 projects — with a value of almost USD 60 million — are now suspended, as since 13 October international organizations have also been banned from importing construction materials.
Construction material for UNRWA projects is only imported after a thorough project review process and in coordination with Israeli authorities. While this process is supposed to take only two months, projects approved took on average almost nine months and those awaiting approval have been pending for almost a year. No projects have been approved since March of this year. 37 projects with a value of USD 92 million are currently awaiting approval. Among them are 23 projects to construct larger schools in the same location as current small schools, bringing into question the justification for these delays.
The recent ban on UNRWA's importation of construction materials is despite a rigorous monitoring system that follows supplies from their point of entry to their final use in one of our projects, including inspections of all transport, 24 hour guards on all construction sites and UNRWA warehouses where materials for our projects are being stored, and additional spot checks on all aspects of the supply chain.
Prices of basic goods have also increased due to a lack of Egyptian goods on the market, WFP is reporting that the price of rice has increased by 33% and bread by 11% since June 2013. This at a time when thousands of workers have lost their jobs, and even those with a job are not necessarily protected from food insecurity. From our survey we know that even if you had someone working in the construction sector you were already likely to be "working food insecure", as jobs are irregular and insufficiently paid. If these families lose their income for even a few weeks it can have devastating effects on their ability to provide a regular, healthy food basket.
We are not calling for the re-opening of the tunnels, as UNRWA's Commission General said this week "the time had come to rethink security concerns and political considerations. Perhaps strengthening the human security of the people of Gaza is a better avenue to ensure regional stability than physical closures, political isolation and military action. To obtain this, first and foremost, the Israeli blockade, which is illegal, must be lifted. Meanwhile, the United Nations must be allowed to at least continue construction projects and provide a few extra jobs to the beleaguered population."
Until now, the provision of large-scale humanitarian assistance has avoided the outbreak of a full-fledge malnutrition crisis, with UNRWA and WFP together providing basic food assistance to over one million Gazans. UNRWA alone is distributing food rations to over 800,000 poor refugees — yet, assistance cannot keep pace. We are unable to counter the effects of the rapidly increasing food insecurity.
The gap between reductions in humanitarian funding and growing needs is dangerously deepening; putting the Agency's emergency food distribution programme at risk. This year UNRWA will spend some USD 117 million on its emergency programme in Gaza, mostly food assistance and cash-for-work. Our expected income from the Emergency Appeal for next year is only USD 94 million, creating serious concerns about our ability to maintain our existing assistance at a time when circumstances dictate we should be expanding it.
There is an answer to this problem and it is not re-opening the tunnels, it is lifting the blockade. But in the absence of a political solution to this man made problem we call on our partners to provide the necessary assistance for us to ensure the provision of basic humanitarian assistance.
MEMO photographer: Mohamed Asad