UNRWA declares state of emergency in Gaza due to flooding

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Palestinians make their way through a flooded street during heavy rains in Gaza City on November 27, 2014 as a fierce winter storm which has been battering the region for the past four days. AFP / Mohammed Abed

Published Friday, November 28, 2014

Flooding from days of torrential rains forced hundreds of Gaza City residents to flee their homes on Thursday, as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) declared a state of emergency in the besieged coastal enclave's largest city.

A massive week long storm flooded the City’s streets and homes with water and sewage, Ma’an news agency reported, adding that thousands of Palestinians are now sleeping in classrooms and makeshift shelters.

“We are very concerned about such severe storms this early in the season and on the back of unprecedented damage and destruction caused by the recent conflict,” said UNRWA’s Director of Operations Robert Turner in Gaza.

For 51 days this summer, Israel pounded the Gaza Strip by air, land and sea, destroying as many as 80,000 Palestinian homes and leaving over 106,000 of Gaza's 1.8 million residents homeless.

According to the UN, some 30,000 Gazans are still living in emergency shelters.

“We are particularly concerned for those families still seeking adequate shelter and preparing for the winter months, and for the impact the flooding is already having on children unable to attend school.”

According to UNRWA, 63 schools across Gaza City, attended by some 65,000 pupils, and 43 schools across the Northern Gaza Strip governorate were closed Thursday due to the flooding.

Hundreds of residents in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City had also been evacuated due to the rise of a "storm water lagoon" that had flooded many homes in the area.

In one area of Gaza City, residents waded through knee-deep water with a bursting sewerage system, while in another neighborhood Gaza’s municipal council workers and engineers were working to create a new pool to which water could be directed.

"The flooding is exacerbating the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza caused by blockade and the unprecedented destruction from the latest Israeli offensive," the UN agency said in a post on its Facebook.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said during a visit to the Gaza Strip in October that the devastation he had seen was “beyond description” and “far worse” than that caused in the previous Israel-Gaza conflict of winter 2008-2009.

According to the Palestinian Authority, rebuilding Gaza will cost $7.8 billion.

Meanwhile, UNRWA, which is already massively stretched due to the summer's conflict, said that it was "providing emergency fuel to supply back-up generators for pumping stations, portable pumps, municipalities, water, sanitation and health facilities."

Gaza is prone to severe flooding exacerbated by a chronic lack of fuel that limits how much water can be pumped out of flood-stricken areas. The fuel shortages are a result of the eight-year-old Israeli siege, which also limits the import of other kinds of machinery related to pumping and sewage management that could help Gazans combat the floods. Heavy rains in December 2013 led to the displacement of at least 40,000.

UNRWA said it provided 60,000 liters of emergency fuel to pumping stations in Gaza on Thursday, and that it was also preparing to provide shelter for those displaced the storm "should the need arise."

Following a cease-fire agreement that ended the seven-week summer assault, which left more than 2,160 Gazans dead and over 11,000 injured, Israel said it would reopen Gaza's border crossings with Israel and allow construction material into Gaza.

However, the Zionist entity had repeatedly blocked the entry of building material, prompting the UN in September to broker another deal. The reconstruction of Gaza has yet to begin.

Israel routinely bars the entry of building materials into the embattled coastal enclave on grounds that Palestinian resistance faction Hamas could use them to build underground tunnels or fortifications.

For years, the Gaza Strip has depended on construction materials smuggled into the territory through a network of tunnels linking it to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

However, a crackdown on the tunnels by the Egyptian army after it overthrew then-President Mohammed Mursi has effectively neutralized hundreds of tunnels, severely affecting Gaza's construction sector.

West Bank flooding

Thursday marks the fourth straight day of unusually heavy rain across the region, causing temperatures to dip across Palestine.

In the West Bank, where Israeli restrictions on import of machinery and other construction essentials are much lighter, also experienced flooding, causing difficult driving conditions in many of the region's hillier villages and cities.

Despite a slew of recent projects intended to improve urban infrastructure across the region, the continuing flooding suggests these have not effective.

The general manager for projects in the Ministry of Local Government Muhyi al-Din al-Areda told Ma'an there had been negligence in the administration of projects responsible for constructing many streets where the problems were occurring.

Al-Areda added that the Ministries of Public Works and Local Government had allocated $3 million to develop municipalities and drainage.

Rains are expected to end by Friday morning, with temperatures rising as well.

(Al-Akhbar, Ma'an)

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