Water in Gaza - total collapse draws ever nearer

| 31st May 2014
Palestinian boys showing the Free Gaza passengers the lakes of untreated sewerage inside Gaza. Photo: Free Gaza movement via Flickr.
Palestinian boys showing the Free Gaza passengers the lakes of untreated sewerage inside Gaza. Photo: Free Gaza movement via Flickr.
After suffering devastating winter floods, Gaza now prepares for a long, dry summer of acute water shortages, declining water quality and a collapsing sewage system, as its coastal aquifer faces permanent damage from over-use and seawater contamination.
"The majority of water resources are concentrated in the hands of Israel, while the Palestinian population endures significant water deficits."

The consequences of a dry winter in the Middle East are being studied particularly closely in Gaza, where the area's 1.9 million residents already face a number of largely man-made threats to water security.

The following round-up of recent publications by think tanks, analysts and human rights organizations highlights the close link between water security and electricity supplies, and the near exhaustion of Gaza's coastal aquifer.

A power crisis in the territoriy has reduced the availability of running water in most households, according to a factsheet produced by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), with more than 30% of homes in Gaza receiving running water for just 6-8 hours every four days.

Immediate action needed to avert 'irreversible damage'

In March, a petition signed by nearly 13,000 people and organised by the Emergency Water and Sanitation-Hygiene Group (EWASH), a coalition which includes national and international NGOs and UN agencies, was handed to the European Parliament to urge action to end the water crisis in Gaza.

"The scale and severity of the water crisis facing the Gaza Strip is enormous, and unless immediate action is taken, the damage to Gaza's natural water resources will be irreversible", says a factsheet produced by the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA).

At least 90% of the water supply in Gaza is contaminated with a combination of nitrate (NO3) or chloride (Cl), according to the PWA. It says water quantity is also an issue, with average consumption of 90 litres per person per day, below WHO's recommended guidelines for minimum health requirements of 100 to 250 litres per person per day, say EWASH.

In the coming years, the population of Gaza is expected to continue growing, creating increased water and power needs. The power supply required to operate current water and wastewater facilities, currently 29 MW (megawatts) is expected to rise to 81.5 MW by 2020, according to PWA, as the population grows and new water projects are built.

'Significant water deficits' loom

According to an OCHA factsheet on the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), "The insufficient supply of electricity and fuel to operate water pumps and wells has caused a further reduction in the availability of running water in most households. This has increased people's reliance on private, uncontrolled water suppliers and lowered hygiene standards."

"The majority of water resources are concentrated in the hands of Israel, while the Palestinian population endures significant water deficits."

Israel is the main source of electricity in the OPTs, with 4,702 gigawatt hours purchased from Israel in 2012, constituting 89% of its total energy purchases.

The Gaza Strip, specifically, is supplied with electricity from three sources: purchases from Israel (120 megawatts) and from Egypt (28 MW) and production by the Gaza Power Plant (GPP) (currently 60 MW). According to OCHA, this supply meets less than half of the estimated demand.

In a recent report on water in the OPTs, Friends of the Earth says: "Water injustice and inequitable allocation of water to Palestinian people has seriously deteriorated the overall economic and social well-being of the people ...

"The majority of water resources are concentrated in the hands of Israel, while the Palestinian population endures significant water deficits."

B'Tselem: 'an unequal division'

In a press release issued in February, the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem said the Israeli government was largely responsible for this discrimination due its water policy: "Minimal amounts of water are supplied to Palestinians and water from shared resources is unequally divided."

The Israel Water Authority on the other hand says Israel goes well beyond existing water obligations in providing additional water supplies to OPT. It says uncontrolled drilling in OPT is a major threat to supply:

"Over 300 unauthorized wells were drilled by the Palestinians in the West Bank. These unauthorized wells may ruin the shared aquifer as they almost completely ruined the one in Gaza and caused an ecological disaster."

Gaza's coastal aquifer 'unusable' by 2016

Almost all the water in Gaza comes from the coastal aquifer, which is shared with Israel. "[D]ue to the absence of any policy coordination between Israel and the Gaza Strip with regard to the Coastal Aquifer, both authorities are currently over-extracting", says EWASH.

A UN report in August 2012 entitled Gaza in 2020 forecast that at current rates of deterioration the coastal aquifer will become unusable by 2016 and beyond repair by 2020.

In 2009 the UN Environment Programme recommended ending abstraction from the aquifer completely, but with low rainfall and no year-round rivers, Gaza has few other options.

PWA has long-term plans for a central desalination plant and short-term plans for several low-volume desalination projects, wastewater treatment plants and developing treated wastewater reuse for irrigation. But given the challenges posed by the blockade and electricity shortages, the viability of such plans is in question.

Without power, adequate water is a pipe-dream

While large-scale emergency and strategic water desalination and wastewater treatment projects are necessary to provide for the population in the future, without adequate power sources, these projects will only add to the challenges.

As part of its 2014 response plan for OPT, the UN has appealed for US$25 million to help improve access to basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services for 1.9 million of the people in need.

So far, the chronically underfunded Water and Sanitation-Hygiene (WASH) sector is just 5.6% funded, well below the average of 18% for other sectors.



This article was originally published by Irin News - a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Also on The Ecologist



The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here