The water is running out in Gaza: Humanitarian catastrophe looms as territory's only aquifer fails


The Gaza Strip, a tiny wedge of land jammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, is heading inexorably into a water crisis that the United Nations says could make the Palestinian enclave uninhabitable in just a few years.

With 90 to 95 per cent of the territory's only aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater, neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza's 1.6 million residents. But these small-scale projects provide water for only about 20 per cent of the population, forcing many more residents in the impoverished territory to buy bottled water at a premium. The UN estimates that more than 80 per cent of Gazans buy their drinking water. "Families are paying as much as a third of their household income for water," said June Kunugi, a special representative of the UN children's fund Unicef.

The Gaza Strip, governed by the Islamist group Hamas and in a permanent state of tension with Israel, is not the only place in the Middle East facing water woes. A Nasa study of satellite data released this year showed that between 2003 and 2009 the region lost 144 cubic kilometres of stored freshwater – equivalent to the amount in the Dead Sea – making a bad situation much worse.

But the situation in Gaza is particularly acute, with the UN warning that its sole aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with the damage potentially irreversible by 2020. Between 5 and 10 per cent only of the aquifer's water is safe to drink, but even this can mix with poor-quality water during distribution, making it good only for washing.

"The tap water from the municipality is not fit to drink, and my husband is a kidney patient," said Sahar Moussa, a mother of three, who lives in a cramped, ramshackle house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, near the Egyptian border. She spends 45 shekels (£8.20) each month – a large sum for most Palestinians in the area – to buy filtered water that she stores in a 500L plastic tank.

Further complicating the issue is Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, which activists say has prevented the import of materials needed for repairs on water and waste facilities. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent arms from reaching Hamas, which is opposed to the existence of the Jewish state.

With no streams or rivers to speak of, Gaza has historically relied almost exclusively on its coastal aquifer, which receives some 50 to 60 million cubic metres of refill each year thanks to rainfall and run-off from the Hebron hills to the east. But the needs of Gaza's rapidly growing population, as well as those of the nearby Israeli farmers, means an estimated 160 million cubic metres of water is drawn from the compromised aquifer each year. As the levels sink, seawater seeps in from the nearby Mediterranean. This saline pollution is made worse by untreated waste, with 90,000 cubic metres of raw sewage allowed to flow into the shallow sea waters each day from Gaza, according to UN data.

Even with the aquifer, regular running tap water is a luxury unknown to many Gazans. People living across the territory say that during the summer months water might spurt out of their taps every other day, and the pressure is often so low that those living on upper floors might see just a trickle.

Many families have opted to drill private wells drawing from water deep underground. Authorisation is required but rigid restrictions mean that most households dig their wells in secret. Hired labourers erect large plastic sheets to try to hide their work from prying neighbours. "As you can see, this is like a crime scene," said a 45-year-old father of six, who gave his name as Abu Mohammed. A clothes merchant from Gaza city, he paid his clandestine, seven-strong crew £2,300 to drill a well and came across water at a depth of 48 metres. "We begin the work after sunset and... cover the sound of digging with music," he said. A senior Israeli security official estimates that as many as 6,000 wells have been sunk in Gaza, many without authorisation.

While Israel shares the polluted aquifer, which stretches all the way to Caesarea, about 37 miles north of Tel Aviv, the problem is less acute than in Gaza which is downstream. In addition, Israel can access water from the Sea of Galilee and the mountain aquifer that also spans the West Bank.

As Gaza borders the sea, the obvious answer is desalination. Gaza already hosts 18 small plants, one treating seawater, the others water from brackish wells – most of them supplied by Unicef and Oxfam.

The Palestinian Water Authority has started work on two new seawater desalination plants and is planning a third, larger facility, which is designed to produce 55 million cubic metres of water a year. But with funding for the $450m (£295m) project still uncertain, construction is not due to start until 2017. By that time, cash-strapped Gaza may not have enough electricity available to power the energy-intensive plants. The UN estimates that Gaza needs an additional 100 megawatts of production capacity even before the big water facility is built.

Israel is trying to drum up aid for Gaza, the senior security official said, alarmed at the prospect of a looming water catastrophe and possible humanitarian crisis on its doorstep. "We have talked to everyone we know in the international community because 1.4 million people will be without water in a few years," he said, asking not to be named because of the issue's sensitivity. He said Israel, a leader in the desalination industry, was helping to train a few Gazans in the latest water technology, which the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) confirmed.

Rebhi El Sheikh, deputy chairman of the PWA, has called on international donors to help fund energy, water and sewage projects, warning of disaster if nothing happens. "A small investment is needed to avoid a bigger one, and it is a humanitarian issue that has nothing to do with politics or security," he said.

Water wars

Water scarcity has become a growing problem in the Middle East, East Africa and the US.

Although the Middle East has experienced water scarcity for quite some time, Jay Famiglietti, principal investigator of a recently published Nasa study, has said that there was an "alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently has the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India". With tensions already high in this region, water scarcity could become another cause of conflict.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the driest regions in the world. East Africa, in particular the Nile River basin, has seen conflict rise over who controls fresh water supplies. Due to limited resources, the Sudanese civil war between 1983 and 2005 became a struggle over territory which in turn led to conflicts over water supplies. The impact on the population and irrigation of the country would be substantial. After 22 years of fighting, 400,000 people were killed and 2.5 million were displaced from their homes.

Water cleanliness is an issue that is having considerable impact on sub-Saharan Africa. According to the charity WaterAid, 16.4 million people in Kenya and 43.4 million people in Ethiopia don't have access to safe water.

The US is also facing significant strain on fresh-water supplies. According to WaterSense, a partnership program of the US Environmental Protection Agency: "Nearly every region of the country has experienced water shortages. At least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or state-wide water shortages" this year, "even under non-drought conditions".

Water scarcity was recently addressed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warned that by 2030 nearly half the world's population could be facing a scarcity of water, with demand outstripping supply by 40 per cent.

Zander Swinburne