CRS is helping some 1,500 people recover from unprecedented flooding brought on by torrential rains in mid-December in the Gaza Strip. CRS Communications Officer Liz O’Neill talks with Matt McGarry, CRS’ country representative in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza, about CRS’ response to the needs of communities impacted by the storm.
Liz: How is CRS helping families hit by the sudden flooding in Gaza?
Matt: So far we have been able to distribute emergency kits to about 250 families in Gaza who were impacted by the flooding (defining a family as six members made up of men, women and children). The families that we’re serving are some of the most vulnerable. They were quite poor and heavily affected by the economic situation and the blockade in Gaza prior to the storm. They have been badly affected by the storm, so we’re really proud of the work that our team has done and the assistance we’ve gotten from the community. The work we’ve done with our partners and the many volunteers who assisted in the distribution enabled us to get the relief items to these extremely vulnerable families just in time.
Liz: Could you describe what living conditions in Gaza were like before the storm hit?
Matt: Gaza is a very precarious situation under the best of circumstances owing to the restrictions on movement and access, the difficulty getting commercial and humanitarian goods into Gaza and getting goods out of Gaza, the high rates of unemployment—over 30% generally and much higher than that for youth, the continuing contamination of the aquifer and the restriction on the distance out to sea fishermen are able to go. It’s a precarious situation under the best of circumstances, a knife’s edge away from descending into a significant humanitarian crisis. The volume of rain in mid-December, the release of flood waters upstream, the overflow of containment pools, the lack of fuel in Gaza and the destruction of homes in some areas combined to create these critical circumstances. There was major flooding and the displacement of thousands of people who were forced to take shelter in schools. So, when you take a place like Gaza which is already in the midst of a man-made humanitarian crisis and then you add in these extreme, really unprecedented weather conditions, it quickly pushes it over the edge into a full-fledged humanitarian emergency.
Liz: Has the situation regarding fuel changed improved or worsened?
Matt: Paradoxically the fuel situation has gotten better. Given the severity of the winter storms, the urgency and the clarity of the humanitarian situation in Gaza prompted the governments of a number of surrounding countries to provide additional access to fuel. In this case, with funding from Qatar and other foreign entities and with assistance from the United Nations, fuel came into Gaza from Israel. Now, the actual amount of fuel flowing into Gaza has increased and that’s enhanced the ability of the power plant to provide power, which has kept the lights on for slightly longer than the four hours per day that many households were down to before the winter storms. So paradoxically, the natural disaster component has somewhat alleviated the man-made disaster and improved the access to fuel. But that certainly hasn’t offset what is an ongoing problem. We are concerned that as Gaza fades from the headlines, the situation will return to normal and the fuel constraints will go back up, returning to those near-disaster conditions that we had just a few weeks before the storm.
Liz: How long will CRS’ response last?
Matt: Now that we have finished the immediate emergency response phase, we are looking ahead to the early recovery phase. With a crisis like this, there’s the immediate response, but then we need to look at the longer-term impact. In this case, the floods have severely damaged agricultural resources in Gaza. Many farmers, who are wholly dependent on agriculture, often greenhouse agriculture, for their livelihoods have lost literally everything. In some of these flood plains, which hadn’t seen water like this in living memory, crops were just completely washed out. We’ve had teams in the field working with those farmers to look at the extent of damage. We are in the process of soliciting donors for support to launch agricultural recovery activities. We benefit from some of our previous experience in Gaza and in other parts of the region using vouchers, working with farmers to replace assets using cash for work to rehabilitate some of the damage done to farmland. So although the immediate phase is wrapping up, there’s a lot of lasting damage that will need to be addressed quite quickly and comprehensively.