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By Fanack Water staff
With only 3.8% of the water fit for human consumption, Gaza’s water crisis is taking a heavy toll on the Strip’s 1.7 million inhabitants.
The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with an estimated 4,500 inhabitants per square kilometre. The population has increased more than 20 times since 1948 and the Coastal Aquifer, the groundwater body beneath the Strip and the area’s only source of water, no longer meets the needs of the 1.7 million inhabitants.
Currently, the Coastal Aquifer is being exploited at more than three times its sustainable rate. In other words, the aquifer can sustainably produce 55 million cubic metres (MCM) per year, but more than 170MCM are being extracted annually.
As a result, seawater is infiltrating into the aquifer, making the water that flows from Gaza’s taps highly saline and unsuitable for drinking.
In addition, the absence of adequate water-treatment facilities throughout the Gaza Strip means that every day around 90 million litres of untreated or partially treated sewage is seeping into the groundwater and flowing into the Mediterranean Sea.
Yellow and salty
Gaza’s water crisis affects all of the Strip’s inhabitants. Rouwaida Muhammad, a housewife and mother of four, says making sure her family has enough water is a constant concern. “We only have tap water for two hours a day, and we never know when it will be switched on,” she says. “What’s worse is that it is very salty and yellowish in colour. It is too salty for drinking or cooking. We can barely use it for cleaning the house.”
As the tap water is not fit for consumption, Gaza’s population mainly gets its drinking water from private vendors, who deliver water from the more than 140 private desalination plants that have sprung up in recent years. Only about half of these plants are licensed by the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), and none of them is monitored.
Users receive deliveries of this water to their home or business by tanker truck, or they fill jerry cans at the small tanks located in corner shops and supermarkets across the Strip. The prices are high ($1 for a 50L jerry can); poor families may spend up to a third of their income on drinking water supplies. “My six-member family uses about 50L of desalinated water a day, which costs us around $30 a month, in addition to the $20 we pay for our monthly water bill,” says Muhammad.
But while the taste of this desalinated water is acceptable, its safety remains questionable. “I am not confident that this water is clean, but we have no other option,” says Muhammad. “We cannot afford to buy bottled water. All I can do is boil the desalinated water before using it.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 26% of all disease in the Strip is caused by contaminated water, and 50% of Gaza’s children suffer from water-related parasitic infections. Besides salinity, Gaza’s water has high nitrate levels (three to six times the level recommended by the WHO), which poses a severe risk to public health, especially the health of babies and children. The poor quality of the water leads to a condition known as “blue baby syndrome”, which can be fatal if left untreated.
In addition, according to the United Nations (UN): “Watery diarrhoea as well as acute bloody diarrhoea remain the major causes of morbidity among reportable infectious diseases in the refugee population of the Gaza Strip.”
Gazans also frequently suffer from skin complaints from the use of tap water. Says Salam al-Buhaisi, a nurse at Al-Shifa hospital, “I have to wash my hands after each patient and I have no choice but to use tap water, which gives me terrible skin irritations.”
Al-Buhaisi adds that Al-Shifa also buys desalinated water with funding from several donors. However, he says the hospital management cannot guarantee the water quality. “And when the funding runs out, the hospital runs out of desalinated water, so we have to ask our patients to bring their own water.”
He says he has sometimes paid for bottled water out of his own pocket for patients who needed fresh water as part of their treatment. “Some health conditions and medications cause instant dehydration and thirst.” Patients are occasionally even asked to bring their own sheets when the hospital cannot do laundry due to lack of water.
Effects on agriculture
Water scarcity and pollution have also inflicted immense damage on Gaza’s agricultural sector, which informally employs more than half of the population.
“My wells are contaminated with sewage and seawater,” says Khaled al-Attar, a Gazan farmer who used to grow strawberries.
“Now the water is too salty to irrigate strawberries and many other kinds of crops.” Al-Attar has had to resort to planting less valuable crops like potatoes and tomatoes. “The only solution is desalination, which is unaffordable for farmers here.”
Gaza’s regular power shortages further aggravate the water crisis. Gazans receive an average of eight hours of electricity a day and often less. As the pressure in the water supply network is low, Gazans frequently have to use electric pumps to get the water to their homes. However, the hours of water supply and power supply often do not coincide. “I wish the water and electricity suppliers would work together to make power and water available at the same time,” says Muhammad. “That way we would have power to pump the water up to our home.”
Al-Attar faces similar problems, as he needs power to pump water up from the wells in his farm. His only alternative is to use expensive fuel-powered pumps. “I spend around $1,000 a month on fuel for water pumps,” he says. “There is also a monthly maintenance cost for the pumps of around $1,200.”
Operation Protective Edge
Israel’s Operation Protective Edge (July-August 2014) further damaged Gaza’s already ailing water infrastructure. The UN estimated the cost of reparations at $34 million, with extensive damage and destruction of wells, water and wastewater networks. Moreover, the combination of the destruction of sewage plants, the lack of clean water and the severely overcrowded shelters housing displaced people has further raised fears of a public health crisis.
While the local authorities, the PWA and the international donor community have made efforts to solve the water crisis, the political situation and ongoing instability continue to thwart the implementation of any sustainable long-term solution. Meanwhile, time is running out. A UN report from 2012 warned that Gaza’s entire water supply may be unfit for human consumption by 2016, a prospect which terrifies Muhammad. “Today, we cannot drink our tap water, but I am worried that soon we won’t even be able to buy drinking water anywhere in Gaza. What will we do?”