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Raw Sewage Floods Gaza’s Streets as Electricity Runs Low

12:00 Nov 21 2013 Gaza

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Photo:Children wading through sewage
Electronic Intifada, Nov 17, 2013
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By FARES AKRAM and JODI RUDOREN for NYT
Published: November 20, 2013

GAZA CITY — Raw sewage has flooded streets in a southern Gaza City neighborhood in recent days, threatening a health disaster, after a shortage of electricity and cheap diesel fuel from Egypt led the Hamas government to shut down Gaza’s lone power plant, causing a pump station to flood.

Three more sewage stations in Gaza City and 10 others elsewhere in the Gaza Strip are close to overflowing, sanitation officials here said, and 3.5 million cubic feet of raw sewage is seeping into the Mediterranean Sea daily. The sanitation department may soon no longer be able to pump drinking water to Gaza homes.

“Any day that passes without a solution has disastrous effects,” Farid Ashour, director of sanitation at the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, said Tuesday in an interview. “We haven’t faced a situation as dangerous as this time.”

The sewage crisis is the most acute of an array of problems since the Islamist Hamas movement that governs Gaza shut down the power plant on Nov. 1. Four months earlier Egypt’s new military-backed government closed the smuggling tunnels that were used to transport around one million liters (about 260,000 gallons) of diesel here each day.

Hamas has refused to import Israeli diesel because of taxes imposed by the Palestinian Authority.

Having gotten used to years of scheduled blackouts, generally eight hours without electricity two of every three days, Gaza’s 1.7 million residents are now facing daily power failures of 12 or even 18 hours.

Businesses have cut back production, hospitals are rationing electricity to keep dialysis and cardiac support systems running, students are doing Internet research in the middle of the night and battery sales are brisk. Everywhere, the drone of generators mixes with the odor of kerosene lamps.

Nema Hamad, who is 64 and has sleep apnea, struggles to keep from suffocating. Some nights, her sons run improvised lines from neighbors who have electricity to keep Ms. Hamad’s airway pressure mask working. Three times, they paid $100 for Ms. Hamad to sleep in a private hospital. Once, she woke up gasping for air when the electricity went off unexpectedly and ran into the street, desperately looking for oxygen.

“This is not a life,” Ms. Hamad said as she sat on a mattress in dim candlelight. “Sometimes, I fear that it might be the last time I sleep.”

The electricity shortage comes a year after eight days of intense cross-border violence that killed 167 Palestinians and six Israelis, and it is a profound sign of how Gaza’s situation has shifted since then. The past 12 months have been the quietest in a decade in terms of fire exchanged with Israel, though Israel’s air force struck a weapons facility and two tunnels on Tuesday night after reports of rocket fire near Gaza’s border earlier in the day. Israel has also eased some of its restrictions on the strip, but political changes in Egypt have left a siege of another sort.

The number of trucks bringing goods, including fuel, into Gaza from Israel has increased 18 percent since the ouster in July of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, according to Gisha, an Israeli group that advocates freedom of movement.

The number of Palestinians allowed to leave Gaza through Israel’s Erez crossing is up nearly 30 percent since July, Gisha records show, while exits through Egypt’s Rafah crossing — which has lately been closed as often as not — in October were a third of what they had been in January.

Closing the tunnels has left thousands of construction workers without work and other residents frustrated over scarce supplies and rising prices for groceries and electronics, cars and other consumer products. But the idling of the power plant, which by week’s end will have lasted longer than the record 21-day closing in 2008, has hit many people hard.

Gaza requires 400 megawatts of electricity daily to keep the lights on full time, according to the Hamas-run power authority. For decades, it has bought 120 megawatts from Israel through direct cables. During the yearlong presidency of Mr. Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood spawned Hamas, Gaza received 30 megawatts directly from Egypt and enough diesel via the tunnels to provide 85 megawatts through its power plant.

The plant, which opened in 2002, could produce up to 140 megawatts daily before Israel bombed it after the 2006 kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. It was idle for seven months then and has never returned to full capacity. But Hamas officials say the overall electricity shortage has worsened from about 40 percent before Mr. Morsi was ousted to 65 percent now, and will rise further as winter sets in.

“You’re asking me why? Ask the world why instead,” Mayor Rafiq Mekki of Gaza City said as he toured sewage-filled streets around the flooded Zeitoun pumping station. “We are under siege, and ask the world which besieges us this question. We called on all international organizations to intervene, but no one cares so far.”

Ihab Bessisso, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, said it had rescinded a longstanding tax exemption on fuel for Gaza because it was unfair to West Bank residents.

Hamas has since refused the $1.62 per liter price, insisting on paying no more than 79 cents per liter, Mr. Bessisso said. Instead, it closed the plant.

So Omar al-Khouli has cut in half the bread he makes at his bakery here, running a generator when the power goes out only to finish the batch in the oven. He plans to start closing the shop on mornings when there is no electricity.

“I blame Israel, the Ramallah government and Hamas for the crisis,” said Mr. Khouli, referring to the headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. “They should work together and find a solution for this because it’s the people who are paying the price.”

Some people have bought expensive Chinese-made inverters that provide enough current to light a lamp or two and recharge cellphones.

Yasmeen Ayyoub, a psychology student at Gaza’s Islamic University, said that when power is out during the day, she is forced to study from midnight to 6 a.m. “at the expense of my sleeping hours.”

And in the Sabra neighborhood, near the Zeitoun pumping station, which has flooded three times since Sunday, the stench of sewage hung over the pools of standing water in the streets. Mosquitoes abounded, and residents said their children were vomiting and had diarrhea.

“Every day, we call the electricity company and they say, ‘It’s not our responsibility,’ ” complained Thabet Khatab, 56, a grocer, who was busy piling dirt in front of his house to prevent sewage from seeping inside a second time. “We call the municipality, but they say, ‘Bring diesel for us so we can run the generator in the pumping station.’ ”

Mr. Khatab’s neighbor Nahla Quzat, a mother of eight, said, “They say there is no diesel for the generator, but the government’s cars don’t seem to be suffering from a lack of diesel.”

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Fixing Gaza's electricity crisis
reported at al-Monitor.com

Summary: Poor management and dubious contracts by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are making an electricity crisis in Gaza worse.

Author: Omar ShabanPosted
Translator(s:)Steffi Chakti

November 19,2013

The electricity crisis in Gaza has proven to be as devastating as the Israeli occupation, as never-ending as negotiations and as neglected by Palestinian officials as the Palestinian reconciliation. There have been plenty of discussions in this regard, but the crisis persists.

The Gaza Strip needs around 350 megawatts to 450 megawatts of electricity, which is anticipated to increase to 600 megawatts if the Israeli blockade is lifted. The Israeli electricity company supplies Gaza with 120 megawatts, while the power plant in Gaza with its theoretical capacity of 140 megawatts provides 80 megawatts and the Egyptian electricity company provides 20 megawatts. This comes to 220 megawatts, which explains the ongoing deficit that causes outages of 12 hours per day. This in turn cripples industry, commerce, transportation, municipal services and all aspects of daily life in the Gaza Strip.

But the crisis is not hopeless, with three main problems that can be addressed:

The contract concluded between the Palestinian Authority and the power plant in the Gaza Strip

As the only plant in the Palestinian territories, it began its production in 2003 pursuant to a contract concluded with the Palestinian Authority (PA). The latter is responsible for importing the plant’s fuel needs in exchange for $30 million a year. This fuel would be burned to produce electricity regardless of the actual production. The amount was calculated according to the plant’s theoretical production capacity of 140 megawatts, albeit a capacity the plant has never reached or even been close to since its establishment. The average cost of fuel bought from Israel is 0.5 Israeli shekels ($0.14) per kilowatt, while the average cost of local fuel production is 1.5 shekels to 2 shekels ($0.43 to $0.57), according to the electricity quantity produced. The company realizes a continuous annual profit equal to 10% of the owners’ equity — or $8 million — according to its annual financial report of 2012, which was obtained by Al-Monitor.

The monopolization of the fuel sector by the General Petroleum Authority

Established in 1994, the authority was annexed until 2003 to the presidency and after that to the Ministry of Finance. It was granted exclusive supervision over the fuel sector in terms of imports and exports and went on to impose itself as a mandatory mediator between Palestinian companies and the Israeli market, which was completely open to them.

The establishment of the authority highlights the state’s capitalist nature, transforming the PA from a business facilitator to a competitor under unfair competition terms. This, in turn, has financially and administratively hindered Palestinian companies and the Palestinians.

The report issued by the Coalition for Accountability and Integrity (AMAN) in April 2009 titled “The General Petroleum Authority between assessment and correction” — and obtained by Al-Monitor — reads: “Since the establishment of the authority in 1994, and until its referral to the Ministry of Finance in June 2003, the committee has not abided by any specific law or rules in terms of the conduct of its affairs and work mechanisms and has not been affiliated with any ministry. As a result of its affiliation with the office of the president, the authority has fallen outside of general and legislative supervision, which has prompted many questions about its management.”

The authority buys all necessary kinds of fuel to be sold to Palestinian companies, which pay for their purchases within a maximum 45-day period, while it owes Israeli companies 600 million shekels ($150 million). The authority refrained from importing the needed fuel for the Palestinian market under the pretext of its high debts to Israeli companies. One may wonder how these debts have piled up, and why the authority has not immediately passed on the money it received from Palestinian companies to the Israeli suppliers.

Fuel taxes not being returned to Palestinian companies

At the beginning of its rule, the PA signed an exclusive fuel procurement contract with the Israeli Dor-Alon company. It renewed its $3.6 billion contract in May 2012 with the Israeli Paz Oil company for two years, ending in October 2014. On behalf of Palestinian companies, the committee buys fuel from Israel for normal or industrial use. Israel imposes high taxes on the fuel sold to its citizens or to the PA such as a value added tax (VAT), amounting to 17%. Another — dubbed the “blue tax” — is the total taxes and fees collected on behalf of governmental institutions, namely transport, security, environment and settlement. Blue taxes amount to 110% of the initial price of fuel after refining, which is 2.2 shekels ($0.67) for every liter of fuel.

This comes in addition to the costs of transportation, management and security guards, which increase the price of an industrial liter of fuel sold to Gaza to 5.7 shekels ($1.60). The PA recovers, through the Ministry of Finance and pursuant to the Paris Protocol, all the taxes paid by Palestinians on merchandise bought from Israel as part of the monthly compensation process. The value of the net compensation Palestine receives from Israel is estimated at 500 million shekels to 600 million shekels ($100 million to $150 million) per month, covering around 40% of the total budget of the PA — according to the 2013 PA state budget, whose balance sheet was obtained by Al-Monitor. It is worth mentioning that, to encourage and motivate industry, Israeli law allows Israeli companies and industries to get back taxes, including blue taxes. The PA, however, does not give the blue taxes back to its citizens and companies. Therefore, taxes on fuel contribute to PA revenues, estimated at $400 million per year.

Proposed strategies for a solution

Some have noticed that addressing the power outages in the past was limited to dealing with daily and temporary solutions. Electricity has been a topic of competition between the PA in Ramallah and the Hamas government in Gaza, where each accuses the other of causing the outages.

The crisis must be faced strategically by considering the causes described here. Terminating the contract between the PA and the electricity company will save $2.5 million, which is the monthly amount the PA pays the company. This money can then be directed to buying fuel or electricity directly. That would reduce the electricity consumption bill.

Also, requesting that the electricity company pay back the money for electricity never produced, while emphasizing the need that the PA attorney general quickly conducts an official and popular investigation to identify the details of the signing of that contract, which some described as unfair. The attorney general may request the complete file on that issue from the Palestinian Legislative Council.

In the same context, power plant owners concede on that point for the benefit of the people of Gaza because the contract was unfair, especially since the power plant has recovered its costs.

On the other hand, in line with the free market principles pursued by the PA, they should liberalize fuel trade and making the General Petroleum Authority supervise quality, environmental specifications and prices.

It is also necessary that the Hamas government in Gaza abandon its management of electricity and energy in Gaza by privatizing it and thus taking the issue out of the political quarrel and polarization.

In addition, Palestinians should increase the amount of electricity bought from the Israeli company and start working to provide the power plant in Gaza with Palestinian gas located along Gaza’s coast. Based on the difference between purchasing electricity from Israel and producing electricity locally, this will reduce the cost of electricity generated by the power plant by about 60%.
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