Palestinian workers use a donkey cart to collect rubbish from the Yarmuk waste dump in Gaza City, on November 26, 2013
Palestinian workers use a donkey cart to collect rubbish from the Yarmuk waste dump in Gaza City, on November 26, 2013 © Mahmud Hams - AFP
Palestinian workers use a donkey cart to collect rubbish from the Yarmuk waste dump in Gaza City, on November 26, 2013
Adel Zaanoun
Last updated: November 28, 2013

Donkeys turn binmen as Gaza fuel crisis bites

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On a sweltering November afternoon, 10-year-old Alaa skips barefoot along a road in Gaza City picking up festering bags of rubbish and throwing them onto his father's donkey-drawn cart.

This has become the face of rubbish collection in Gaza since a critical fuel shortage has idled all the regular rubbish trucks, leaving the job to those with a slightly more primitive form of transportation.

For 55-year-old Mahmud Abu Jabal, it is a seemingly endless battle to clear away the mounds of rubbish which are rapidly amassing in streets across Gaza.

At any other time, the traffic police would ensure he keeps away from the middle of the road to allow cars to pass, but he now has free reign to go where he pleases.

People like Abu Jabal, who own a donkey and cart, are being increasingly relied on by Gaza's Islamist Hamas government as the fuel crisis worsens.

"In the past few days there's been more pressure on us and more rubbish collecting work," he told AFP.

"At first we were tasked with picking up the rubbish outside the hospital, but now we've had to take collections from outside people's homes as well."

It may be a crisis for the impoverished Palestinian enclave but, for him, it's an opportunity to work he would not otherwise get.

"If not for the fuel crisis, there wouldn't be this work opportunity," he says, explaining that the authorities are paying him a monthly wage of 700 shekels (around $200/145 euros).

"It really isn't enough to feed my entire family of 12 and look after the donkey, but it's better than nothing," he shrugs.

On November 1, Hamas's energy authority announced that Gaza's sole power plant, which supplies 30 percent of the Strip's electricity needs, had stopped working because there was not enough fuel to power it.

But it was only on Sunday that Hamas announced that the regular bin lorries would also stop working.

"Dustbin lorries have stopped doing their rounds, during which they were gathering 1,700 tonnes of garbage per day throughout Gaza," municipalities minister Mohammed al-Fira told a news conference.

Since then, the Strip has been relying on some 430 horse- or donkey-drawn carts to keep the streets clean, with around 500 workers getting up at dawn to collect the rubbish and take it to temporary dumps.

Fira warned that the growing mountain of rubbish was likely to pose a health risk to Gaza's 1.7 million residents.

Worst fuel crisis ever

Gaza is suffering the most serious fuel crisis in its history, causing daily power outages of up to 16 hours.

Hospitals, water and sanitation plants, businesses and private homes are all being hit.

Hamas has blamed the power outage on Egypt's destruction of cross-border tunnels used for bringing in diesel and has also accused the Western-backed Palestinian Authority of charging inflated prices for fuel.

Since early 2011, the smuggling tunnels have been the main source for the supply of fuel to the enclave, according to the UN humanitarian agency OCHA.

That supply almost completely dried up this summer after the Egyptian army began demolishing the tunnels in earnest following its overthrow in July of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, rapidly souring relations between Hamas and Cairo.

"It is estimated that in November, less than 20,000 litres of fuel per week entered Gaza via the tunnels, compared with nearly 1 million litres per day until June 2013," said an OCHA update on the situation.

"Fuel is needed immediately to restore the operation of critical services, most urgently health and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) facilities," it said.

On the streets, meanwhile, Gazans are simply doing what they can to get by as the filth accumulates.

School teacher Rim Abu Safiya told AFP she was afraid to let her students anywhere the stinking heap of garbage outside the school gates.

"I'm afraid the kids will catch some nasty illness," she said. "It's extremely unhygienic."

Gaza City's health and environment director, Abdel Rahim Abu al-Qumbaz, said the situation was deteriorating.

"Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rubbish now litter Gaza's streets," he told AFP.

"There are more flies than I've ever seen in my life."

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