Electricity and Mental Health in Gaza
In a green hoodie and black headscarf, Leyla (not her real name) sits at a makeshift desk piled with books and papers, studying in the bare concrete shell that her family will turn into a living room when they can afford it. Her sister is already at university studying Engineering, and Leyla knows that education is a path to a better future for Palestinian women and men alike. Unlike other students living in the Jabalia Refugees Camp on the Gaza Strip, which was first established in 1948 to house those displaced by Israeli territorial ambition, Leyla can study after dark, because the shell-house in construction benefits from solar electricity, which is extended from the Women’s Health Centre next door.
The Women’s Health Centre provides services that are vital in women’s reproductive health as well as for those experiencing gender-based violence. With the director, we — the Gaza-based research team and I — toured its well-used and in need of replacing MRI and Ultrasound machines, its labs that perform vital tests and refrigerators that hold vaccines. All depend on electricity, and, with an Israeli-controlled grid, only an estimated 38% of Gaza’s energy needs are met. In 2021, for example, the power was turned off for 11 hours a day. This made it very difficult for the Health Centre to operate its lights and machines and left its workers struggling at home as well. Nurses described getting up in the middle of the night, when the power was switched on for short periods, to do domestic chores — cooking, cleaning and washing — leaving them tired at work.
Recently, the power supply to the Women’s Health Centre and 24 households around it, including Leyla’s, was boosted significantly by solar panels added to the roof. These are the result of a research project run by Raya AL-Dadah at the UK’s University of Birmingham with partners Mohammad Abuhaiba and colleagues at the Islamic University of Gaza (IUG)[i], and funded by the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being programme. The original intention was to import parts from Germany that would allow the engineers working on the project to experiment with establishing a photovoltaic system that was much more efficient than usual. When the Israeli blockade prevented these parts from reaching Gaza, the team experimented with what was available locally to extend the solar system with regular panels and instal a heat transfer system to run the centre’s hot water needs. The blockade has made Gaza’s engineers particularly resilient and extremely inventive when it comes to problem solving. Dr Abuhaiba and his former students, for example, are now experimenting with a prototype that will convert wave energy and not sink when it is bombed.
The project provided a unique experience in interdisciplinary working, as engineers worked with social scientists in solving technical, social and biological difficulties at the same time. Finding viable solutions to intractable difficulties, as this team demonstrates, requires thinking and action across the usual disciplinary silos. The research team at IUG and Birmingham used the resources of the project to audit Gaza’s electricity supply and to determine the effect of electricity shortages on mental health, something that is poorly understood. Through surveys and focus groups, the research team discovered that there is statistically a highly significant link between poor continuity of electricity supply and high levels of anxiety and depression, which in turn impacts morbidity and mortality. This is, of course, exacerbated by the wider political context in which Palestinians live in conditions marked by siege, surveillance and poverty. 80% of the population live below the poverty line. Gaza is a tiny strip of land on the edge of the Mediterranean behind a 60 km fence with only two entrances/exits, one controlled by Egypt, the other by the Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories — COGAT — a branch of the Israeli military. Just the day before when I entered Gaza I had navigated its razor wire, fencing, turnstiles and CCTV cameras: it is essentially an open-air prison. It is also a living experiment in the effects of fragility and conflict on people’s well-being, something we need to know more about because, unfortunately, there are a growing number of areas of the world where people live in just these conditions.
Later we visit Samar’s (not her real name) house, which also benefits from the solar energy extended from the Women’s Health centre. This allows the family to keep the TV on in an effort to distract their daughter, who walks around repeating ‘I’m frightened’. This is hardly surprising given the conditions in which she lives. I was frightened later that night when Israeli drones sat overhead listening and watching and then F16s began bombing as night fell. Leyla and the others surely deserve a better future, and along with the research team are working hard in building one.
[i] The research team is led by Raya AL-Dadah with Surindar Does, Irina Kuznetsova, Saad Mahmoud (University of Birmingham) and Mohammad Abuhaiba and Mazen Abu Qamar, the Gaza team on the ground (Islamic University of Gaza — IUG).
Caroline Knowles is the Director of the British Academy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme and a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. An urban Sociologist with research experience in a number of cities, she is the author of many books and papers, most recently, Flip-Flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads, published by Pluto Press (2014 & 2015) www.flipfloptrail.com and Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, published by Penguin (2022) https://seriousmoneybook.com