An ongoing crisis in Gaza has left millions without access to clean drinking water. An issue stemming from both compromised water quality and quantity, only a small percent of Gaza’s population has access to safe drinking water. Many Gazans rely on other methods to receive clean water for their families, often at great cost. A humanitarian crisis in the making, Gaza faces a dire situation; that the land itself could be uninhabitable in a short time.
The area that is now known as the Gaza strip was of great strategic importance because it is the first source of freshwater north of the Sinai Desert. The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 incorporated two-thirds of mandate Gaza into Israel, leading to an influx of refugees, and increasing the population by more than 300%. This placed great stress on water resources and infrastructure.
After the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights, increasing its own hydrological position. Through military orders in the 1960’s, Israel established strict rule over water resources including prohibition of unlicensed construction of new water infrastructure. A number of Palestinian wells were confiscated or dried up as a result of overuse by Israel pumping from deeper wells.
In 1986, the abstraction (pumping) quota for Palestinians was reduced by 10%. Further limitations on the Palestinians included blocking natural springs and existing wells, uprooting thousands of citrus trees, and destroying cisterns.
The Gaza Strip has no access to perennial streams and very little rainfall. As such, the coastal aquifer is the main source of freshwater for the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas on earth. The aquifer runs beneath the coast of Israel, downstream towards Gaza at the end of the basin. Abstraction from the aquifer has little effect on Israel’s side as the water flows mainly east-west. Israel has, however, installed a cordon of numerous deep wells along the border with Gaza; much of the groundwater is extracted before it can reach Gaza.
Water imports from Israel have been agreed upon through protocols such as Oslo II, however they have been inadequate. Israel itself has also abstracted water far exceeding its agreed-upon amount. Facing shortages of clean water, unlicensed wells, especially to provide irrigation for agricultural purposes, have been increasing. All of these factors, along with an expanding population in an increasingly urban centre, has lead to over abstraction of the aquifer.
The Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), designated to act as a regulatory authority and responsible for legislation, monitoring and human resources development, was split into two, after Hamas’ rise to power in 2007: one half in Ramallah (West Bank) and one in Gaza. Water management and long-term planning is handled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, as they have the necessary resources. As part of an arrangement with the PA, the PWA has responsibilities over the water sector in Gaza. The PWA, also in charge of water management, has been ineffective or had its regulatory capabilities indefinitely suspended, due to takeover of their offices in conflicts and reduced linkages with Ramallah.
As part of a blockade initiated by Israel, access to Gaza is restricted. The Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the only gateway not controlled by Israel, has been routinely closed since the military-installed government in Cairo. Israel also maintains a coastal blockade along Gaza’s entire coastline; a blockade that has gradually moved closer to the coast.
The blockade of Gaza severely restricts the import of not only food or fuel, but necessary materials to upgrade Gaza’s collapsing water and wastewater infrastructure, such as cement. Fuel shortages have caused rolling blackouts that in turn affect water distribution to household reservoirs; many water wells work at half capacity or not at all due to a lack of spare parts. Perhaps most importantly, Gazans are prevented from exploring other options for alternative water supplies, and importation of additional water is slow and delayed.
The economic situation for Gazans, partly due to the blockade, have not been great. In 2005, Israel’s Gross National Income per capita was almost 18 times the Palestinian GNI per capita. Fresh water per capita in Israel was about 4 times that of the West Bank and Gaza (WBG). The UN reported in 2012, that 66% of households in Gaza were classified as being food insecure or vulnerable to food insecurity. Gaza’s economy, which is heavily reliant on movement of its people, has been unviable given increased sea and land restrictions. Placed in a competitive disadvantage, Gaza’s economy wanes as the private sector’s resiliency continues to erode. The Gaza Strip, and the Palestinian territories as a whole, rely on outside investments and expertise to be able to maintain their infrastructure and begin new projects.
The Current Situation in the Gaza Strip
An increasing population and thus, increased demand for clean water, along with restrictions on their ability to access material or labour to maximize efficiency, has led to over abstraction of the coastal aquifer. Significant stress has thus been placed on the aquifer. Current abstraction is estimated to be over 160 million cubic metres (MCM) per year, while the recharge rate of the aquifer is around 60 MCM/yr. This has caused seawater from the Mediterranean Sea to infiltrate the aquifer, increasing salinity levels beyond World Health Organization (WHO) standards for safe drinking water.
The infrastructure to treat and handle water is in dismay. Wastewater management and sanitation services are becoming outdated or in need of maintenance/upgrades. The ineffectiveness of the PWA and increasing isolation between Gaza and the West Bank has led to delayed fund transfers, and fuel and material shipments necessary for the maintenance of the existing infrastructure. The blockade and volatile security situation in Gaza has prevented international contractors from seeking work in Gaza or has caused them to leave. Participation from donors or investors have been deterred due to tension in the region as well as the ineffectiveness in completing projects. Necessary materials become extraordinarily expensive, even in good time. The Gaza War (2008/2009) further damaged key infrastructure and worsened the situation by preventing critical imports into Gaza.
Agencies such as UNICEF, UNDP (United Nations Development Program), and UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) have cancelled hundreds of projects in Gaza over the years. A 2009 report by the World Bank listed various projects, valued over $1 million, undergone between 2003-2009 in Gaza; a lack of funds, materials, labour, and organization has taken its toll on critical water infrastructure.
Treatment plants have been overloaded beyond capacity and many have reported as not functioning properly or not functioning at all. A significant portion of Gaza households are not connected to a sewage network; many households that use cesspits cannot afford to have them properly emptied by municipal trucks or brought to discharge points. As a result, in Gaza, only about 25% of wastewater is able to be treated and re-infiltrated for use in green areas and some form of agriculture. Some 33 MCM/yr of untreated or partially treated sewage has to be released directly into the Mediterranean Sea and environs. Raw sewage also often leaks through to lagoons, wadis, or seeps through the soil into the Coastal aquifer. Fertilizers from irrigation also contributes to the ongoing contamination of the aquifer.
By 2012, 90% of the water abstracted from the aquifer was not safe for drinking without treatment. While 10% of Gazans had access to safe drinking water, 90% do so in the West Bank and 85% in MENA (Middle East & North Africa) in general. As a dire situation was unfolding, private wells and desalination centres have stepped in to fill a void, best they can. While they provide a partial stop-gap between Gazans and unclean water, they are an expensive venture to maintain and don’t have the institutional support and organization, planning, and funding to go with it. Many families are forced to partition up to a third of their income on clean water.
The water situation has negatively impacted the agricultural sector in Gaza and the West Bank. The high salinity of the groundwater has forced farmers to abandon tradition crops (strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc) in favor of salt tolerant crops. Farmers, like most households, have been forced to use alternative options to gain access to water.
Poor water quality and supply, and inadequate sanitation conditions have led to a predictably severe situation for the health of Gaza’s citizens. According to the World Health Organization, contaminated water accounts for 26% of all disease in the territory and 50% of Gaza’s children suffer from water-related parasitic infections. A 2002 study found 48.5% of babies born in Gaza had high methaemoglobin levels, a form of haemoglobin that does not bind oxygen.
Other potential water-related health impacts:
- Drinking saline water can cause kidney dysfunction, heart failure, neurological symptoms, lethargy, and high blood pressure.
- High levels of fluoride, found in Gaza’s waters, can cause gastritis, ulcers, kidney failure, bone fluorosis, and tooth fluorosis.
- The potentially fatal blue-baby syndrome.
In the Near Future
Worst-case estimates by a UN team placed 2020 as a point of no return; when the damage done to the aquifer may be irreversible. Even with remedial action to cease abstraction from the aquifer, it could take decades, or even centuries, for it to fully recover.
The need for immediate action coincides with an estimated increase in population in Gaza from roughly 1.6 million in 2012 to 2.1 million residents by 2020, and thus, an increased demand for clean water, additional strain on infrastructure, and need for economic relief. A real possibility is that the land known as the Gaza Strip may become “unlivable”, without any reliable source of water to support the population.
- A history of conflict in the region has left the Palestinian people with limited resources, while they continue to live under a tense situation.
- A governance system has been in place that is constrained and cannot effectively meet the needs of Palestinian water resources and support necessary infrastructure.
- An investment environment that has created huge costs and delays, while driving away potential investors and donors. Materials and skilled labour from outside Gaza are difficult to procure.
- Many international efforts and projects have been cancelled due to the difficult situation.
- Wastewater treatment facilities, sanitation, and general water infrastructure are in subpar conditions with maintenance being slow or nonexistent.
- Water conditions have worsened to the extent that 90% of water extracted from Gaza’s main source is unsafe.
- Occurrences of water-related diseases are high and the health risks posed to the public are significant.
- Efforts from the private sector and individuals are beneficial but ultimately insufficient.
- An expected population increase and deteriorating main water source could mean irreversible damage within years. At worst, Gaza may become “unliveable”.
Water Purifier Project in Palestine
Access to clean water is a problem in Palestine and the chronic shortage of water has been a serious issue. In 2016, the Earth Caravan water purifier project began to secure local drinking water.
Doctor Ahmed works in Gaza and has set up healing camps for children and students suffering mental illnesses and injuries from Israeli bombings. Doctor Ahmed, with some help from Earth Caravan members, has been in contact with Ryokyu Endo. An invitation was sent for Ryoku and Mayu Endo to come to Gaza to have a workshop and give treatments. Unfortunately, this plan was rejected by the Israeli army.
However, Ryokyu persisted and is raising the necessary funds ($12,000) towards a desalination water purifier for the centre. Ryokyu will enter Gaza to set it up. Money for maintenance will be collected from users over time.
The clean water will help the centre towards healing the trauma suffered by many young people.
Any amount you can spare will go towards a great goal and is tremendously appreciated. Thank you.
Tao Sangha, “Water Crisis: Gaza is dying”, 2017
World Bank, “West Bank and Gaza: Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development.” 2009
United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, “Gaza in 2020. A livable place?” August 2012
Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, “Hostage to Politics: The impact of sanctions and the blockade on the human right to water and sanitation in Gaza.” 2008 https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/725D407063CED0D6C12573D9004FD791-Full_Report.pdf
World Bank, “Water Situation Alarming in Gaza”, November 2016
Gaza Strip Water Management