From sewage dump to nature reserve, UN hopes to save Gaza Valley

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GAZA, Feb 7 (Reuters) - The United Nations is set to begin the restoration of a historic valley in the Palestinian Gaza Strip next month, hoping to transform it from a landfill and sewage dump into a vibrant nature reserve in a planned $66 million project.

The Gaza Valley, home to a variety of plants and animals, is one of the largest wetland areas in the territory.

It stretches 105 kms (65 miles) from the Israeli Negev desert up to southern Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and for nine kms (5.5 miles) across the Gaza Strip to the Mediterranean sea.

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But over the past few decades, despite the Palestinians proclaiming the valley a nature reserve in the 1990s, it has become badly polluted. With rubbish piling up and the stench of sewage flowing through it, residents have kept away.

In an attempt to save it, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has put together the $66 million project plan, though it has not yet secured the entire funding.

"It is a full project to develop this site and to turn it from an unhealthy wastewater dump into a place people of Gaza can visit and into a tourist site," said Mohammed Abu Shaaban, the UNDP's project coordinator.

The two-phase project will take several years to complete, said Abu Shaaban. The first funds to come through, $1.3 million from Belgium, will go towards the initial cleanup which is expected to take around four months.

"In March we will start removing the solid waste and the concrete and debris in the Wadi (valley), opening the route, doing the soil reclamation and planting many trees," said Abu Shaaban.

For the past few months, a new water treatment station in central Gaza has allowed treated water to flow into the valley, improving the habitat of dozens of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians.

In the longer term, the restoration also aims to benefit the people of Gaza, with camping sites, cafes and educational and recreational centres along the valley route.

"Several tourist and economic centres will be built and will provide jobs for unemployed people," said Marwan Hamad, head of Zahra City Council, whose office is involved in the development.

On Sunday, 40 activists visited the site in support of the project. "We came from all over the Gaza Strip to tell the people that Gaza valley is being transformed and it will be restored as a nature reserve," said Mohammad Aburjaila, 26.

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Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Emelia Sithole-Matarise

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Thomson Reuters

A senior correspondent with nearly 25 years’ experience covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict including several wars and the signing of the first historic peace accord between the two sides.