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Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Gaza’s Water Crisis

Port of Gaza - water crisis in Gaza
Photo 1: Fishing port at Gaza, 2012. Photo: Arne Hoel / World Bank.

With less than 4% of water fit for human use, the Gaza Strip has been facing a steadily worsening water crisis for the past decade. Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas in the world with more than 4,500 inhabitants per square kilometre [1], and the natural freshwater supply no longer meets the needs of the territory’s 1.76 million inhabitants.

Gaza Strip - water crisis in Gaza
Map 1 : Map of the Gaza Strip. Source: Fanack after Texas University 2015.

Gaza’s only natural source of fresh water is groundwater. The Coastal Aquifer, which is the groundwater body that lies beneath the Gaza Strip, is currently being exploited at more than three times its sustainable rate. In other words, the aquifer can sustainably produce 55-57 million cubic metres per year (MCM/yr), but at the moment 170-200 MCM is being extracted annually.

After decades of overpumping from the aquifer, seawater is now seeping into the groundwater. This means that the water that flows from taps in Gaza is very salty and is not drinkable.

In addition, the absence of proper water treatment facilities throughout the Gaza Strip means that every day around 90 million litres (L) of untreated or partially treated sewage is seeping into the groundwater and flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. Overall, more than 96% of water in the Gaza Strip is unfit for human use.

But as the Coastal Aquifer is the only source of water, Gazans have no choice but to use it, with severe consequences for public health.

water special gaza report damaged housing after Israeli Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip
Photo2 : Buildings damaged during Operation Cast Lead, 2012. Photo: Marinus Arnesen.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that contaminated water is responsible for 26% of all disease in Gaza and 50% of children suffer from water-related parasitic infections. Moreover, water is scarce, with only 70-90 L of water available per person per day – less than the standard set by the WHO of at least 100 L per person per day. This already dire situation further deteriorated after Israel launched ‘Operation Protective Edge’ on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014. Besides the destruction and damage of homes, businesses and road networks, the operation also caused an estimated $34 million in damage to Gaza’s ailing water infrastructure, much of which had still not been repaired by November 2015.

The situation is urgent. As far back as 2009, the UN Environment Programme warned that Gaza’s aquifer would be irreversibly damaged if no action was taken:

“The state of the environment in the Gaza Strip is bleak from any perspective… The aquifer is severely damaged and collapsing quickly. Unless the trend is reversed now, damage could take centuries to reverse… Ideally, abstraction from the aquifer should cease and a monitoring system should be installed to evaluate recovery. Controlled abstraction should only be permitted once the aquifer recovers and the sustainable yield is recalculated using accurate data on inflows. Alternative sources of water should be developed and used to allow the Coastal Aquifer to rest.”[2]

By 2012, Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility warned that the aquifer could collapse by 2016 and the damage could become irreversible by 2020.[3] Measures are being taking at different levels to improve the situation but many obstacles remain, both on a domestic and regional level.

Why is there a water crisis in Gaza?

water crisis in Gaza
Photo 3: Children in Rafah collect water from one of the working public taps. Photo Flickr

So what caused this catastrophic environmental crisis? And why is so little being done to remedy the situation? Experts, local authorities and international organizations have been warning for decades that overpumping, pollution and seawater intrusion into local groundwater pose a severe risk to public health and environmental sustainability in the Gaza Strip.

In 1997, the World Bank described the water situation in Gaza as an “emergency state of affairs”.[4] Yet nearly 20 years on, the levels of pumping have only increased, pollution has worsened and large parts of the water infrastructure in the area have been damaged or destroyed. Why was Gaza’s “emergency state of affairs” left to deteriorate beyond the point of repair?

The answer lies in a combination of factors that come together in a seemingly inescapable vicious cycle of destruction. The following sections show how a number of mutually reinforcing elements – rapid population growth; the overpumping and pollution of local groundwater reserves; and the ongoing conflict with Israel – have driven the slow collapse of Gaza’s Coastal Aquifer.

Overpopulation

water special gaza report a beach in Gaza
Photo 4: The beach at Gaza, 2006. Photo: Gus.

Covering just 365 km2 of land on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean (map. 1), the Gaza Strip has a population of 1.76 million inhabitants.[5] It is one of the most densely populated places on earth, with an average of more than 4,500 inhabitants per square kilometre (inh/km2),[6] rising to 20,000 inh/km2 in urban areas.[7]

The population has increased more than 20 times over the past 65 years, from 80,000 inhabitants in 1948. This exponential growth can be attributed to two main factors:

A high birth rate: Gaza’s population growth rate was estimated at nearly 3.45% in 2014, compared to 2.6% in the West Bank. Gaza’s population is young, with around 43% under the age of 14.

The influx of more than 197,000 refugees after the creation of Israel in 1948. Today more than 70% of Gaza’s population are refugees.

Going forward, the UN estimates that the population of the Gaza Strip will reach 2.1 million in 2020, pushing average density levels up to 5,835 inh/km2 in 2020 and more than 20,000 inh/km2 in urban areas.[8]

Overuse of groundwater

Rapid population growth in the Gaza Strip has placed considerable pressure on natural resources, particularly water resources. Gaza relies almost entirely on groundwater, with 98% of its water supply coming from the Coastal Aquifer (map. 2). The remaining 2% is bought from the Israeli water company Mekorot.

This shared aquifer is also used by Israel and Egypt, but while these countries have alternative sources of water, the Gaza Strip relies entirely on the Coastal Aquifer.

water in Palestine
Map 2. The Mountain Aquifer and the Coastal Aquifer. Source: Fanack after UNEP/GRID-Geneva, 2002.

As demand for water from the expanding population has increased, the rates of abstraction from the aquifer in Gaza has gradually exceeded the rate of natural replenishment. Today, annual average abstraction lies at 170-200 MCM/yr,[9] three times as high as the aquifer’s sustainable yield (the amount that can be safely abstracted) of 55-57 MCM/yr (Fig. 1).[10]

Overabstraction from the Coastal Aquifer has caused groundwater levels to drop by 10-20 m over the last 40 years (map 2)[11], allowing saline water to seep into the aquifer from the Mediterranean Sea to the west and from deep groundwater in Israel to the southeast (Fig. 2).[12]

The salinization of the aquifer is monitored by assessing the concentration of chloride in wells across the Gaza Strip. According to World Health Organization guidelines, chloride levels should be below 250 mg/L in order to be suitable for human consumption. However, in Gaza only around a quarter of the municipal wells meet this standard. Chloride concentrations vary from 250-600 mg/L in the north of the Gaza Strip and west of Khan Younis to 600-2,000 mg/L elsewhere. Along the coast, levels exceed 2,000 mg/L and can reach more than 10,000 mg/L due to seawater intrusion (map. 3).[13]

water resources in Palestine
Figure 1. Overextraction from the Coastal Aquifer in the Gaza Strip. Source: Fanack based on Messerschmid, 2011; UN-ESCWA & BGR, 2013; PWA, 2014.
Groundwater in Gaza
Figure 2. Decline of groundwater levels in the Gaza Strip during the period 1967 and 2013. Source: Fanack after PWA, 2014.
water crisis in Gaza
Map 3. Chloride concentration in the Gaza Strip. Source: Fanack after PWA, 2014.

Pollution of water resources

water specials report gaza alexa thuderstorm
Photo 5: Floodwaters mix with raw sewage in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood of Gaza after winterstorm Alexa hit the Gaza Strip in December 2013. Photo: Karl Schembri/Oxfam.

In addition to saline water infiltrating into the groundwater, the Coastal Aquifer is also increasingly polluted by raw sewage and other untreated wastewater.

Every day, around 90 million L of untreated or partially treated sewage seeps into the groundwater and flows into the Mediterranean Sea due to the lack of properly functioning water treatment facilities.[14] This has resulted in high levels of nitrates and other pollutants in the groundwater, which is particularly dangerous for infants and children.[15]

According to the Palestinian Water Authority, which monitors nitrate concentration in 211 municipal wells, 87% of the wells have nitrate levels that exceed the WHO limit of 50 mg/L, with concentrations of over 200 mg/L in some places (map. 4).[16] Nitrate pollution is difficult to spot, since it is colourless, tasteless and odourless. This makes it all the more dangerous, as people often keep using water with high nitrate levels until they are told about the health risks (Fig. 6).[17]

Water crisis in Gaza
Map 4. Nitrate concentrations in the Gaza Strip in 2009. Source: Fanack after PWA, 2011. Note: The internationally accepted guideline for nitrate in drinking water is 50 mg/L.

Together, the pollution by nitrates and chloride render almost all of Gaza’s water unfit for human consumption. According to the Palestinian Water Authority, in 2014 less than 4% of the domestic water supply was fit for human consumption (Fig. 4).[18]

Local authorities, international organizations and water experts have been warning for years that if no measures are taken, the aquifer will “collapse”.

Water Crisis in Gaza
Figure 3. Nitrate and chloride concentration in groundwater in the Gaza Strip and amount of water suitable for human consumption. Source: Fanack after PWA, 2014.

This means that all the groundwater will become totally salinized and contaminated, and water will need to be supplied from a different source. This would entail the loss of around 55 MCM/yr of otherwise usable water. According to a 2011 report, the cost of resupplying such a volume would amount to approximately $300 million, with ongoing costs of at least $0.55/m3 for fresh water produced through desalination to replace the contaminated supply.

groundwater pollution in Gaza
Figure 4. Sources of groundwater pollution in the Gaza Strip. Source: Fanack after PWA, 2011.

The Ongoing conflict with Israel

 water specials report gaza beit hanun in ruins after israeli attacck august 2014
Photo 6: Ruins in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, August 2014. Photo: B’Tselem.

The situation in Gaza is worsened by the damage caused by Israel’s periodic military assaults (Cast Lead, 2008-09; Pillar of Defense, 2012; Operation Protective Edge, 2014), which have resulted in extensive damage to water production and wastewater treatment infrastructure. Moreover, the ongoing Israeli blockade that has been in place since 2007 prevents the import of building materials for reconstruction and other items required to maintain and operate water and sewage systems and treat water to adequate levels. Even simple items like membranes for water filters and chlorine to disinfect water are often unavailable.

Two years before the 2014 military incursion in the Gaza Strip, the United Nations issued a report assessing living conditions in Gaza in 2020. The study stated that Gaza’s population would increase from 1.6 million in 2011 to 2.1 million in 2020, and concluded that “herculean efforts” were required in the health, education, energy, water and sanitation sectors if Gaza was to be a liveable place in 2020.[19] Instead, the situation has further deteriorated.

Following Operation Protective Edge, which lasted from July to August 2014, the UN reported an estimated $34 million in damage to Gaza’s already ailing water infrastructure, including damage and destruction of 20-30% of water and sewage net­works, 30-50% of water storage tanks and reservoirs, 220 agricultural wells and damage to the wastewater treatment plant at Deir al-Balah.

More than a year after the ceasefire, reconstruction has not started in many areas because of a lack of funding and materials, and water shortages remain a daily worry for most Gazans.

According to a 2015 UN report, the ongoing conflict has led to the de-development and impoverishment of Gaza.

“Three Israeli military operations in the past six years, in addition to eight years of economic blockade, have ravaged the already debilitated infrastructure of Gaza, shattered its productive base, left no time for meaningful reconstruction or economic recovery and impoverished the Palestinian population in Gaza, rendering their economic well-being worse than the level of two decades previous.”[20]

The same report states that long-term repair of the accumulated damage and decay of the water and sanitation infrastructure will require funding in the order of $620 million.

How does the water crisis impact life in Gaza?

 special report on Gaza's water crisis
Photo 7: Elderly man fills water container at the public sink of Khan Yunis Water Authority’s wastewater treatment plant, 2014. Photo: Muhammad Sabah, B’Tselem.

Gaza’s water crisis affects every one of the territory’s 1.76 million inhabitants. Municipal tap water, which is often cut due to power shortages, is too salty to drink, so that people have to buy their drinking water from private vendors. The heavy pollution of water resources in the Gaza Strip has a severe impact on public health; children are particularly at risk from water-related diseases. In addition, the local economy, agricultural production in particular, and the environment suffer the consequences of the water scarcity and pollution.

Daily life

As the water crisis has worsened over the decades, the citizens of Gaza have had to develop a range of strategies to cope.

Water distributed through the water supply network to homes in the Gaza Strip is not fit to drink due to its high salinity. Gazans refer to this water as “the salt water”. This water also contains high levels of nitrates and other pollutants that do not affect the taste or aspect of the water, but which are dangerous to public health. Due to its salinity, municipal tap water is generally only used for household chores and for washing, frequently causing skin diseases and other infections. Furthermore, frequent power outages and low network pressure cause constant water cuts and shortages.

Gazans mainly get their drinking water from private vendors, who deliver water from more than 40 private desalination plants that have sprung up over recent years. The Palestinian Water Authority has only licensed about half of these plants, and none of them is monitored for the quality of the water they produce. Users receive deliveries of this water by tanker truck, or go to fill up jerry cans at the small tanks that exist in corner shops and supermarkets across the Strip.[21] The prices are high ($1.30 for 100 L), and poor families may spend up to a third of their income on drinking water supplies.

Health

Drinking heavily saline and contaminated water can have severe health impacts, particularly among children.

According to the World Health Organization, Gaza’s contaminated water is responsible for 26% of all disease in the territory, and 50% of Gaza’s children suffer from water-related parasitic infections.[22]

Water pollution in Gaza
Photo 8: Half of the children in Gaza suffer from parasitic infections as a result of the contamination of water resources, 2010. Source: Middle East Children’s Alliance.

Intestinal parasites infect children throughout Gaza, but children living in agricultural communities and near sewage ponds are particularly at risk. Parasitic infections and chronic diarrhoea also affect child growth and development.[23]

More generally, adults and children are at risk of a range of water-related diseases:

  • Drinking saline water can cause kidney dysfunction, heart failure, neurological symptoms, lethargy and high blood pressure.
  • Excessive levels of fluoride are toxic, causing gastritis, ulcers, kidney failure, bone fluorosis (causing bone fractures and crippling), and tooth fluorosis (causing black lines around gums and tooth decay).
  • High nitrate levels cause “blue baby” syndrome and gastric cancer.[24]
  • Moreover, the sanitation setting in Gaza is so poor that it is conducive to the outbreak of pandemics such as cholera.[25]

Blue baby syndrome

High nitrate concentration in drinking water is particularly dangerous for infants, as it can induce blue baby syndrome or methaemoglobinaemia. This blood disorder results in higher than normal levels of methaemoglobin, a form of haemoglobin that does not bind oxygen. Infants suffering from blue baby syndrome may show signs of blueness around the mouth, hands and feet. They may have episodes of breathing trouble, diarrhoea and vomiting. In extreme cases, the condition can be fatal.

Blue baby syndrome was first registered during the 1990s in Gaza. A 2002 study found that 48.5% of babies had high methaemoglobin levels. There are no recent studies on the prevalence of blue baby syndrome in Gaza, but as nitrate concentrations have steadily increased over the past 15 years and awareness of the disease and its causes remains low, a large number of children are at risk.[26]

Environment

The poor quality of water in Gaza has a dramatic impact on the environment. Wadi Gaza, a seasonal river that originates in Israel and flows through the Gaza Strip into the Mediterranean Sea, is choked with sewage.

The lack of adequate water treatment facilities also means that raw sewage frequently floods streets, residential areas, homes and agricultural land.

Along the coast, 16 sewage outlets release around 33 MCM/yr of untreated sewage directly into the sea.[27]

Water pollution in Gaza
Photo 9: Polluted water in Gaza. Photo Flickr

Fish are infected and the coastline is contaminated, impacting the quality of life of Gazans and the livelihoods of fishermen. Sewage discharges from Gaza also affect water quality further along the coast, among others at the intake of the Israeli desalination plant at Ashkelon.[28]

Agriculture

Poor water quality in Gaza also affects agricultural production, as the high salinity of the groundwater affects the growth of crops. Many farmers have had to abandon traditional crops such as strawberries, cucumbers and tomatoes in favour of more salt-tolerant crops.

Agriculture remains the largest water user in the Gaza Strip, consuming around 60-65% of the water supply.[29] There are more than 4,600 agricultural wells in Gaza, more than 2,000 of which were drilled illegally without supervision or regulation.[30] This means that neither the quality nor the quantity of the water extracted from these wells is monitored. Lack of proper regulation of these wells places further pressure on Gaza’s water supply.

[1] UN, 2012. Gaza in 2020. A liveable place? A report by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, August 2012.
[2] UNEP, 2009. Environmental assessment of the Gaza Strip following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008 – January 2009.
[3] UN, 2012. Gaza in 2020. A liveable place? A report by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, August 2012.
[4] Messerschmid, C., 2011. Water In Gaza: Problems and Prospects. Working Paper Series IALIIS-BZU-WPS 2011/19 (ENG) CPE Module. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies (IALIIS) – Birzeit University.
[5] www.pcbs.gov.ps. Figure for 2014.
[6] UN, 2012. Gaza in 2020. A liveable place? A report by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, August 2012.
[7] UN OCHA oPt, 2014. Strategic Response Plan, Fact Sheet, 5 December 2014.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Palestinian Water Authority, 2014. Water Resources Directorate, Gaza Water Resources Status Report, 2013/2014, December 2014; Palestinian Water Authority, 2011. The Gaza Emergency Technical Assistance Programme (GETAP) on Water Supply to the Gaza Strip Component 1 – The Comparative Study of Options for an Additional Supply of Water for the Gaza Strip (CSO-G); Palestinian Water Authority, 2014a. National Water Strategy for Palestine, Toward Building a Palestinian State from Water Perspective, Draft Copy.
[10] PWA, 2011; PWA 2014; World Bank, 2009. West Bank and Gaza Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development.
[11] PWA, 2014a.
[12] PWA, 2011.
[13] PWA 2014.
[14] UN, 2012. Gaza in 2020. A liveable place? A report by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, August 2012.
[15] UNEP, 2009. Environmental assessment of the Gaza Strip following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008 – January 2009.
[16] Palestinian Water Authority, 2014. Water Resources Directorate, Gaza Water Resources Status Report, 2013/2014, December 2014.
[17] UNEP, 2009. Environmental assessment of the Gaza Strip following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008 – January 2009.
[18] Palestinian Water Authority, 2014. Water Resources Directorate, Gaza Water Resources Status Report, 2013/2014, December 2014.
[19] UN, 2012. Gaza in 2020. A liveable place? A report by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory, August 2012.
[20] UNCTAD, 2015. Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people: Developments in the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Geneva, September 2015.
[21] World Bank, 2009. West Bank And Gaza Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development.
[22] Eco Peace/Friends of the Earth Middle East & INSS, 2014. The Water, Sanitation and Energy Crises in Gaza, Humanitarian, Environmental and Geopolitical Implications With Recommendations for Immediate Measures.
[23] UNICEF, 2011. Protecting Children from Unsafe Water in Gaza: Strategy, Action Plan and Project Resources.Eco Peace/Friends of the Earth Middle East & INSS, 2014.
[24] Eco Peace/Friends of the Earth Middle East & INSS, 2014.
[25] Ibid.
[26] UNEP, 2009. Environmental assessment of the Gaza Strip following the escalation of hostilities in December 2008 – January 2009.
[27] UNCTAD, 2015. Report on UNCTAD assistance to the Palestinian people: Developments in the economy of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Geneva, September 2015.
[28] World Bank, 2009. West Bank and Gaza Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development.
[29] World Bank, 2009. West Bank and Gaza Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development.
[30] Messerschmid, C., 2011. Water In Gaza: Problems and Prospects. Working Paper Series IALIIS-BZU-WPS 2011/19 (ENG) CPE Module. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies (IALIIS) – Birzeit University.