In impoverished Gaza, electric company can't collect its bills

Sultan kneels in front of an old well in the Gaza Strip which does not have electric power.
Sultan kneels in front of an old well in the Gaza Strip which does not have electric power. Liam Stack / MCT

GAZA CITY, Gaza — The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, marked by daytime fasting and nighttime feasting, was just a few days away, but the Abu Hassan Sweet Shop in Gaza City was eerily empty recently.

Gaza's power plant had run out of fuel and had shut down the day before for the second time in two months, plunging the Strip's 1.5 million residents into 12 to 16 hours of darkness at a time. Mohamed Hassouna stood behind a wide tray of flaky desserts inside his shop, shouting over the constant thrum of its gasoline-powered generator.

"We have to use generators to keep the refrigerators on because we don't want the sweets to spoil," he said. "But all this is bad for business. Fuel is expensive. Everyone has more expenses now and won't be buying sweets anymore."

Since June, Israel has eased the import restrictions it imposed on Gaza in 2007, but that's done nothing to improve what's among Gaza's most persistent problems — an overwhelmed and unreliable electricity grid whose administrators blame many of their troubles on the Israeli blockade.

The blockade, they say, dashed economic opportunity and exacerbated poverty, leaving many Gazans too poor to pay for the electricity they do receive. That means the local utility often runs out of cash to buy fuel and doesn't have the wherewithal to repair its equipment or replace what's been smashed in years of conflict with Israel.

Even 12 feeder lines that bring electricity from Israel and Egypt can't meet the demand, and Gaza's own feeble power plant is the grid's Achilles' Heel — its six transformers were destroyed in 2006 by an Israeli airstrike. The Gaza Electric Distribution Company was able to find only seven lower quality transformers to replace them, lowering its maximum capacity by 45 percent, from 140 megawatts to 80 megawatts monthly.

However, the plant has never produced that much power, said Osama Dabbour, a GEDCo spokesman. The grid is old, rickety and overworked, and GEDCo loses 30 percent of what power it produces to "technical losses" through bad transmission lines and connections.

Making matters worse is the economic condition of GEDCo's customers. Roughly two-thirds of Gaza's 1.5 million residents are refugees from the 1948 or 1967 Arab-Israeli conflicts, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, and 675,000 of them live below the poverty line.

The January 2009 Israeli offensive, Operation Cast Lead, damaged or destroyed 60,000 homes whose repair has been stymied by the Israeli ban on the import of cement and other construction materials.

In 2009, Dabbour said, GEDCo managed to collect payments from only 25 percent of its customers. That figure has improved to 40 percent this year, but Dabbour said collecting everyone's bill would be "impossible."

"You have to improve the economic situation in the Gaza Strip first, open the crossings, improve the industrial sector," he said. "But right now people cannot pay their bills."

After operating expenses and payments to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank city of Ramallah, which owns GEDCo, there's nothing left over for items such as steel or wooden utility poles, wires, cables or fuses, Dabbour said.

Securing fuel is a challenge too. Neither Gaza's Islamist Hamas government nor the rival Western-backed Fatah government in Ramallah is willing to pay the $13 million a month it costs to buy diesel from an Israeli company, Dor Alon.

An EU program provided enough fuel to power two of GEDCo's transformers, but that ended in November. These days the plant typically has fuel to run just one; it's run two on just 36 days so far this year. On 10 days, the plant has been shut down entirely.

Ghassan Khatib, a spokesman for the Fatah government in Ramallah, said GEDCo's inability to collect it bills is to blame for Gaza's lack of fuel. He said that Ramallah pays for all the electricity imported from Israel and Egypt and that it wants GEDCo to focus its collection efforts on government buildings and employees, many of whom are believed to be getting a free ride.

"We are saying 'You Gazans have to make an effort and at least collect bills from those who have salaries and jobs,'" Khatib said.

With so little power being produced, daily rolling blackouts that last from eight to 12 hours have become the norm. The frequent outages shine a light on just how many corners of life are dependent on reliable electricity.

"We provide electricity to everyone: hospitals, schools, normal citizens," Dabbour said. "The electricity company is responsible for keeping everything working."

Perhaps the biggest and most dangerous domino to fall to this ripple effect has been Gaza's sewage treatment network, which has been subjected to many of the same challenges by the three-year blockade as the power plant.

It's an aging and overwhelmed network that's unable to secure necessary replacement parts, but officials at the Coastal Municipal Water Utility said that the power supply is the most intractable problem they face.

"When it comes to wastewater we suffer from electricity, electricity, electricity," said Maher Najjar, the chief engineer at the water utility.

Najjar said that upgrades to Gaza's three existing treatment plants have been delayed indefinitely due to the import restrictions. Plans to build a much-needed fourth plant at Wadi Gaza, a sewage-choked creek whose bright-green water slowly oozes to the sea, have been canceled altogether.

In many of Gaza's poor neighborhoods and refugee camps, homes aren't connected to the sewage network at all and narrow streams of wastewater snake out towards the sea.

"The lack of spare parts and electricity is a major problem," Najjar said. "We need spare parts to make repairs but we have basically no access to materials. It takes a very long time to get anything."

Each day, the water utility pumps 88,000 cubic meters of raw or partially treated sewage into the Mediterranean Sea.

Youssef Atalla Abou Safieh, appointed Gaza's Environment Ministry by the Fatah government in the West Bank, said that the amount of sewage in the sea now poses a public health threat. Gastrointestinal diseases, skin infections, parasites and bacterial and viral meningitis are all on the rise.

"Ninety percent of Gaza and the north sea shore is contaminated with sewage," he said.

The easing of Israel's import restrictions has helped, but not much. "Lately, the Israelis have let in more, but in general it is very hard to make any repairs," Naijar said, guessing that before June, only 15 percent of materials needed by the water utility were allowed in, compared with 30 percent to 40 percent now. "We can make some repairs, but it is just not enough."

Officials in Gaza's Economy Ministry said that once-banned items still go through a rigorous review that can take up to three weeks. Nothing is guaranteed entry, and sometimes applicants never receive notification if their request was approved or denied.

"In practical terms, the utilities and the health sector are not receiving anything" from the blockade's easing, said Hatem Oweida, the ministry's director general.

Back in downtown Gaza City, Abu Yazen Tharab stood on the stoop of his kitchenware shop. Inside, the lights were out and the generator was off. His fuel bill runs $40 a week, and he can no longer afford to run it during the day.

"Gazans are inventive. We use candles," he said, joking. Then he turned serious. "The government is responsible for bringing us electricity, and the electric company should lend a hand. But the government can't do anything for us."

(Stack is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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