U.N. says cash to repair Gaza homes will run out by end-month

By Astrid Zweynert LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The U.N. agency in charge of aiding Palestinians will run out of money by the end of January to repair homes in Gaza damaged in the 2014 war with Israel, worsening an already dire humanitarian situation, an agency spokesman said on Thursday. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) said it had received only $135 million of an estimated $720 million needed to rebuild and repair destroyed and damaged homes and for rent subsidies for people made homeless by the conflict. "Because of this shortfall, we're going to be forced to suspend the program by the end of the month,” UNWRA spokesman Christopher Gunness told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Our concern is the humanitarian impact this would have on the people of Gaza," he said by telephone from Jerusalem. Gunness said the consequences of suspending the program would be dire as Gaza's 1.8 million people struggle to recover from last summer's fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the coastal enclave. The conflict damaged or destroyed more than 96,000 homes, more than double the original estimate, along with much of the tiny enclave's infrastructure, UNWRA said in December. More than 14,000 people driven from their homes by the conflict still live in schools run by UNWRA, while others live in makeshift shelters or prefabricated housing units, or homes so badly damaged that they are exposed to the elements. STILL VULNERABLE Heavy winter storms this month added to the suffering of the people of Gaza, especially as electricity, fuel and cooking gas are running short there, said Arwa Mhanna, aid agency Oxfam's spokeswoman in Gaza. "Many people are still displaced, many still lack heating and lighting and simply don’t live in adequate conditions, more than six months after the end of the war," Mhanna said by telephone from Gaza. "The needs are much bigger than what is coming to Gaza in terms of aid and support," she said. International donors pledged $5.4 billion toward reconstruction last October but progress has been slow. "While the number of people benefiting from reconstruction efforts is rising, progress is not fast enough," Gunness said. Aid workers said a blockade imposed on Gaza by Israel after the Islamist movement Hamas won power there in elections in 2006 is a big obstacle to their efforts. Both Egpyt and Israel continue to impose tight controls on the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, so not enough building materials can be brought in to speed up reconstruction, aid workers said. Apart from housing, repairs to Gaza’s creaking water supply network are also desperately needed as more than 90 percent of water in the territory has been classified as unfit for human consumption. "Water and sanitation are among the biggest problems in Gaza and the effects of the war have made this situation a lot worse," said Joseph Aguettant, aid agency Terre des Hommes country representative for Palestine. Terre des Hommes has just received funding to set up 42 water tanks to provide clean drinking water in schools damaged during the fighting, Aguettant said by telephone from Jerusalem. It is also working with the Gaza Strip’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility to supply chlorine to disinfect water wells. (Reporting By Astrid Zweynert; Editing by Tim Pearce)