Category: Excellence in Environmental Journalism
Author: Fadi Al Hasani (Palestine)
“Investigation: Irrigation and fertilization of agricultural lands in Khuza'a with sewage water”
Nawa Network, Palestinian Issues
October 28, 2018
Abdullah Muhammad (a pseudonym), a farmer in his forties, used to fertilize his 25-dunum field, located to the east of the town of Khuza'a, adjacent to the southeastern border with Israel, with sewage prior to its cultivation. He claims there is shortage in water of irrigation.
Abdulla, the farmer, relies on the drivers of Khuza'a's municipal waste water transport vehicles and other private sector vehicles to deliver the water to the field prior to the process of plowing the soil for dismantling soil, in order to sow it with "peas, beans and lentils" and has no idea whether what he is doing is against the law.
Abdullah is not the only the one who is doing this; in fact, other farmers in his hometown do the same thing with the complicity of the drivers of the wastewater trucks, amid a complete absence of oversight that several governmental bodies are supposed to be responsible for.
According to the General Directorate of Planning and Policies at the Ministry of Agriculture, the town of Khuza'a (4,000 dunums) produces 30% of the agricultural production of Khanyounis governorate which is 141 thousand tons annually.
Farmers and drivers of public or private wastewater are not allowed to pump their cargo into agricultural land (wheat, olive, okra, watermelon), which is a legal violation committed in broad daylight. That contradicts the System of the Health Hazards (2013) Issued by the Minister of Local Government in the Gaza Strip, which stipulates for "the prohibition of unloading or dumping the contents of the drilling or sewage tanks in places other than the ones primarily established for them, or leave them flowing in any form".
Furthermore, it goes against the Article 24 of the Agriculture Law, which stipulates that " human waste or any compost or liquid or solid waste mixed with or derived from them can be used to fertilize plantations unless treated according to the approved standards". Besides, the Article (55) states that unless the wastewater treated according to national standards approved by the accredited technical authorities, it can not be used to irrigate the agricultural.
The Public Health Law No. (20) of 2004, which stipulates in Article 43, prohibits the use of sewage for the purpose of fertilizing agricultural land or irrigating field crops, except in accordance with the conditions and controls determined by the Ministry in coordination with the concerned authorities.
On the other hand, the drivers make this violation openly, avoiding the difficulty of moving to pre-defined areas, sometimes at the request of the owners of those lands. That's for irrigation and also taking advantage of the nutrients carried by the water.
Both of farmers and drivers invest the morning in the summer to pump sewage into agricultural fields.
On the morning of 13-16 September 2017, the investigator was able to document the violations of the farmers and wastewater truck drivers in rainfed areas by a video camera. Some photographs of the same operation were taken at least one year ago in olive fields.
During a research period led by the investigator for two years, none of the residents of the agricultural area have tolerated these violations, even though the wastewater trucks pass by them on their way to the farms, while no one know if that happens as a result of ignorance of the truth or for other purposes.
The instructions for the reuse of treated wastewater in agricultural use, attached to the Agriculture Law No. (2) of 2003 and its amendments, in item (7), stipulate that "the wastewater for irrigation purposes shall be treated as well as this wastewater shall be transferred through closed pipes which are painted in violet and the word "treated wastewater" is written on, in a good and clear line on both sides.
Ironically, the trucks transporting untreated wastewater are oil-colored trucks with governmental license plates and belong to the municipality of Khuza'a, which is legally authorized to dispose this wastewater and transfer it to the areas allocated. That is especially since the town of Khuza'a lacks the proper infrastructure where its residents relies on cesspits in their way to dispose the raw wastewater.
Sewage networks cover 60% of the Gaza Strip, while the remaining area lacks infrastructure. There are no wastewater treatment plants, including the town of Khuza'a and the eastern villages of Khanyounis according to the Water Authority.
"Wastewater contains bacteria, pathogens and pathogenic parasites", say health and environmental specialists, where it is difficult to get rid of parasites their eggs in the treatment process, which causes an enormous number of gastrointestinal infectious diseases.
Wastewater-dependent crops end up in multiple markets within the Gaza Strip, and this is where the real big danger lies.
However, farmer Sami Khalil (a pseudonym) defended his act saying: "This water is used only to dismantle the soil and has no effect on plants in any way".
Khalil, who we met sitting under the roof of a tin room by the edge of a field adjacent to the barbed wire fence between the Gaza Strip and the occupied territories in 1948, denied his use of wastewater as an alternative to irrigation water during the farming season, although he had complained of water scarcity in that border area.
" All farmers use this water in Khuza'a ," he said "No one asks, no one cares".
No any violation of the law has been written against land owners who use wastewater to irrigate their crops or the drivers of either governmental or private wastewater transport trucks according to the mayor of Khuza'a, Shehdeh Abu Rock.
"If we found out that the driver of the sewer trucks had done this, we would deduct three working days from his salary," Abu Rock said, "but it did not happen over and over again by our drivers".
"When we discovered that some farmers are asking drivers to transfer wastewater to their lands, we told the drivers of the wastewater trucks not to do so. However, there are private trucks that can pump wastewater in agricultural lands at the request of farmers, " he continued explaining.
"We have prevented our truck drivers from doing this, and we warned the farmers of the danger coming out of this on their crops and land. We will not allow this practice though this happened when the water was scarce when the occupation was putting harsh pressure on the entire water system, but this is no longer there," he added.
Mohammed Khalil (a pseudonym), a farmer who has cultivated wheat on a land more than three dunams, openly says "we take advantage of the sewage which saves us purchasing treated water, particularly under the scarcity of water, as well as the purchase of fertilizers".
However, he lately denied using it for more than one crop. He said" it was the first and last time that the wastewater was used. Later on the ground, tents were set up for Marches of Return, so I had to stop planting them,"
There is no shortage of water in Khuza'a. The water is available to the farmers. "There is no room to complain about the shortage. If a farmer makes a personal request to get the wastewater, that is on his own. After all, It is not logical farmers use wastewater once water is available " Mayor of Khuza'a stated.
At the outset of his response to the question of the investigator: If water is available to farmers, why is wastewater used in irrigation or soil dismantling? Said he "I don't know. This is a danger to agriculture and land, and we supervise and prevent the sewage trucks from emptying their cargo in agricultural land.
"We rented an empty land close to the border line where sewage is emptied, but it is not used for agriculture," Abu Rock said.
Another farmer from the same area ,who declined to be identified, said: " We all here practice this act, the water here is very scarce and the people rely on the sewage to irrigate their crops for a long time, especially the olive crop.
The farmer denied that anyone had questioned them as a result of this act, which he does not know whether it is legal or meets the health standards or not. He stressed that the process of attracting wastewater trucks and paying them to pump their cargoes into the land by farmers does not need any effort or concealment, it is done in broad daylight.
Analysis of Samples
To prove this reality, the investigator, on October 10th, took a risk with a accompanying laboratory examination team. They took soil samples from an area located in front of the Israeli military observation towers. To avoid firing, they put on phosphorous.
The team was able to obtain sporadic samples from different areas of the soil which are grown (okra, watermelon, olives and wheat). These samples were checked for safety purposes.
The results of the examinations were completely contrary to health standards. They contain high concentration of arsenic, phosphorus, fecal coliform bacteria and other minerals.
The Director of Birzeit Laboratory for Environmental Analysis, Dr. Ahmed Al-Maghari, expressed his concern about the fact that there are high levels of toxic elements in the soil samples of the town of Khuza'a.
"The results show that there are some toxic metal ratios, which are higher than the normal rate, as well as a high percentage of fecal coliform bacteria which is significant and indicative of a source of contamination from wastewater,"Al-Maghari said, who supervised the examination of the target area whose soil has been analyzed.
He stressed that there are some indicators of soil properties which show that there are sources of external pollution are not normal, such as high phosphorus total 350 mg per liter, while the allowable is 10-15 mg per liter. "That indicates that an external source feeds the soil with these elements ", he continued.
He pointed to the increase of the proportions of organic material, heavy metals, and arsenic element which is is highly toxic to the soil and human, animal and plant. He emphasized that if an this reached to animals through the food chain, this will certainly reach the human being.
Practically speaking, both farmers and the wastewater truck drivers are taking advantage of the absence of supervision of several government parties, including the Ministries of Agriculture, Ministry of Health and Water Authority, even they even go further in their violation.
When the investigator confronted the Ministry of Agriculture with the matter, they expressed surprise at this violation. The director general of soil and irrigation in the ministry, Engineer Jamal Abed said, "for the first time as an official to listen to this subject! It's is actually forbidden unless it is treated water, whether used to irrigate olive trees or any other type of trees".
Abed continued, "If a person is caught red handed, he is fined and referred to the prosecution because they pose a danger to public health and the environment at the same time. However, no one has been caught, but this may have occurred outside the framework (after the supervisors finish their work."
He continued, "If it is proven that the municipality works in this way, it is a criminal, and it must be penalized because it knows very well the seriousness of this matter." He also confirmed that, "according to sanitary standards, around 50 meter area must segregate between the lands where the treated wastewater used and those irrigated with ordinary irrigation water, in order to avoid the process of pollution through air" "Just imagine what this wastewater would do if pumped without treatment," he wonders.
The Director General of Soil and Irrigation in the Ministry of Agriculture tried to diagnose the scene rather to treat it. He considered that the violation represented a danger and caused the spread of epidemics that harm human health and create environmental pollution which in turn will result in desertification in the area.
He continued, "we do not give up our responsibility, but we have not received any complaint in this regard, nor even a telltale revealed to us, so we can not judge. However, if there is, there will be intervention to stop planting the land for a certain period and force farmers to plant their lands with trees."
In this regard, it was necessary to confront other parties related to the failure to perform proper control, especially the Ministry of Health, in accordance with the Public Health Law No. (20) of 2004, which stipulates in Article 43, the prohibition of the use of sewage for the purposes of fertilizing agricultural land, or irrigation of field crops, except in accordance with the conditions and controls determined by the Ministry in coordination with the concerned authorities.
However, from his side, Khaled Al-Tibi, an engineer with commission for supervising the quality of water in the Ministry of Health, said "we have a control and an environmental department in Khanyounis governorate. If any complaints about the unloading of wastewater are found in other places than the one allocated, we will not be complacent in this matter. To ensure that such water is only allowed to be disposed in the designated areas, the supervisors of the Ministry of Heath are informed to check the matter in coordination with other parties to form a joint committee that in turn take an effective decision."
He added "I do not know that there are shortcomings. Everyone is working with all his capabilities, but if there are shortcomings, I think that it is not by the teams, but perhaps by other parties, or because of the siege conditions which has weakened the ability of the monitoring surveying system, especially at the times of the unavailability of fuel, cars and some equipment for inspection and sampling for examination. In spite of that, everyone works hard in light of the available possibilities, and no one in this system can see something wrong and stand still".
The water control official in the Ministry of Health stressed his ignorance of the act of unloading wastewater in the agricultural lands, and he said "If this happens, the inspection teams of the Environmental Health Department in Khanyounis will deal with the issue and prevent dumping in areas that are not allocated, because it negatively affects health."
Al-Tibi added, "we will not tolerate this issue if it is discovered, and the plants will be damaged and the drivers of the wastewater trucks will be punished, but in fact we have not received any such information, and if there is a complaint, we will head to the area and follow up".
He also stressed that the unloading is prohibited "in agricultural places or even in the sides of roads far from planting."
He emphasized that any party that violates the instructions will be seized, and take legal action against them by the regulatory system, including the health, municipal and water authorities "because if there is no impact on agriculture, there is an impact on the groundwater reservoir, and if it does not affect the groundwater reservoir will affect the health of the society, "he explained.
Reservoir and Human
However, the Water Authority in the Gaza Strip denied that there was a leakage of wastewater into the underground wells, since the soil of the eastern area of Khanyounis is clay soil. Thus, it believes that the greatest damage is to human beings, despite their total denial of any information they have about the issue of irrigating and fertilizing agricultural lands with crude raw water.
"We have no information on this issue," said Mazen al-Banna, deputy head of the Water Authority. "It is not conventional to use raw wastewater for irrigation because it is difficult and can lead to problems," he continued " this is the first time I ever hear about this issue".
Al-Banna held a number of parties, mainly the Ministry of Agriculture, responsible for this violation. He said, "the supervisory role falls first on the Ministry of Agriculture which has directorates in different parts of the Gaza Strip, which are supposed to follow up with the famers regularly".
He continued, "As a water authority, we do not know anything about this. There are small particles that I do not know about, so I can not comment, but I can answer that if a citizen or farmer deals with this type of water, they will endanger themselves. I am here as a specialist and this affects the health of humans, as well as the soil, while the groundwater tank is not affected because the surface layer of soil in the eastern areas of the province of Khanyounis, clay and does not allow leakage".
The deputy head of the Water Authority stressed the need for all relevant government agencies to stand directly at their responsibility, including the Ministry of Health, Agriculture, Local Government and Water Authority. "If we are talking about human health, we must questions the Ministry of Health," he declared.
Eventually, this is the result of this investigation in the midst of a state of conflict between the charges and attempts to evade the responsibilities of the various government parties or recognition of default. In addition, if this violation continues without putting an end to it, it will increase the risks to human health, and will make the region vulnerable and more exposed to desertification.