Gaza: Israel bombs water and sewage systems

Happy days: children of Gaza play on a water slide during UNRWA Summer Fun Weeks, 2013. Photo: United Nations Photo via Flickr.
Happy days: children of Gaza play on a water slide during UNRWA Summer Fun Weeks, 2013. Photo: United Nations Photo via Flickr.
Israel's armed forces have destroyed vital water and sewage infrastructure in their bombing campaign of the besieged territory, writes Mohammed Omer. This constitutes a severe breach of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the part of Israel and all those conceiving, planning, ordering and perpetrating the attacks.
If this situation continues, Gaza residents will be subjected to a humanitarian crisis even worse than the immediate one of trying to survive under Israel's air-strikes.

Israel's Gaza offensive, which by the ninth day has claimed at least 208 lives, including 40 children, and injured over 1,530 people, threatens to bring an even deeper humanitarian disaster to the area, with vital water and sewerage systems being destroyed by Israeli air strikes. 

Palestinian officials on Saturday claimed that the Israelis had targeted water wells in different parts of Gaza City, leaving thousands of families without access to clean drinking water.

Saed al-Din Atbash, head of water facilities at Gaza Municipality, told reporters in Gaza City that Israel is deliberately targeting the wells:

"Warplanes have targeted two wells directly, one near to al-Maqwsi area 9a densely populated area with residential tower blocks) and another in al-Zaytoun, both used by 7,000 inhabitants."

Pipeline attacks may leave 100,000's with no water

Israeli warplanes have also targeted five water pipelines that supply large numbers of Gazans. With each line providing water to 20,000 inhabitants, as many as 100,000 people could be affected by the attacks. 

Gaza Municipality estimates the damage to each of the water wells at $150,000. The cost to the civilian population could well be higher, forcing families to try and stockpile on expensive and scarce drinking water. 

"Services are now struggling to cope and the insecurity is making it difficult to deliver aid", Oxfam country director Nishant Pandey said last week.

Oxfam's partners have had to suspend efforts to chlorinate water supplies in Gaza because of the ongoing violence, although 90% of water in Gaza already considered unsafe to drink.

Shati refugee camp, in northern Gaza, is among the worst affected areas. Home to Ismail Haniyeh, who until last month exercised prime ministerial authority in Gaza, the camp is seen as a valuable target and has been hit at least once by Israeli F16s, local eyewitnesses said.

Atbash said repairs to the water line will require a period of calm and until then about 70,000 residents will be deprived of water in the refugee camp.

And even under normal circumstances, Palestinians are systematically denied adequate access to water. (See 'Water apartheid in Palestine - a crime against humanity?')

A sewage quagmire

The sewage system is also a target, with Israeli warplanes targeting sewage treatment stations in West Gaza City early on Saturday. The areas most affected are Shati refugee camp, Tal al-Hawa, Sheikh Ejleen and most Western districts, according to Atbash.

Oxfam reports that following the damage to sewage plants, 25,000 cubic meters of raw sewage are spilling into the sea daily - increasing the likelihood of disease caused by poor sanitation. The damage is expected to take months to fully repair.

If this situation continues, Gaza residents will be subjected to a humanitarian crisis even worse than the immediate one of trying to survive under Israel's air-strikes.

The organisation also fears that severe shortages of fuel - a problem at the best of times - will cause cause sewage pumps, sewage treatment plants and and water pumps to be switched off within days.

The latest attacks are exacerbating an already critical sewerage situation. (See 'Gaza: sewage as a weapon of war'.) The New York Times reported last year that 13 sewerage stations in Gaza Strip were either overflowing or were close to overflowing.

Our legal right to water!

Gaza Municipality sees the Israeli attacks on the water and sewerage systems as "collective punishment" of the Palestinian people.

"Under international law, the targeting of civilian water supplies is classified as a war crime", Atbash said. "The Israeli occupation's fighter-jets targeted a sewage-station holding 25,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage, pumped in from four areas daily."

Atbash appealed to the international community to urge Israel to stop targeting water and sewerage facilities, saying that all occupied civilians have a legal and human right to clean water, sanitation and hygiene:

"We are constantly working to improve municipality water facilities to citizens in Gaza. The Israeli occupation is deliberately destroying the water wells in order to increase the human suffering during the hot summer season."

Article 54 of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which prohibits the "starvation of civilians as a method of warfare", states:

"It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive."

As such, the main defence of Israel and those responsible for ordering and perpetrating the attacks on Gaza's water and sewage infrastructure would be that the damage was accidental. However, given the widespread and apparently systematic nature of the attacks, such a claim may not be sustainable.

Even without the bombing, less than half of Gaza's water needs are satisfied

As anywhere else, consumption of water in Gaza increases in summer, but power-cuts due to Israel's destruction of electrical systems have forced water-pumps used by families to be shut down. 

"We often don't have access to both water and electricity in the same hour", said Umm Ramzy, a mother of seven children, who daily has to confront the fact that occasional drips from the water tap will not take care of family needs or domestic chores. 

Gaza Strip needs on average 180 million cubic meters of water annually, while the capacity of the coastal aquifer (after Israel has depleted in from deep boreholes near its border with Gaza) is no more than 80 million cubic meters per year.

To handle the shortage, the municipal water supply is cut at certain times and distributed to different areas according to the population density.

The aquifer is also suffering from salt water contamination and the infiltration of untreated sewage. A recent UN report has predicted that the Gaza aquifer may be "unusable" by 2016. (see 'Water in Gaza - total collapse draws ever nearer'.)

Umm Ramzy is among those who find the situation difficult to live with: "When I wash I need water, when I cook I need water, when we are thirsty we need water, when my children use the toilet they need water."

One of her children announces there is no water to flush the toilet for the second day. In some areas, a few trucks are distributing limited water to families, but for drinking only, not for anything else, said residents of Shati refugee camp.

"We never think of taking a shower", Umm Ramzy told the Middle East Eye. "That's a luxury right now." Gaza's summer can be unbearably hot anyway, where families find it difficult to cope with daily life. With war, it certainly makes it worse than before. 

Emergency World Bank plans unfunded, on hold

The World Bank has plans to improve the situation through the proposed $43m North Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment Project, which according to the World Bank aims to:

  • mitigate the immediate and impending health, environmental and safety threats to the communities surrounding the poorly treated and rapidly growing sewage lake in the Beit Lahia area of northern Gaza; and to
  • contribute to the provision of a satisfactory long-term solution for the treatment of wastewater in the Northern Gaza Governorate.

However, no funding has yet been committed to the project - and with everything in Gaza on hold while the Israeli military operation continues, no improvements are in sight.

The latest damage to vital infrastructure is further straining the Palestinian health system, already having to treat many hundreds of people seriously injured by the bombing. Hospitals in Gaza have also been targeted in Israeli attacks.

The World Health Organization has appealed for $60m to help prevent the total collapse of the Gaza health system. 

If this situation continues, Gaza residents are at risk of suffering a humanitarian crisis even worse than the immediate one of trying to survive under Israel's air-strikes.



Mohammed Omer is an award winning Palestinian-Dutch journalist, based in Gaza, who writes for Middle East Eye.

This article is an edited version of one originally published on Middle East Eye.