Dryness in Gaza: War and the Palestinian Water Crisis
August 11, 2014
Amir Dakkak / EcoMENA & Isonomia
Prior to a blockade imposed by Israel in 2006, around 97% of all households within the Gaza strip had access to water. The ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza has taken a heavy toll on the strip's water infrastructure, leaving the territory's 1.8 million residents facing long periods without access to clean running water. This has driven residents to travel long distances in order to reach a source of water that they can use. Scientists now warn that the Gaza sSrip could be uninhabitable by the year 2016.
GAZA CITY (August 8, 2014) -- For almost a month the Gaza Strip has been subject to regular Israeli bombardment that has made headlines around the world. While concerns have focused on the direct impact on the civilian population and the lack of medical supplies available to deal with the rising number of casualties, less attention is being given to a problem that could in the end prove more deadly.
The damage done by the latest outbreak of conflict to Gaza's infrastructure is exacerbating its lack of usable water. The only natural source of fresh water in Gaza is a shallow aquifer on the southern part of its coast.
Between 90 and 95% of this does not produce potable water because of neighboring seawater, sewage, and runoff from agriculture. Nevertheless, residents have no other choice but to resort to using it -- more than 90% of the 150 municipal wells have salt and nitrate levels above WHO standards.
UN hydrologists have indicated that current extraction rates from the aquifer run at around 160 million cubic meters (mcm)/year, 105 mcm above the recommended abstraction rate.
The repercussions of this over abstraction could be disastrous because a drop in the water table is predicted to lead to a massive intrusion of sea water into the aquifer, potentially leading to its permanent contamination.
Of course the situation was not always like this. Prior to a blockade imposed by Israel in 2006, the Coastal Municipalities Water Authority had succeeded in giving around 97% of all households within the Gaza strip access to water, although the daily usage of 80l was well below WHO guidelines.
Gaza also showcased five sewage and wastewater treatment plants that improved the water's quality and sustainability. Why did all of this change? What happened? And why have scientists predicted that the Gaza strip could be uninhabitable by the year 2016?
The ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza has taken a heavy toll on the strip's already fragile water infrastructure, leaving the territory's 1.8 million residents facing long periods without access to clean running water. This has driven residents to travel long distances in order to reach a source of water that they can use. Many residents rely on purchasing expensive bottled water -- at times this has had to be smuggled in from the underground tunnels that connect into Egypt, as bottled water was only approved for import by Egypt in 2010.
The bombardment has also had negative effects on the five sewage and wastewater treatment plants in Gaza, three of which have been damaged by the bombings. As a result, an estimated 3.5 million cubic feet of raw sewage is being discharged into the Mediterranean Sea every day.
Of course, Gaza's water supply was already in a parlous condition well before the most recent conflict. The blockade that has been in place for the last eight years has seen Israel imposing controls on all materials entering and exiting the Gaza Strip. Access to spare parts and materials needed to repair and improve infrastructure has been severely restricted, leading to important facilities deteriorating over time.
The situation is exacerbated by the large share of available water from the coastal aquifer that is exploited by Israel -- a similar pattern to that found in the West Bank. The aquifer runs along the coast, with Gaza's situation making it the "downstream user" of the water resources.
According to the Inventory of Shared Water Resources in Western Asia, Israel is responsible for around 66% of abstraction from the aquifer, compared with Gaza's 23% and Egypt's 11%. Finally, Israel constantly rejects Palestinian proposals for the construction of private water wells and often destroys any that exist.
In 2012, the plans for a desalination plant in Gaza were suggested and were backed by Israel, all Mediterranean governments, the UN, the EU, and key development banks. Finances for this projects were to be provided by the Islamic Development Bank and the European Investment Bank. However, shortly after the plans were published, conflicts reoccurred and Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip resumed, leading to this once promising project being discarded.
Water quality has become a central factor in the crisis threatening the sustainability of life in Gaza. Although there is no end in sight to either the current attacks on the city or the illegal blockade, peace now seems to be the only solution left available to the area's worsening water issues.
Unless the people of Gaza are given the freedom to manage their own water supply, rebuild its infrastructure, and to import fresh water from the outside world, the water crisis will continue to worsen until the Gaza Strip becomes unlivable.
Amir Dakkak, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem, is a fresh graduate from the University of Edinburgh with specialization in Environmental Sciences. His main passion is water scarcity and water sustainability in the MENA region. He runs the blog Water Source that addresses water problems and sustainability. Amir has worked with Emirates Environmental Group on various environmental issues including water scarcity.
We are grateful to EcoMENA for the opportunity to reproduce this article, a version of which first appeared here. EcoMENA is a website focused on raising awareness of renewable energy, sustainability, waste management, environment protection, energy efficiency and resource conservation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
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