GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Virtually every household in the Gaza Strip depends on batteries to run their homes – following years of chronic power outages.
These batteries, powering everything from lights to Internet routers to solar panels, have helped alleviate a crisis. But they cause another as huge mounds of old and used batteries pile up in territory that lacks the capacity to dispose of them safely.
âThere is a real danger that these batteries will be collected and stored randomly in the open air; not in the warehouses, âsaid Mohammed Musleh, an official with the Gaza Environment Authority.
The most pressing threat, he said, is that “the batteries shatter and ooze liquid which includes sulfuric acid and seeps into the ground and then into the aquifer.”
The Gaza Environment Authority estimates that there are 25,000 tons of old batteries piled up in several places across the tiny and overcrowded coastal territory. There are no recycling facilities in Gaza, and a punitive blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt prevents batteries from being shipped overseas for safe disposal.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, used batteries create a number of risks to public health and the environment. Different types of batteries contain potentially dangerous types of metals such as mercury, lead, and cadmium, while some can catch fire.
Such risks are particularly acute in Gaza, where the health care system has been ravaged by years of conflict and lack of funds and where the environment is already in dire condition. Almost all of Gaza’s water is undrinkable due to the high levels of salinity caused by over-extraction.
Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant in a series of fighting in 2006 and imposed a blockade with Egypt the following year after the militant group Hamas seized power in the Strip from rival Palestinian forces. The result: a daily blackout of at least eight hours, punctuated by longer outages that can last for days during winter storms or conflicts.
This makes batteries an integral part of the daily life of the 2 million inhabitants of the territory.
The Gaza City Municipality has a hazardous waste unit for the safe disposal of old batteries. But Ahmed Abu Abdu, head of the unit, says very few batteries reach him. Instead, a small private industry has sprouted up.
Every day, collectors in cars or donkey-drawn carts roam Gaza, calling over loudspeakers for those wishing to sell old batteries. Depending on their size, old batteries can cost as much as $ 2 each.
Khaled Ayyad is one of dozens of merchants who buy old batteries. For eight years, he collected them and stored them in a warehouse in northern Gaza.
Ayyad has one goal in mind: to export the batteries and make a decent profit.
“As the Israeli side allows them (batteries) to enter Gaza, it must let them out,” he said. “We can sell them to factories in Israel, European countries and all over the world.”
But the export of batteries is still prohibited, and Ayyad faces a new dilemma: he has accumulated around 500 tonnes of batteries in the warehouse.
He cannot resell them, export them or throw them away, and he has paid storage costs. Thus, he has a message to Hamas: âWe call on those responsible in Gaza to speak to the Egyptian side to let us export them there. “
There is a precedent. Hamas and Egypt have stepped up their trade cooperation in recent years with a passage through the border town of Rafah. The terminal is mainly used to deliver goods such as construction materials, fuel and tobacco products to Gaza. But it was also used to ship scrap metal to Egypt.
While Ayyad’s warehouse has a concrete floor, most of the other storage locations are outdoors, which risks spilling hazardous materials directly into the ground.
No studies have been conducted on the threat to the environment, but 2013 research by a Gaza neurologist and environmental scientist warned that children of people struggling with used batteries have âDifferent degreesâ of poisoning compared to lead exposure.
In an attempt to reduce the danger, Hamas authorities have banned the importation of used batteries since 2017.
The Gaza-based al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, which issued a 2018 report warning of the threat of batteries, said the danger was “far-reaching.”
“There is a problem,” Hussein Hammad of the rights group said. âHere, the batteries started to affect human rights: the right to health, the right to a healthy environment and the right to life. “