Let me start off by saying that I am aware that the situation in Gaza is a very touchy subject to a lot of people and with that in mind I will do my best to keep my personal views out of what I’m about to write. However, I would ask that whatever your views may be please try to read this with an open mind and think about the innocent people and children that are living in this situation.
Gaza has a population of 1.7 million (half of which are children) living within an area of roughly 150 square miles (365 sq km), and that number is expected to grow by 500,000 over the next eight years. This level of density would be hard to deal with anywhere in the world, but especially in such an impoverished area.
Most of the water in Gaza comes from pumping the shallow Coastal Aquifer which Gaza also shares with Egypt and Israel (Gaza is on the downstream side). With a recharge rate of 50-60 million cubic meters (MCM) annually UN hydrologist have recommended that no more than 55 MCM can be pumped from the aquifer annually, however on average 160 MCM are pumped out every year. This is not sustainable as things are, and with the Palestinian Water Authority saying their water needs will increase 60% to 260 MCM by 2020 a new source of water is needed. Actually, a new source of water is needed either way due to the declining quality of the water in the aquifer.
In 2012 it was found that 95% of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. There are several sources of this pollution. One is fertilizer from agricultural operations which lead to nitrates and phosphorous working its way into the groundwater. Another is from sewage getting into the water. Bombing by Israel over the years has destroyed sewage treatment facilities as well as sewage pipes. And because of the blockade imposed by Israel it is very difficult to get supplies to do any repairs. Therefore, untreated sewage leaks out of the pipes daily and ends up in the groundwater. Lastly, because of the declining level of the aquifer, and its close proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, salt water has begun intruding on the aquifer which has increased the level of salinity. Because of all the pollution nitrate levels are at 150 mg/l, and chloride levels are at 1200 mg/l. Both of these figures are three times the amount deemed safe by the World Health Organization (WHO). This pollution has led to 25% of all illnesses in Gaza being related to contaminated water, and the number of children being treated for diarrhea doubling in the past five years. Further, scientists have found that if something is not done this aquifer could be unusable by 2016.
It’s not because of the lack of trying that nothing has been done up to this point. Since 1996 the Palestinians have been trying to get a desalination plant built along the Mediterranean. At this point this has not been accomplished due to the fragile political situation; however, the plan for a desalination plant is now supported by Israel all Mediterranean Governments, the UN, and the EU. With all of this support it looks like there is a very good chance that Gaza could be getting a new source of water in the coming years.
However, Israel has a pattern of bombing infrastructure and power generating facilities when conflict erupts, and this is not something that Israel hides. When in November 2012 Israel assaulted the Gaza Strip for 8 days deputy Israeli Prime Minister Eli Yishai publicly called for the Israeli army to “blow Gaza back to the Middle Ages, destroying all the infrastructure including roads and water.” This kind of destruction, problematic for numerous reasons, could lead to a couple of problems regarding desalination. One is that desalination is a very energy intensive process, and therefore if power generating facilities are destroyed (as they have been in the past) the desalination plant will be left useless. Also, if all of the pipes bringing clean water from the desalination plant are destroyed the people will still be without water. Finally, who’s to say that the desalination plant itself wouldn’t be destroyed?
Moving on, in 2000 the Integrated Coastal Aquifer Management Plan (CAMP) was created. The goal of CAMP was to reduce the amount of water being pumped out of the aquifer for agricultural irrigation while at the same time finding alternate sources of water for the use of the general population. Some ideas of where this water would come from included importing it from Israel and/or desalination. Further, treated wastewater would be used to provide water for irrigation as well as to recharge the aquifer. There was support for the plan, however as CAMP was completed and implementation was set to begin conflict between Israel and Gaza broke out, leading to the abandonment of CAMP.
Another idea that has been thrown around is to pipe in water from the West Bank, another Palestinian territory. The West Bank, potentially, has good sources of water from the Mountain Aquifer system and the Jordan River. I say potentially because the West Bank has not been allowed to take any water from the Jordan River since 1967, and 80% of the water in the Mountain Aquifer system is claimed by Israel. So for this plan to even be feasible the West Bank would need to be allowed to take water from one, or both, of these sources. Further, in order to build a pipeline from the West Bank, through Israel, to Gaza there would need to be some cooperation from Israel, and it’s anybody’s guess whether that would happen.
I should say that water is sent from Israel into Gaza in accordance with the Oslo Accord. Well, kind of. Among other things, the Oslo Accord set the price increase formula to determine at what price water would be sold to Gaza. Now Israel wants to raise these agreed-to prices from 2.38 shekels per cubic meter (.65 USD) to 3.55 shekels (.96 USD), a 48% increase. That’s a pretty big deal and not in accordance with the formula agreed to in the Oslo Accord. However, the Oslo Accord has been deemed a joke by some, and as a tool for manipulation by others. It includes stipulations such as making improvements to Palestinian water supplies by Israel conditional on the Palestinian Authorities approval of new water facilities for Israeli settlements.
Also, while most households in Gaza are connected to the municipal water supply there is not always water. As of May of 2012 40% of Gaza residents living in Gaza City, Rafah and Jabalia receive water once every four days, and a third receive water once every three days. However, this frequency is by no means reliable due to regular power outages which leave the pumps unable to transport water.
Thankfully there has been some help given to the people of Gaza. A NGO named MADRE, in partnership with Zakher Association for the Development of Palestinian Woman’s Capacity, is bringing water filters to the people of Gaza. Also, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has completed over 200 water and sanitation projects in Gaza, including strengthening water and sanitation authorities, construction of water supply and distribution networks, storage infrastructure, and household connections. And in late 2012 the World Bank said it would invest $6.4 million to improve water and sewage infrastructure, while the Islamic Development Bank says it will invest $11.14 million to go towards the same.
In the end it all comes down to peace. Without peace the blockade will continue, the bombing will continue, and the people of Gaza will continue to suffer. Whatever your stance may be on the Israel-Palestinian conflict I hope we all can see that there are a lot of innocent civilians suffering because of the actions of a few. What happened to clean water being a fundamental human right that everyone is entitled to? I guess “everyone” doesn’t really mean everyone. Thanks for reading, and please leave a comment if you have anything to add (and please share).
One thought on “Gaza’s Water Woes”
Thank you for your informative article , as you mention the political deadlock is major cause of current situation. However, general public access to clean water is a fundamental right and there is no excuse to destroy water infrastructure by anyone.