Rafah and other cities on Sinai’s north coast have been suffering from pollution of the Mediterranean Sea and its underground water reservoir, which has caused serious environmental and health issues for the local population, experts argue.
Some blame Israel for the pollution, while others attribute it to domestic sources.
The National Commission for the Protection of the Environment in North Sinai, which accuses Israel of disregarding international agreements by throwing sewage water into the Mediterranean and letting harmful heavy metals seep in the groundwater reservoir, tried to file a lawsuit against the country at an Arish court earlier this week.
Abdallah al-Hijawy, head of the commission, says the Arish court told him it was not able to file lawsuits between countries, and recommended he contact an international court.
“This is what I’m going to do, and I am going to get international NGOs and environment protection associations on board,” Hijawy says.
He accuses Israel of discharging 180,000 cubic meters of raw and treated sewage water into the sea on a daily basis, and says the Gaza Strip disposes another 160,000 cubic meters into the Mediterranean.
In Hijawy’s opinion, Israel, as the occupying power in Palestinian territories, is responsible for the violations that happen on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides.
“In front of the international community, Israel is responsible for the service sector in the occupied lands,” he says.
Hijawy says that since it withdrew from Gaza, Israel has removed major water pumps that used to transfer huge amounts of sewage. As a consequence, Palestinians now dispose of their sewage in the Gaza Valley, which pollutes both the underground water reservoir shared by Egypt and Gaza, and the Mediterranean.
Hijawy says piles of organic waste now litter Sinai’s north coast and large flocks of seagulls feast on the waste.
“Even the color of the water has changed and the smell is terrible,” he says.
Chemical and dye factories located on the Israeli, Palestinian and Egyptian borders all dispose of their industrial waste and drainage by discharging it into the Mediterranean, making the situation even worse.
Organic waste pollutes the seawater in Rafah, Arish and Sheikh Zuwayed, and the water shows growing rates of biological contamination to marine life, particularly fish and corals. Piles of organic waste cover the beaches on the Egyptian border, ruining this once pristine environment.
The mix of wastewater and industrial drainage discharged into the sea has multiplied pathogens there, which can lead to the spread of serious diseases like typhoid, kidney failure and various types of cancers.
To make matters worse, North Sinai residents are heavily exposed to these infectious diseases, as desalinated seawater is their main source of potable water for drinking and irrigation purposes.
“There are two main types of water contamination,” says Al-Khateeb Yousry Jafar, a hydrobiology researcher at the National Research Center. “The first is microbial and bacterial contamination, which results from the mixing of water with human feces, which can have very serious health implications.”
He says the second type, however, caused by heavy metals such as lead, cadmium and mercury, as well as radioactive materials, is even more worrying.
“Seawater is used to cool off Israel’s nuclear reactors, which results in nuclear particles being released into the Mediterranean,” says Jafar.
These various heavy metal particles accumulate inside the bodies of the living organisms fish feed on, causing cases of secondary poisoning to the fish, which could later be eaten by humans and potentially cause different types of cancers. As humans who have accumulated dangerous levels of particles are buried, these hazardous chemicals return to the ground, accumulate in plants and begin a new life cycle, potentially threatening future generations.
“Over the years, the Mediterranean has become a hub for pollution because most countries located along its borders dump their waste into the sea,” Jafar adds.
As a result, the fish population has decreased, which negatively impacts the communities of fishermen who rely on it as their main source of income. Adapting to the pollution patterns, some Egyptian fishermen have decided to avoid these areas and are fishing closer to Yemen, which is illegal.
“The Egyptian state must take a strong stance and issue laws very soon to stop this pollution, as well as find evidence that proves that part of the pollution comes directly from Israel,” Jafar says.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, issued in 1982, defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment and the management of marine natural resources.
As part of this convention, countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea must enact laws to protect the seawater from all contamination sources, such as sewage, industrial waste, ships and harbors.
“Israel is not a signatory of this convention and has not issued any regulations to protect the Mediterranean Sea,” Hijawy says.
A new water desalination station is being established in the Egyptian Rafah to provide citizens with fresh drinking water. As the plant would be located 300 meters away from the Palestinian Rafah, Hijawy says this is not a proper location for a desalination plant, as large amounts of sewage and waste pile up in the plant’s vicinity.
Hijawy explains that desalination plants are not able to perform well when the seawater is polluted with oil and sewage.
“Solid molecules insert themselves between the liquid molecules, and the desalination process is not able to efficiently separate them,” he says.
As a result, he says, Egyptian citizens of Rafah drink the sewage water of the Gaza Strip.
“We intend to file another lawsuit against the Egyptian government asking them to remove the desalination station from this inappropriate place,” Hijawy says.
Hijawy believes filing a lawsuit is the best way to attract officials’ attention.
“When I tried to complain about the situation, an official threatened me, but I’m not afraid and I won’t be silent anymore,” he says. “I have no political affiliation. I base [my views] solely on scientific evidence.”
However, engineer Mohamed Moussa, geologist at the Water Resources Research Institute in Sinai, rejects Hijawy’s accusations.
“The problem has nothing to do with water pollutants coming from Gaza or Israel, as some claim,” he says.
He says the pollution in Sinai is domestic, and results mainly from the excessive usage of chemical fertilizers, heavy metals and pesticides, which farmers depend on for agriculture. When they are mixed with irrigation water or rain, they seep into underground aquifers, causing serious contamination.
Moussa sees different solutions to this problem: depending more on Nile water, establishing water desalination stations for purifying seawater, or building wells with embedded purification systems located away from the coasts to serve the community.
“Instead of wasting time complaining about Israel, we must focus on internal problems. Our newly established water desalination stations in Rafah and Sheikh Zuwayed have proven their capacity to desalinate seawater according to international standards,” Moussa says.
But Gamal Helmy, head of environmental affairs in North Sinai, says the conflict between Egypt and Israel over pollution started during former Israeli Prime Minister’s Ariel Sharon’s time.
“Samples taken from the Mediterranean before Israel withdrew from Gaza proved that raw sewage was thrown directly into the seawater,” Helmy claims. “However, no samples show that Rafah beaches suffer from similar problems today.”
The National Commission for the Protection of the Environment in North Sinai says it has found a solution to partially treat the sewage water coming from Gaza. A specific bacterium can decompose organic materials and prevent their anaerobic fermentation.
However, Hijawy says, the project’s cost is a major obstacle, as 1 ton of this bacterium costs more than LE3,000.
“I hope the government will provide the association with some help and support,” Hijawy says.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.