Water of the Middle East and North Africa

Q&A with Dr Ahmad Yaqubi

Q&A with Dr Ahmad Yaqubi, Water Resources Technical Adviser, Palestinian Water Authority, Gaza

It will take decades to reverse the damage to the aquifer but we must do everything we can to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Oxfam water delivery in Gaza, 31 July 2014. Photo: Iyad Al Baba/Oxfam, Creative Commons BY-NC.
Oxfam water delivery in Gaza, 31 July 2014 (photo: Iyad Al-Baba/Oxfam, Creative Commons BY-NC)

Gaza is one of the most water-scarce areas in the world, but this scarcity is a relatively recent phenomenon. What are the main reasons for the scarcity and how have things changed since 1948?

Before 1948, the Gaza Strip did not suffer from water scarcity. The area had a population of less than 100,000 inhabitants and the groundwater from the Coastal Aquifer, which is Gaza’s only source of water, far exceeded local demand.

As only small areas were built up, most of the rain infiltrated directly into the aquifer below. Moreover, as agriculture was only practised on a small scale, there were no problems of pollution from pesticides or return irrigation flows. Most of the groundwater was fresh and drinkable and beaches were clean.

After 1948, however, the demand for water rose sharply as refugees flooded into the Gaza Strip. Today, Gaza has a population of 1.8 million, 70% of whom are refugees. Water demand has risen exponentially and far exceeds the amount of water available from the aquifer.

The aquifer currently has a water deficit of about 120 million cubic metres per year (MCM/yr) and the water table has dropped 15-20 metres below sea level. This has caused seawater to intrude into the aquifer. In addition, the lack of adequate treatment facilities causes pollution of the aquifer as untreated and partially treated wastewater seeps into the groundwater. As a result, 95% of Gaza’s aquifer is unsuitable for drinking.

What can be done to reverse the damage to the aquifer?

These are some of the steps that need to be taken to limit further damage:

  • Reduce and minimize abstraction from the aquifer to below the renewable aquifer capacity of 55MCM/yr.

  • Provide additional sources of water for Gaza’s population. There are a number of options here: desalinated seawater, water import from Turkey, water transfer from the West Bank and water purchase from Israel.

  • Improve the wastewater treatment facilities so that the water produced meets the quality standards for reuse in agriculture.

  • Ensure recharge of the aquifer either artificially with treated wastewater or naturally with rainwater.

  • On a management level, the efficiency of water service providers needs to be improved, losses in the network through leakage and illegal connections need to be reduced and the cost of water distribution needs to be recovered.

How did Israel’s recent Operation Protective Edge worsen the situation?

The water situation was already critical before Israel’s recent operation. However, after Operation Protective Edge many water wells, networks, reservoirs, pumping stations, generators and treatment facilities were damaged or destroyed. Fuel shortages severely impacted pumping stations and other facilities. Furthermore, Israeli restrictions on the import of spare parts delayed the repair of many damaged facilities. Finally, we also suspect that the aquifer has suffered radiation contamination through the use of depleted uranium in previous conflicts. This is currently being studied.

Both water quality and quantity are severely affected. What are the short-term solutions?

The Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) plans to build a number of short-term low-volume (STLV) seawater desalination plants with a total capacity of 13MCM/yr by 2016. The water produced by these plants will be blended with local groundwater and distributed through the water network to areas suffering from particularly poor water quality. Funding has been secured from the Austrian government, the European Union and the Islamic Development Bank, and the first of these plants is already operational.

In the long term, the plan is to build a large-scale desalination plant and two wastewater treatment plants. What is the status of these projects?

The construction of the central seawater desalination plant continues to be delayed even though the location has been determined and the land has been allocated. The Islamic Development Bank committed to funding half of this $450-million project more than a year ago, on the condition that the remaining budget would be secured. We have received pledges for small amounts from other donors, but in general they are hesitant because of the unstable security situation and the challenges of bringing building materials into the Gaza Strip.

Gaza’s existing wastewater treatment plant is not functioning well and 100,000m3 of partially treated effluent from the plant flows directly into the sea every day. Meanwhile, we are working on two new plants: the northern wastewater treatment plant, with a capacity of 36,000 cubic metres per day (m3/d), is under construction and expected to be operational by the end of 2015. Construction work on the Gaza wastewater treatment plant (capacity: 120,000m3/d) is scheduled to start in 2015. The plant should be operational by 2017.

How does the absence of a reliable electricity supply impact water supplies?

There is a clear deficit in the energy provision to Gaza, which has serious implications for the operation of the water infrastructure, especially as the deficit is expected to increase with time. Already, the electricity supply covers only 50% of the demand from water facilities, which has a direct impact on pumping stations, wastewater treatment and desalination. In order to generate additional power supplies, the PWA plans to develop solar energy facilities in parallel with the large-scale desalination plant.

Besides desalination and the reuse of treated wastewater, what other options does Gaza have? Is increased transfer of water from Israel a realistic option?

The purchase of water from Israel is one of the options the PWA has identified. We currently purchase 5MCM/yr at a rate of $0.75/m3. According to an agreement with Israel, an additional 5MCM/yr will be transferred to Gaza starting in 2015. The necessary infrastructure between Gaza and Israel has been completed and the transfer is now a matter of politics. The plan is to purchase a total of 21MCM/yr of water from Israel by 2025.

The United Nations issued a report in 2012 entitled Gaza in 2020, A Liveable Place? How do you see the future of Gaza? What needs to be done today to ensure a future in 2020?

If the water issue is not urgently addressed, the outlook for the future is catastrophic. Gaza’s growing population needs water and the aquifer can no longer meet demand. It will take decades to reverse the damage to the aquifer, but we must to everything we can to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

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