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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Gaza's Water Crisis: From Lever Of Occupation To Weapon Of War

Shortages of water, which have ultimately long been controlled by Israel, have long been a brutal reality for the Palestinians of Gaza. Now with the ongoing bombing and siege campaign, the daily search for water has become central to the struggle to survive.

Photo of Palestinians waiting in line to collect clean water

Palestinians line up to collect clean water from a water tank, amid the restricted supplies of water, food, fuel, and electricity in Gaza

Noor Swirki and Sara Seif Eddin

KHAN YOUNIS — Firas, a young Palestinian man from the Gaza Strip, was displaced from eastern Khan Younis to a shelter in the governorate’s center due to the ongoing Israeli bombing. Each day, he carries several empty bottles and makes his way to the Nasser Medical Complex in the south of Gaza, hoping to fill them there.

This water is impotable, but he drinks it anyway. The only other option for him and his family is to stand in line for hours to buy 10 bottles for 12 shekels ($3.08), which is 50% higher than pre-war prices. The water may run out before his turn comes. With the continuing bombing, Firas, like all those displaced to shelter centers, only has the chance to shower every two or three days, depending on the availability of water.

Firas is not alone. Falastin, a displaced woman in her thirties, carries a plastic bag filled with her clothes for half a kilometer to reach a public bathroom in a hospital to take a shower. On her way back, she carries a gallon of water to bring home to her three daughters so they can also shower and wash their clothes. “Imagine walking all this distance and carrying all this weight on my back,” Falastin says.

Ahmad faces a slightly better situation than Firas and Falastin. He hasn’t been displaced yet, but he shares in the daily strip-wide struggle to get water. Ahmad is in charge of the water supply for his family of nine. He walks to a tank at a nearby mosque three times a day while carrying a gallon bottle and fetches 16 liters of water after waiting in line for at least half an hour.

When the war ends — for it will end someday — and the massacres that have killed nearly 10,000 Palestinians so far, most of whom are children, women and elderly people, recede, Gaza’s water may return to what it was before the war. It is hard to imagine a worse situation.

Water extraction from the Coastal Aquifer Basin

About 97% of Gaza’s water was non-potable before the war, according to World Health Organization (WHO) standards, due to Israel’s 17-year-long blockade, which enacted water policies that scholar Eyal Weizman has described as “a more subtle process of killing.”

The Gaza Strip is a coastal enclave overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It runs along the coastline for about 40 kilometers with a depth ranging from six to 12 kilometers. It has an underground water basin known as the Coastal Aquifer Basin, which serves as the main water source for 2.3 million Palestinians living in the strip. They consume about 240 million cubic meters of water annually.

The aquifer basin is a network of massive rock chambers beneath the surface of the earth that store rainwater. Access to this water can be secured by drilling wells into the aquifer, as long as the amount of water extracted does not exceed the natural replenishing rate of the aquifer.

Rainwater only reaches the Gaza Strip when there is heavy rain.

Currently, around 200 million cubic meters of water are extracted annually from the coastal aquifer, while the average annual recharge rate is only 55 million cubic meters. Israel has obstructed the aquifer’s rate of replenishment by constructing barriers that block the flow of water from the hills of Khalil toward the Gaza Valley. As a result, rainwater only reaches the Gaza Strip when there is heavy rain.

The extraction of water from the aquifer at three times the natural replenishment rate has led to a catastrophic situation for water quality and safety.

The geological layers around the basin mainly consist of highly permeable sandy dunes, which allow more rainwater to reach the basin. However, with the depletion of the aquifer, the groundwater level has dropped by up to 19 meters below sea level. This has caused the dunes to become a disadvantage, allowing seawater with its salinity and untreated wastewater to infiltrate the aquifer at a considerable rate, contaminating the remaining groundwater.

As a result, the salinity of the basin water has increased, with chloride levels reaching 500-3000 milligrams per liter, compared to the WHO’s maximum safe limit of 250 milligrams per liter. The leakage of pollutants and wastewater has also led to nitrate concentrations ranging from 100-800 milligrams per liter, exceeding the WHO’s recommended maximum limit of 50 milligrams per liter.

Groundwater pollution resulting from the leakage of untreated wastewater is a consequence of inadequately functioning wastewater treatment plants, which only cover two-thirds of Gaza, while the rest of the strip relies on primitive methods to extract water from the aquifer.

The region has five wastewater treatment plants, but they are only partially operational due to the lack of necessary diesel fuel. Even if they were to operate at full capacity, Gaza would still require additional treatment plants in order to handle the discharge of 108,000 cubic meters of untreated wastewater, also known as “effluent,” into the sea, which leaks into the Coastal Aquifer Basin.

Photo of trucks loaded with clean water

Trucks loaded with drinking water arrive at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis

Mohammed Talatene/dpa/Zuma

No fuel, no water 

The treatment plants primarily rely on diesel-powered generators to pump water during the purification process, which concludes by pumping the treated water into wells.

Due to the blockade on Gaza, Israel controls the quantities of fuel allowed into the strip, rendering the supply of energy precarious at all times. Even if there were sufficient energy reserves to allow the treatment plants to operate at their maximum capacity, the pressure of the wastewater in some areas exceeds the maximum capacity of the plants.

To cope with the pollution and salinity levels in the groundwater, which about 80% of Gaza relies on, people have resorted to desalinated or filtered water.

Gaza has a network of groundwater desalination stations. There are 154 small and primitive desalination stations. At best estimates, only 52 of them are licensed by the Palestinian National Authority and are subject to water quality control.

In order to extract water, a desalination station drills a well and pumps the water into large tanks. From the tanks, the water is pumped using generators to desalination units. The water is then sold through distribution points that residents can access or via trucks or carts operated by vendors. Only around 10% of the population is able to rely on water piped into their homes to meet their water needs.

The desalination process, which only reduces the salinity of the water, results in significant waste. Up to 30% of water is lost in the process. There is also still a risk of contamination with coliform and fecal bacteria due to the decreased efficiency of the stations dealing primarily with polluted water.

Nine out of 10 Palestinians in Gaza rely on polluted, desalinated water for drinking, hygiene, cooking and other water needs.

In addition to fuel shortages resulting from Israeli blockade policies, water pumping, desalination and wastewater treatment stations require regular maintenance to maintain facility efficiency and provide safe water.

However, in recent years, Israel has imposed control and restrictions on the entry of a large number of goods, according to a list the Occupation drew up, claiming they have dual civilian-military use. Many of the items on the list intersect with essential goods needed for maintenance in water facilities in the strip, such as purifiers like chlorine, pumps, and the necessary metal parts for repairing water pipes.

Overall, a United Nations report published ten years ago estimated that by 2016, water from the Coastal Aquifer Basin would become unfit for human consumption, and that by 2020, the aquifer would be irreversibly damaged, requiring decades to recover.

Three network points for pumping water 

Water pollution is responsible for 60% of the prevalent diseases in Gaza, especially among women who are primarily responsible for cleaning and cooking and thus handling water, as well as pregnant women and children, who constitute more than half of the population.

In addition to the Coastal Aquifer Basin, which caters to the majority of the strip’s water needs, there are two other sources. The first is Israeli state-owned company Mekorot, which sells up to 15 million cubic meters to Gaza at three times the price of locally produced water.

This water is pumped through three network points — the Municipality of Gaza, the Absan al-Saghira, and the Maghazi network — that are fully controlled by Israel, making them a leverage point used by Israel against civilians during times of escalation, as it did in the ongoing war by cutting off water to the strip.

None of these stations operate at their full capacity due to Israel’s restrictions on the entry of fuel.

Mekorot began exporting water to Gaza in 1980, and, in recent years, an agreement was reached between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority, which doesn’t have administrative control over Gaza, to increase the quantities sold to the strip to up to 15 million cubic meters, an incentive to push through the long-negotiated Bahrain canal project. But this figure is still much less than what Gaza needs.

The last source is the three seawater desalination plants along the coast: the Qarara, Deir al-Balah, and Shamal stations, which provide 4% of drinking water for the population. However, none of these stations operate at their full capacity due to Israel’s restrictions on the entry of fuel necessary to operate them.

The situation around safe drinking water in the strip makes it, for all its poor quality and pollution, scarce. The average per capita share of safe and clean water in Gaza is 26.8 liters per day, compared to the 100 liters set by WHO recommendations, while the average per capita share in Israeli settlements reaches more than 150 liters daily.

Photo of children on the beach filling gallons up with seawater

Palestinian children gather on the beach and fill Gallons with seawater due to the lack of fresh water and electricity

Ahmed Zakot/SOPA/Zuma

Damage to infrastructure 

This scarcity has led to a sharp increase in water prices, with households in Gaza spending about a third of their income to obtain water, while the UN recommends that the cost of accessing water should not exceed 3% of household income. A closer look at this figure shows that the poorest families resort to the most polluted water.

In the light of the ongoing aggression on Gaza, water prices have risen even further, as Firas and others have pointed out, with increases sometimes doubling compared to the price before Israel began bombing the strip, due to the fact that the enclave has not received any fuel supplies for nearly a month.

Furthermore, each Israeli period of aggression complicates the water situation even more because its strikes often target the infrastructure of wastewater and desalination plants, tanks and pipelines throughout the strip. The losses to infrastructure after the 2014 Gaza War were estimated at around $34 million, based on the cost of repairs. It has been nine years since, and Gaza has only received two-thirds of the funding necessary for these repairs.

Factoring in the incalculable losses Palestinians are incurring every day from this round of Israeli aggression, the Gaza municipality estimated the damages to the strip’s infrastructure to be in excess of $6 million for the first two weeks of the war alone.

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