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How Israel Can Help Alleviate the Gaza Water Crisis

By Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East – FoEME) and chair of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP)

The last war in Gaza was one of the most devastating the Strip has ever known. Six months on, the summer’s events are still keenly felt. Gaza requires massive rehabilitation efforts which have barely begun. Of the 500,000 people who were displaced from their homes, 100,000 remain homeless. The health system is nearing breakdown and reconstruction efforts are slow. Gaza – commentators warn – is once again on the verge of unrest. On the Israeli side, the nerve-wracked residents of the regional councils that border Gaza are still terrified by the numerous tunnels discovered during the war and the persistent rocket fire. The prevailing feeling in the region is one of complete loss of faith in any leadership. Out of sheer desperation, an increasing number of Gazans are risking their lives trying to escape from Gaza into Israel. Most Palestinians and Israelis fear that another round of hostilities is only a matter of time.

One of the most pressing issues in Gaza, with major implications for both Palestinians and Israelis, is the shortage of potable water and the poor treatment of sewage. In the first weeks following the ceasefire, an estimated 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza were left without access to running water. The overall damage to the water sector in Gaza due to the war was estimated at $34.4 million.

The water and sanitation crisis had begun well before the war and is the result of overexploitation of the Coastal Aquifer – Gaza’s only freshwater resource – and the lack of electricity to treat wastewater. The groundwater of the Coastal Aquifer is overdrawn annually at three times the rate of natural recharge. Consequently, seawater infiltrates the aquifer, rendering most of the wells too saline for human use. Gaza’s residents are left with inadequate solutions, including purchasing overpriced, privately desalinated water for domestic use – an economic burden for a mostly impoverished population. The existing public brackish water desalination facilities are hardly sufficient and regularly break down due to a lack of electricity.

The issue of water supply is compounded by inadequate sanitation solutions. Gaza’s severe energy shortage further exacerbates the everyday conditions with which residents are forced to cope: most of their wastewater is discharged untreated into cesspits, polluting the depleted aquifer and eventually making its way into the Mediterranean Sea. The first regional wastewater treatment plant, a World Bank-managed project, was completed in northern Gaza in early 2014. It has since been standing idle, a white elephant without the 3MW of power needed to operate it.

Allowing this status quo to continue creates the conditions for the outbreak of pandemic diseases such as typhoid or cholera. The water and sanitation crisis in Gaza therefore threatens the health of both Palestinians and Israelis, as the spread of such diseases does not stop at borders. As the crisis continues, more and more Palestinians will seek to flee Gaza for Israel in search of clean water.

Israel has the responsibility, the self-interest and the capacity to play a key role in avoiding further misery. Israel presently sells an average of 4.7 million cubic metres per year (MCM/yr) of potable water to Gaza, delivered through two grid connections. Infrastructure constraints permitting, Israel could double this water supply for the immediate period. Following political delays of nearly 20 years, a third Israeli pipeline connection, from Nahal Oz in Israel to northern Gaza, was completed before the war, but no water has yet flowed through it. An urgent agreement should be reached between Israel and the Palestinian Water Authority, an arm of the Palestinian government in Ramallah (which still manages water issues in the Hamas-controlled Gaza), to permit up to 10MCM/yr of additional potable water into Gaza.

In addition, fuel and more generators urgently need to be delivered to Gaza to help run its inadequate sanitation system, with direct supply from Israel of an additional 3MW of electricity to operate the newly completed wastewater treatment plant in the north of Gaza.

If promptly implemented, these water supply and sanitation measures would go a long way towards preventing an additional health crisis. They would also serve as a model for other longer-term projects that are required for the reconstruction of Gaza. No less important, they would represent concrete evidence to the Palestinian and Israeli public that a relationship of mutual interest can be advanced.