Dispatch

How Many Tons of Cement Will It Take to Rebuild Gaza?

In the ruins of the Strip, the devastation has spared no one.

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza — The second floor of the al-Awda factory is covered in a sticky red liquid, as if a massacre had occurred here. The truth, happily, is much less gruesome: An Israeli tank shell had ripped open plastic cartons containing strawberry juice, which had been intended to be sold during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan -- before the war intervened.

Until a month ago, this factory employed 600 people in the production of roughly 125 different snacks -- everything from chocolate wafers to biscuits to ice cream. Now, it is gutted: The room that contained the milk, butter, and sugar is a sickly sweet ruin of charred parcels; a hole had been punched in one of the walls to create a makeshift slide that evacuated biscuits from an encroaching fire; the potato-chip machines imported from Europe have been ripped to pieces.

Mohammad al-Talbani, the factory owner, estimates that his production facility had been worth $30 million. It had been the work of his lifetime: He launched his business after finishing secondary school in the late 1960s, making sesame and coconut sweets by hand from his home in Gaza's Maghazi refugee camp.

Talbani believes that his factory was not merely collateral damage in the ongoing war, but that the Israeli attack was part of a broader campaign of economic warfare on the residents of the Gaza Strip. There had been no Hamas fighters anywhere near the factory when it was shelled, he insisted. "If someone had come here to launch a rocket, I'd shoot them myself," he said.

While Talbani's claim is impossible to verify, nobody is denying the economic destruction in Gaza. The Palestinian Authority government has estimated that it could cost $6 billion to rebuild the territory: 50,000 homes have been totally or partially destroyed, roughly 250 factories have reportedly been rendered inoperable, and Gaza's sewage treatment facility and power plant have been damaged, shrinking the available supply of drinkable water and creating a potential health crisis for residents.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Aug. 13, announcing a five-day extension of the cease-fire, Palestinian delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmed said that there had been significant progress in efforts to lift the Israeli economic blockade on Gaza -- but that there are still disagreements over reconstruction issues. These debates will not only determine whether residents can rebuild after the war, but they also promise to be an important tool in Israeli efforts to weaken Hamas's hold on the territory. As Finance Minister Yair Lapid put it, Israel would demand that "there is no rehabilitation without some sort of demilitarization [of Gaza]."

The reconstruction effort will begin with a donor conference, which will likely be held in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in September, Frode Mauring, the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) special representative for Gaza and the West Bank, told Foreign Policy. The funds will be funneled through the Palestinian Authority, which will be tasked with leading the reconstruction effort. The challenge, however, is not simply drumming up enough money -- it's reconciling the needs of reconstruction with the political demands of Gaza's two staunchly anti-Hamas neighbors, Egypt and Israel.

The importation of building materials to rebuild Gaza's tens of thousands of destroyed homes is one of the most potentially fraught issues. Hamas used large quantities of cement, allegedly smuggled in across the border with Egypt during the presidencies of Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, to build its extensive tunnel network, which posed one of the most deadly threats to Israel during the current war. For that reason, Jerusalem has only allowed U.N. agencies to import cement -- and it is going to be loath to ease restrictions on construction materials that could be used by the Palestinian Islamist group to rebuild its tunnel network.

However, Mauring insists that the elaborate mechanisms to ensure the proper use of cement will have to be relaxed to accomplish the massive rebuilding task in store for Gaza.

The current system requires U.N. relief agencies to bring only the cement that is needed for a given project to a work site, and then to bring back the amount that isn't used by day's end to a central warehouse, all the while keeping meticulous records of the cement used and currently in the warehouses. That proved viable when the UNDP only had a handful of projects in Gaza, Mauring said, but it will be impossible during the reconstruction effort.

"[These mechanisms] will be a major, major bottleneck in terms of Gaza reconstruction if it is to continue," he said. "We cannot personally be at 50,000 sites to monitor every single bag of cement -- that's not workable."

Mauring suggested a system in which the UNDP would deliver cement to families whose houses had been partially destroyed in the bombing. These families would then have an incentive to use the cement to rebuild their homes, he said, rather than handing the materials off to Hamas. Whether Israel would agree to such a policy, however, remains to be seen.

There are even more urgent problems, however, than the supply of cement. Gaza's only power plant was hit during the war, leaving most residents with only two to four hours of electricity per day. Mauring estimated that before the war, Gaza received a total of about 300 megawatts of electricity from the plant and power lines from Egypt and Israel. Now, with the power plant offline and the electrical grid from Israel damaged, he said that Gaza is receiving about half of that.

The power plant isn't only important for keeping the lights on. "The fact that the plant was hit means sewage pumps aren't working, water pumps aren't working," said Nate McCray, a spokesman for Oxfam International. "So you see sewage and brackish water seeping up into the [refugee] shelters and contaminating the water systems."

Mauring floated the possibility of bringing barge-mounted power plants to the shores of Gaza while the plant is being repaired, which could take over a year. As the Israeli Navy controls access to the Palestinian territory by sea, however, this is yet another topic that will be subject to drawn-out negotiations.

But back in Mohammad al-Talbani's al-Awda factory, turning the lights back on is the least of his worries. Munching on a chocolate wafer that had been rescued from the shelling, Talbani has little patience for questions about how he will rebuild. It all depends, he said, on the politics -- if Israel lifts the blockade on Gaza. This factory, he said, took him 40 years to build, and it will take him four to five years to reconstruct, even if he has the necessary money and raw materials. Whatever happens, he seems determined to try.

"I began from under zero, and now I have 5 percent [of what I had before the war]," he said. "So I will work to rebuild it -- this is my life."

Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

South Sudan's Coming Famine

Renewed fighting in the war-torn country has derailed humanitarian relief efforts, and now tens of thousands are facing starvation.

JUBA, South Sudan — Shots rang out at daybreak on Friday in Bentiu, the capital of the oil-producing Unity state, and continued for much of the morning. At least one artillery shell exploded close to the U.N. base, where some 40,000 people have taken refuge, many of them knee deep in water from rainy-season floods and forced to sleep standing up. Government forces also clashed with rebels in the Ayod region Jonglei state, southeast of Bentiu, where a military spokesman for the government said that 120 rebels were killed.

This fresh round of fighting, which erupted over the weekend between government forces and rebels loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar, further erodes the prospects for peace in the world's newest nation and imperils critical humanitarian efforts aimed at keeping a potential famine at bay.

Both sides blame the other for the resumption of hostilities, with rebel spokesman Lul Ruai Koang claiming it was a "long-awaited government offensive" and Joseph Marier Samuel, a spokesman for the South Sudanese military, saying that the government has "maintained a defensive military position."

South Sudan has been mired in civil war since December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused Machar of attempting to mount a coup, touching off a round of ethnic killings in the capital and igniting a domestic rebellion. Since then, more than 10,000 people have been killed and another 1.5 million have been displaced.The United Nations has called the resulting humanitarian crisis "the worst in the world," while aid agencies warn that more than 1 million people are in need of emergency food aid.

The origins of the food-security crisis are layered. War disrupted the planting season, not just where there was active fighting, but across the northern half of the country as farmers fled their fields in anticipation of violence. But systematic underinvestment by the South Sudanese government, which has battled numerous corruption scandals since it became independent in 2011, is also part of the equation: Roughly 90 percent of South Sudanese territory is suitable for agriculture, but only about four percent of it was being cultivated, even before the current crisis. This combination of greed, violence, and lack of capacity has proven deadly.

"This is as bad as I've ever seen it," Toby Lanzer, the top U.N. aid official in South Sudan said in an interview from Juba. "By the end of the year, we're facing a situation where one out of every two people in South Sudan are either going to have a real threat to their lives because of hunger or they will have been displaced from their homes ... or they will have fled from the country."

The outbreak of fighting makes delivering desperately needed food aid and other humanitarian assistance that much more difficult. During the rainy season, which typically runs from April to November, it is virtually impossible to reach most of the country by road, and boat travel along the Nile River has all but ceased because of the violence. In Bentiu, where control has changed hands several times since the fighting broke out, the roughly 40,000 people holed up in the U.N. base must rely on humanitarian airlifts to survive.

For the last two days, those flights have been cancelled because of the fighting.

"If we can't get flights in in the next couple of days, we risk running out of essentials, including therapeutic food used to treat severe acute malnutrition," said Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF's representative in South Sudan.

Such complications couldn't come at a more inopportune time. According to a recent report by Doctors Without Borders, at least three children under the age of five are dying every day from malnutrition in the U.N. camp in Bentiu.

Experts have yet to formally declare a famine -- a step that requires rigorous analysis of food supply, malnutrition, and mortality rates and can take months to complete -- but the United Nations has classified South Sudan a "level-3 emergency," a designation it shares with only three other countries: Syria, Iraq, and the Central African Republic. But aid agencies, like UNICEF, caution against relying too heavily on formal declarations or quantitative analysis. Waiting for a famine declaration before taking action, they warn, could be catastrophic. "By the time the famine was declared in Somalia in 2011," said Veitch, "Half of the people that would die in the famine were already dead."

Renewed hostilities come less than a week after government and rebel negotiators missed a key deadline, agreed to by both parties, to stop fighting and form a transitional government. The failure to reach an agreement prompted sharp criticism from human rights advocates and regional governments alike. The United States, arguably South Sudan's most important ally, was uncharacteristically blunt: "Deadlines keep passing and innocent people keep dying," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. "This is an outrage and an insult to the people of South Sudan."

A recent U.N. Security Council visit to South Sudan led by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, threatened to impose sanctions on both sides if the violence continues. The United States and European Union have already sanctioned military leaders on either side.

While the peace talks drag on in a luxury hotel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia -- the first four rounds of peace talks reportedly cost $17 million -- the humanitarian disaster continues to deepen in South Sudan. By the end of the year, 50,000 children could die from severe acute malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.

"The needs are unmet. Healthcare is virtually absent. I really don't know how people live and survive on a day-to-day basis," said Mukesh Kapila, former high-ranking British U.N. official who was among the first to raise the alarm about the genocide in Darfur.

In Bentiu, a plan to drain the flooded camp inside the U.N. base has been held up because of the inability to transport machinery and water engineers from Holland. Aid workers had intended to dig a roughly two-mile drainage ditch to allow the water to flow into nearby lowlands, but after two weeks of work with only two backhoes, the project remains unfinished.*

"The place is completely flooded and people are suffering," said Veitch of UNICEF. "As long as we are prevented from landing, 40,000 people are under threat."

This reporting was made possible in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. James Sprankle contributed reporting.

*Correction, August 24, 2014: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of backhoes working to drain the camp in Bentiu. There were two, not one, and considerable progress has been made, although the ditch has not yet been finished. 

CHARLES LOMODONG/AFP/Getty Images