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By Monther Shoblaq, Director General of Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility
Gaza’s water crisis has been steadily worsening over recent decades. The area’s only source of fresh water is the Coastal Aquifer, a groundwater basin that runs the length of the Gaza Strip and along part of the Israeli coast. The portion of the aquifer that lies below the Gaza Strip is severely degraded as a result of continuous overpumping of groundwater. Every year, more water is extracted from the aquifer than is naturally replenished. Consequently, seawater intrudes into the groundwater. In addition, the lack of proper sewage networks or treatment plants in the Gaza Strip means that untreated and partially treated sewage infiltrates into the aquifer, causing further contamination. Today, only 5-10% of the water in Gaza is drinkable. The absence of safe water represents a serious public health threat, particularly for vulnerable groups such as children.
Overpumping and seawater infiltration
Gaza’s Coastal Aquifer is replenished with about 45 million cubic metres (MCM) of rainfall per year. However, this is no longer enough to meet the demand of the growing population. Current extraction rates exceed 185MCM annually, more than four times the aquifer’s sustainable yield. In areas where extraction is greatest, water levels are declining and infiltration of seawater is making the aquifer more saline. Salinity levels in most parts of the Gaza Strip are now above the World Health Organization (WHO) approved guideline of 250 milligrams per litre (mg/L), and often much higher. The sustained overpumping of Gaza’s Coastal Aquifer has caused serious damage to water quality in both Gaza and Israel. Indeed, the situation is so serious that a 2009 environmental assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) recommended the immediate halt of all extraction along the length of the aquifer to avoid further deterioration that could take centuries to reverse.
Gaza’s existing wastewater treatment plants can no longer handle the amount of sewage produced. Moreover, Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip prevents the import of materials necessary to repair, upgrade and maintain the treatment plants and the fuel necessary to operate them. As a result, untreated sewage is infiltrating into the groundwater. This has in turn led to a sharp rise in nitrate levels, with values reaching 150-200mg/L in many parts of the Gaza Strip – far above the WHO guideline of 50mg/L. The pollution of the aquifer is exacerbated by the infiltration of agricultural pesticides and fertilizers.
Drinking water quality Today, only 5-10% of water supplied through Gaza’s municipal networks meets international drinking water standards. Most Gazans buy water from privately run small-scale desalination plants. These desalination plants purify brackish water from wells and sell it from tanker trucks or in jerry cans. There are at least 140 private desalination plants in the Gaza Strip, producing about 5,000 cubic metres per day (m3/d) of fresh water. There are also an estimated 20,000 domestic desalination plants. But as this sector is unregulated, there are concerns over the quality of water distributed from these plants.
At $13/m3, the desalinated water is expensive and places additional financial strain on many households. Those who cannot afford it are forced to turn to alternative sources which may be unsafe. The Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) operates nine public desalination plants that produce 10,000m3/d. However, like the territory’s wastewater treatment plants, the operation of desalination plants has at times been hindered by the Israeli blockade, which impedes the import of spare parts and water purification chemicals such as chlorine. The irregular electricity supply also prevents the efficient operation of the desalination plants.
What needs to be done?
All parties must act immediately to halt further deterioration of the Coastal Aquifer and find an alternative source of safe water for the Gazan population. Israel must immediately end its blockade of Gaza, which is worsening the water situation and causing an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. The Palestinian authorities need to regulate unlicensed wells, control the drilling of new wells and ensure that all water, whether publicly or privately supplied, meets WHO quality standards.