Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

In the latest in our series marking a year since the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, Sam Masters in Rafah uncovers a looming crisis in the water supply

Sam Masters
Tuesday 07 July 2015 22:01
A Palestinian woman fills water from a tank near the remains of her house, in Khan Younis, Gaza
A Palestinian woman fills water from a tank near the remains of her house, in Khan Younis, Gaza

To quench their thirst, the Gazans dug too deep, and drank too freely. Now the coastal aquifer that supplied much of their water is depleted and will never again offer a plentiful supply of fresh drinking water. With damage to infrastructure in the Hamas-Israel war, aid agencies say Gaza’s fresh water shortage has turned into a crisis.

In Rafah, a southern Gaza city that is a furnace in the summer months, a shopkeeper produces a bottle of water, but warns: “Be careful... it is Gaza water.”

Salty and impure, it is like much of the water drunk by Gaza’s 1.8 millon people.

Jamila Abu Shalouf, 47, who has nine children, lives with her family in what used to be a wood store near their old home in Rafah.

“Getting clean water to drink was already a challenge for us,” she says. “We had to buy drinking water even though we can barely afford it, because the public water is not clean and is too salty.

“Even the drinking water we buy is not good quality all the time, but it’s better than nothing. It’s a huge financial burden for us – my husband lost his job working in Israel after the blockade began. Where we live now doesn’t have a kitchen or running water. I have to wash the dishes outside the house. I feel humiliated to live in such conditions.”

A broken water tower: much infrastructure was damaged during the war

The story is the same elsewhere. From her cramped, ramshackle house in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, Sahar Moussa told Reuters that she spends 45 shekels (£8.20) each month – a large sum for most Palestinians – to buy filtered water. “The tap water from the municipality is not fit to drink, and my husband is a kidney patient,” she said.

With no streams or rivers to speak of, Gaza has historically relied almost exclusively on its coastal aquifer, which receives some 50 million to 60 million cubic metres of rainfall and run-off from the Hebron hills to the east each year. But the needs of Gaza’s rapidly growing population, as well as those of the nearby Israeli farmers, mean an estimated 160 million cubic metres of water is drawn from the compromised aquifer each year. Seawater is seeping in, creating a saline level beyond World Health Organisation guidelines. In a 2012 report, the UN warned that the aquifer would become unusable next year and be irreversibly damaged by 2020.

Oxfam, which has water distribution programmes in Gaza, says that about 90,000 cubic metres of untreated or partially treated sewage gets dumped into the sea every day due to lack of sanitation systems. The sewage overflows into the streets and eventually ends up in the aquifer.

The destruction of last year’s war has exacerbated the problem. Aid workers say almost 40 per cent of pumping stations and 20 miles of water pipelines were damaged and destroyed.

“Gaza’s water supply is running dry. In a few years it’s likely that every drop of water in the aquifer will be unsafe to drink without heavy treatment, and Gaza does not have the infrastructure to do that,” an Oxfam spokesman explains.

“The water crisis has been getting worse for years but last year’s conflict pushed it close to breaking point. There needs to be an end to the blockade and a proper long-term solution to Gaza’s water crisis.”

Palestinians, displaced by violence and living at a UN school in Gaza City, fill up their plastic jugs as a water supply truck makes its daily delivery (Getty)

John Gatt-Rutter, the EU’s representative in Gaza, said earlier this year: “The needs in Gaza for fresh water are huge. Nearly 95 per cent of water in Gaza is considered unfit for human consumption. Enormous efforts are needed to ensure that Gazans can access fresh water. This is both a fundamental human right and an urgent humanitarian need.”

Further complicating the issue is Israel’s blockade of Gaza, 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. Israel has acted on the problem in other ways. It is reported to have doubled the amount of water it sells to Gaza from five to 10 million cubic metres a year. That is, according to campaigners, still only 5 per cent of Gaza’s needs.

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.

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.

Work is also under way with the help of the EU and Unicef to build a desalination plant to provide drinking water for up to 75,000 people.

Rebhi el-Sheikh, the deputy chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority, has called on international donors to help fund energy, water and sewerage 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 security,” he said.

Per Kappel Arvidsson, 72, lived in Gaza between 1999 and 2001. He had arrived to set up a storm water project to collect the water that floods streets when it rains in the region. The project was based in the northern Gazan districts of Jabalia, Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanoun.

“The objective was to improve the local environment and improve public health in northern Gaza,” he says. “I heard that the project I worked on was hit by the Israelis soon after I left. That was sad news.”

There may be more sadness to come if a solution is not found to Gaza’s water crisis.

Tomorrow: Part Five - Israel and the world: has international opinion turned against the Jewish state?

Controversial colonel promoted

The Israeli army commander who oversaw the bloodiest and most controversial bombardment of 2014’s Gaza war has been promoted as Israelis and Palestinians mark the first anniversary of fighting.

Ofer Winter, commander of the Givati infantry brigade during the war, was promoted on Monday from colonel to brigadier-general. On 1 August 2014, in what became known as “Black Friday”, Brig-Gen Winter ordered the implementation of the “Hannibal Doctrine” to use firepower to prevent the capture of an Israeli soldier.

In total, 199 Palestinians, including 55 children, were killed in the resultant shelling in the southern city of Rafah over two days. A UN probe found that the Israeli conduct “may have been a war crime”.

Brig-Gen Winter sparked controversy in Israel at the start of the Gaza war, when he cast the conflict as religious in a letter to troops. He wrote that it was a great merit to fight against a “terrorist enemy that dares to curse, blaspheme and scorn the God of Israel.

Ben Lynfield

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