Nora Barrows-Friedman / Common Dreams & The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – 2010-10-16 23:16:04
Water Crisis in Palestine Is Worsening
Nora Barrows-Friedman / Common Dreams
THE OCCUPIED TERRITORIES (October 15, 2010) — “The wind finally came to Palestine,” a friend of mine told me on the phone today, from his home in Battir, a small village near Bethlehem. “Now we can finally breathe.” He said he was relieved that the sweltering Palestinian summer was nearing its end and Autumn was showing its colors in the parched hillsides and in the air. But the water in my friend’s home, in his village and across occupied Palestine is still slow to trickle, as it has been for months.
As Jewish Israelis enjoy trips to the beach, neighborhood swimming pools, unfettered access to clean drinking water, state-of-the-art sewage treatment infrastructure, and endless amounts of running water in their homes, Palestinians in communities separated by boundaries, walls, and checkpoints brace and prepare each time the weather heats up and the antiquated wells dry up.
For weeks on end — especially in the refugee camps inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip — there simply is no water coming from the tap, and people are forced to purchase bottled water just to meet their daily needs.
For Palestinians under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and in Palestinian-Bedouin communities inside Israel itself, water has historically been a precious commodity especially in the summer months — which can stretch, like this year’s, for over five months — because of the ongoing resource theft of groundwater tables by the Israeli state and the economic blockade the government continues against the people in Gaza.
According to current statistics by Amnesty International, Israel takes 80% of the water in the Mountain aquifers in the north (one of many water sources available to Israel, including the state’s full access to the Jordan River, which runs inside the occupied West Bank); while Palestinians in the West Bank are left with just the remaining 20% of that one aquifer, and are prohibited from accessing water from the Jordan river altogether.
However, in Gaza, 95% of the groundwater is extremely polluted and deemed unfit for human consumption, according to new reports from Israeli human rights organization B’tselem. [See full report below.]
The water crisis has entered into a troubling phase as Israel maintains its suffocating blockade against the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped inside the strip. This blockade, which has been in place as collective punishment following the Hamas party’s political takeover in 2007, prevents entry to hundreds of items — including essential industrial materials needed to repair the water infrastructure.
The Electronic Intifada reported on B’tselem’s findings back in September:
“Citing reports from the United Nations’ Environment Program, the Palestinian Water Authority, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility and international aid organizations, B’Tselem’s report says that children are being especially affected by the water crisis in Gaza.
The report references the over-pumping of groundwater, combined with poor wastewater management systems and the toxification of ground soil from waste disposal sites — where asbestos, medical waste, oils and fuels were dumped after Israel’s three-week attacks in 2008-09. As a result, according to B’Tselem, chemicals such as chlorides and nitrates are contributing to excessive diseases and internal injuries, especially in Gaza’s children.
Israeli air strikes during the winter attacks also damaged wastewater treatment plants in Gaza, and damaged thirty kilometers of water networks, eleven wells and six thousand residential water tanks. Reports estimate that the damage to the water infrastructure amounted to approximately $6 million.
“According to international aid organizations, twenty percent of Gazan families have at least one child under age five who suffers from diarrhea as a result of polluted water,” B’Tselem reports. “A UN study published in 2009 estimates that diarrhea is the cause of 12 percent of children’s deaths in Gaza. The lack of potable drinking water is liable to cause malnutrition in children and affect their physical and cognitive development.”
Moreover, the blockade and the bombings have affected the sewage infrastructure as well. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City released a shocking report in August on the toxification of the sea itself because of the deterioration of Gaza’s wastewater treatment plants.
“Gaza’s current wastewater treatment facilities were constructed with an operational capacity of 32,000 cubic meters of waste a day,” states the report .
“With a growth rate that is one of the world’s highest — an estimated 3.6 percent annually — Gaza’s surging population has overwhelmed the capacity of the waste treatment facilities, and Monther [Shoblak, director general of the Coastal Municipality Water Utility] estimates that the facilities are now receiving at least 65,000 cubic meters of waste daily.
“Unable to handle more than half of its intake, much of the sewage is directly transported to the sea, where it is dumped completely untreated. Much of this sewage washes back onto Gaza’s shores, polluting the beaches and creating toxic swimming conditions for the countless children and adults seeking escape from the intense summer heat,” the report continued.
Facts like these are staggering, and nothing new to Palestinians who have experienced decades of humanitarian crisis. So, what do we do about this deliberate water emergency unfolding across Palestine, especially inside the Gaza strip, and especially affecting the most vulnerable population, the children?
Berkeley, California-based Middle East Children’s Alliance has taken direct action against the water crisis in Gaza, launching the Maia project to provide Palestinian children with clean, safe drinking water. Maia is Arabic for water.
According to their website, the project began “when the Student Parliament at the UN Boys’ School in Bureij Refugee Camp, Gaza were given the opportunity to choose one thing they most wanted for their school: They chose to have clean drinking water. MECA’s partner in Gaza heard about this vote and, after meeting with representatives from the school and the Student Parliament, came to MECA to see if we could respond to the children’s request for drinking water. MECA provided the funds to build a water purification and desalination unit for the school in 2007.”
MECA’s interest in simply providing something we here in this country, and in most industrialized places across the world, for granted — clean, safe, drinking water — is intrinsically aligned with their 22-year old philosophy that Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese children deserve a better and healthier future than the one they’ve acquired under so many years of occupations and wars.
This philosophy includes the radical notion that there are already incredible people on the ground who are already working hard to better their communities, and international donor support should compliment and sustain that locally-based work. MECA says they are working in partnership with various community organizations “to build water purification and desalination units in schools throughout the Gaza strip… We have provided clean water to twelve large UN schools in Palestinian refugee camps and to ten kindergartens in refugee camps, towns, and villages,” they say.
MECA is appealing for generous donations to combat the aggressive and unraveling humanitarian crisis in Gaza by building water purification systems in Palestinian childrens’ schools.
“A large purification unit for a UN school in a refugee camp costs $11,300. The UN schools run in shifts due to overcrowding and each unit provides drinking water for 1,500-2,000 children and staff.
A small purification unit for a preschool or kindergarten costs $4,000 and serves 150-450 children. Many of the small units are located in community centers with after-school programs and summer camps so the units serve these children as well. Many organizations, individuals, and schools around the US are raising the whole cost of a unit in their communities,” MECA says.
There’s always so much despair when I talk or think or write about Palestine — but through this project, and with the work that MECA’s staff in California and in Palestine have been doing for so many years, I know it’s possible to make an extraordinary difference in children’s lives.
Water Supplied in Gaza Unfit for Drinking;
Israel Prevents Entry of Materials Needed to Repair System
B’tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories?
GAZA STRIP (August 23, 2010) — Almost 95 percent of the water pumped in the Gaza Strip is polluted and unfit for drinking. This warning was recently issued by the UN Environment Programme, the Palestinian Water Authority, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, and international aid organizations. They estimate it will take at least 20 years to rehabilitate Gaza’s underground water system, and any delay in dealing with the problem will lead to additional deterioration in the situation and thus might extend the rehabilitation process for hundreds of years.
Since it began its siege on the Gaza Strip, in June 2007, Israel has forbidden the entry of equipment and materials needed to rehabilitate the water and wastewater-treatment systems there. The prohibition has remained despite the recent easing of the siege.
Magnitude of the Pollution
The director of quality control in the Gazan Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, Eng. Majed Ghanem, told B’Tselem that an examination conducted in late 2009 in 180 wells revealed that, in 93 percent of them, the chloride level (which indicates the water’s salinity) was 1,000 to 2,000 mg/liter, four to eight times higher than the 250 mg/liter amount recommended by the WHO. Water with a chloride level this high is unfit for drinking. According to Ghanem, the pollution also affects the water’s color and causes its repellent odor.
In addition, an examination carried out by the UN Environment Programme on a number of wells in Gaza found that the concentration of nitrates was six times higher than the 50 mg level recommended by the WHO. This high level of nitrates is liable to cause anemia among children and methemoglobinemia (“blue infants” syndrome) among infants, which is liable to lead to choking and death. A study published in 2007, in which a sample of 340 infants from Gaza were examined, found that almost half of them suffered from troubling symptoms of the syndrome.
The Palestinian Water Authority estimates that almost 40 percent of the incidence of disease in Gaza is related to polluted drinking water. According to international aid organizations, 20 percent of Gazan families have at least one child under age five who suffers from diarrhea as a result of polluted water.
A UN study published in 2009 estimates that diarrhea is the cause of 12 percent of children’s deaths in Gaza. The lack of potable drinking water is liable to cause malnutrition in children and affect their physical and cognitive development.
The water pollution also harms the areaâ€™s agricultural produce. According to Ghanem, the milk given by cows in Gaza is polluted, and farm crops that once characterized the area, such as oranges, have declined in quantity and quality.
Effects of the Siege and Operation Cast Lead
Since the beginning of the siege, Israel has prohibited the entry of equipment and materials that can be used to improve water quality and taste, and to develop and rehabilitate the water infrastructure and the wastewater-treatment facilities in Gaza.
The prohibition has remained in force even after the recent easing of restrictions, and despite the Cabinet’s decision to allow the entry of building materials for projects that have been approved by the Palestinian Authority and are supervised by international organizations. The equipment needed includes water pumps, pipes, generators, computers, building cement, and chloride. Israel classifies these materials as dual-use items that are liable to be used for military purposes, and therefore prohibits their entry.
The Gazan Coastal Municipalities Water Utility currently requires 1,250 tons of cement just to rebuild water reservoirs. The Sufa Crossing between Gaza and Israel, which is intended, among other things, for the transfer of building materials, has been closed since March 2009. The by-laws of the international organizations prohibit them from purchasing cement smuggled into Gaza through tunnels, for the rehabilitation projects.
The lack of construction materials and replacement parts has also led to greater loss of water from the supply network in Gaza. Prior to the siege, the loss had been 30 percent of the amount of water supplied to consumers, generally resulting from leaks in the pipes. In 2009, the loss reached 47 percent, according to figures of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility.
The Gaza Strip’s power station has been working at partial output since Israel bombed it in June 2006. There is also a shortage of industrial fuel needed to operate the station, following the disputes that arose between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas regarding its funding, which has led to frequent power outages. The outages prevent the wastewater-treatment facilities from completing the 14-day treatment cycle and also impair the frequency of water supply to houses.
According to UN figures, water is supplied to houses in Gaza City for four to six hours once every five days, and in the rest of the Gaza Strip for four to six hours once every three days. Due to the low pressure, the water does not reach the top floors in tall buildings.
In Operation Cast Lead, Israel damaged Gaza City’s wastewater-treatment facility, leading to untreated wastewater flooding extensive farm areas.
According to the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, 30 kilometers of water networks, 11 wells, and 6,000 home water tanks were damaged during the operation, and the overall damage to the water and wastewater-treatment facilities amounted to six million dollars.
Most of Gaza’s wastewater now flows to the Mediterranean Sea, some as raw wastewater, and some following partial treatment. International organizations have found that the shoreline near which the wastewater flows is polluted and unfit for bathing. Proper wastewater treatment would have enabled use of the treated wastewater for agricultural purposes and reduced pumping of the underground water.
Effect of the Economic Situation on Water Consumption
Due to the poor water quality, many Gazans are forced to buy water treated in facilities operated by local entrepreneurs or to use home desalination devices. The quality of the water provided in this way is unsupervised, and the lack of replacement parts and regular power supply has harmed them, too.
Since treatment of water from pollutants such as nitrates and chlorides is very expensive, the cost of a cubic meter of treated water is a high as 50 shekels (some 13 US dollars in August 2010), 10 times higher than the price paid by households in Israel.
Many Gazans cannot afford this luxury: the unemployment rate in Gaza reached 39 percent in 2009, and poverty in 2007 was 43 percent. In 2007, average family expenditures in Gaza stood at slightly more than 2,000 shekels a month.
Recommendations of the UN Environment Programme
To prevent the collapse of the Gazan water economy, the UN Environment Programme recommended, a year ago, that pumping of water from the Coast Aquifer in Gaza cease. The Programme also suggested that Israel and Egypt, countries which share the water of the aquifer, formulate a joint action plan — including alternative water-supply sources, among them desalination facilities — to deal with the water crisis in Gaza.
The Programme also recommended that an epidemiological survey be made to study the effects of polluted-water consumption on the Gazan population, especially on the children.
To cope with the grave water crisis in Gaza, Israel must immediately allow the entry of materials and equipment needed to rehabilitate and develop the water and wastewater-treatment systems there. Also, all the sides — Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Hamas government, and Egypt — must take action to stop the rapid deterioration in the condition of the underground water system of the Coast Aquifer, which serves residents of the Gaza Strip, and find additional sources of drinking water for the residents.
Also, Israel must take action to ensure a fair and equal distribution of the water resources shared by Israel and the Palestinians.
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