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Gaza's power crisis claiming lives

January 10, 2015 at 2:36 pm

Three year old Amr Al Habeel and his older brother Khalid, four, were sleeping when the fire that took their lives broke out in their bedroom last week. The cause of the fire is unclear; some reports state it was started by a candle and others report a short circuit led to the blaze. However, all are sure that the main culprit was Gaza’s power crisis.

On Monday, a day after the boys’ deaths, Gazans protested the ongoing power crisis. Since 2012, a rotation system has been used in delivering electricity; selected areas receive a maximum of six hours before the electricity is cut off and provided to another sector.

Gaza currently has three sources for electricity: Israel, which provides 120 megawatts; Egypt, which supplies 28 megawatts; and Gaza’s power plant, which generates between 40 and 60 megawatts daily. Prior to the recent attack on Gaza, this supply met approximately 46% of the estimated demand.

Extensive airstrikes during Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza left the infrastructure in tatters and the situation further deteriorated. The strip’s sole power plant went out of service after its main fuel tank was targeted by Israeli airstrikes, and while the plant remains functional, it has stopped running due to Gaza’s chronic fuel shortage.

The World Bank reported that 10% of Gaza’s residents remain without electricity since the attack and the rest of the population has limited access to power. In December, Israel rejected a proposal to have a Turkish floating power-generating ship stationed off the coast to help solve the electricity crisis.

Candles, gas lamps and private mobile generators help Gazans fill the darkness, however, although they bring temporary relief, they are also the cause of a number of house fires. According to Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, since 2010 electricity cuts have led to the deaths of 21 children.

Storms currently hitting the region mean most will have to rely on improvised and unsafe heating devices to keep warm. Still it is not enough, and since the storm, named Huda, three infants and one young man have tragically died as a result of the freezing temperatures.

The dangers of power shortages are not confined to house fires. Medical services, including life-saving interventions, have been pushed to breaking point as a result of the situation. Ministry of Health spokesman Dr. Ashraf al-Qidra said: “When electricity is on only for four or six hours a day, this means that you need to run massive generators in every hospital and clinic along the Strip and in every store for medicines.” He continued: “These generators run on fuel. They need fuel. The stock of fuel for the ministry of health is running out maybe within days. If the crisis is not sorted out, many of the healthcare centres and hospitals will stop working.”

On what this means to patients, he said: “Cutting electricity means more than 350 kidney patients in Gaza and hundreds of cancer and other people suffering serious diseases would face the danger of death.” Al-Qidra added: “In addition, there are still hundreds of citizens wounded during the latest 51-day Israeli war on Gaza who need urgent and continuous medical follow up. Tens of them have not yet left hospitals.”

During the bombardment of Gaza over the summer, the health care system struggled to meet the urgent needs of the thousands of patients injured in the airstrikes. The tragic story of Gaza’s “miracle baby” illustrated the barriers power and fuel shortages place on the capabilities of the health system. The premature baby rescued by Gaza doctors from her dead mother’s womb died six days later due to power cuts which affected the intensive care unit where she was treated.

When it comes to health concerns, there is also the issue of running water. The insufficient supply of electricity and fuel to operate water pumps and wells has caused a further reduction in the availability of running water in most households.

Prior to the latest offensive 97% of residents in Gaza were connected to a public water system, but electricity and fuel shortages prevent the water from being pumped through the system. Residents received running water for only six to eight hours at a time; 25% of households on a daily basis, 40% every other day, 20% once every three days and the remaining 15% only one day out of four.

Waste water treatment is another longstanding problem in Gaza. Many residents are not connected to a sewage system and domestic waste flows into cesspits, contaminating groundwater. Electricity shortages and damages to waste water treatment facilities during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008-2009 military offensive, made the situation worse- some 90 million liters of untreated sewage flows into the Mediterranean daily.

Jovita Sandaite, from The Emergency Water and Sanitation-Hygiene Group (EWASH) warned of the affect both the above can have on public health situation. She said:

“Without electricity, sewage pumps stop working, with waste water running into and flooding the streets. Water pumps are also not working, meaning that families cannot shower and clean, and farmers cannot irrigate fields. The lack of water and sanitation services for hospitals and IDP shelters raises serious public health concerns, compounded by the urban nature of Gaza and over-crowding in shelters.”

“The lack of water and electricity in Gaza is not just a utility or resource development problem. It is caused by the blockade and the de-development of Gaza, and directly impacts on every aspect of Palestinian life,” she added.

This page was updated at 15.07 GMT on January 11th, 2015 to amend the headline (previously “Gaza’s electricity crisis claiming lives”) and to add more details about the deaths caused by Storm Huda.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.