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At the 48th session of the Human Rights Council held last year, the Global Institute for Water, Environment, and Health, and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said in a joint statement that water security in the Gaza Strip is severely deteriorating, with 97% of the water being undrinkable.
The water crisis in Gaza is not a new issue. In 2012, the United Nations released a report warning that Gaza would be unlivable by 2020, citing water as one of the reasons behind this. The report estimated that the coastal aquifer — the only source of water in Gaza — would be unusable by 2016 due to excessive extraction. As a result, people would lose access to potable water.
Yet these staggering predictions did not lead to substantial changes. On the contrary, since the report was released, Israel has launched two devastating offensives against Gaza and caused significant damage to its water infrastructure, effectively heightening the water crisis. Although the international community and the media tend to pay attention to Gaza during these offensives, it often fails to address the effects of Israeli aggression on people’s standard of living and access to their basic rights.
Given this apathy and inaction, the unusable, irreversibly-damaged aquifer is still the only water source for Gazans today. Many of us are lucky enough to never have to imagine a life where water is not available on command in our homes, but the people of Gaza have been denied that right. What impacts does it have on their lives? And can anything be done to at least mitigate that impact?
Extreme Shortage of Freshwater
Around 95% of the water in Gaza comes from the coastal aquifer. However, rapid population growth – with Gaza now being home to 2.1 million inhabitants – and the consequent increasing need for water have given residents no choice but to pump the aquifer beyond its safe yield. This has driven the water level to fall below the sea level, allowing for seawater intrusion and, hence, diminishing the quality of freshwater and raising its salinity.
Consequently, 97% of the water in Gaza today is unfit for human consumption. As Falesteen Abdelkarim, a resident of the Al-Shati refugee camp described, the water is “undrinkable … It tastes as if it is coming from the sea. We cannot use it to drink, cook or even to shower.” At Al-Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, surgeons complain that the water they receive is rusty and unsuitable for washing their hands and sterilizing medical instruments when preparing for surgeries.
To meet this extreme shortage of freshwater, Gazans buy desalinated water from private vendors, with many of them spending nearly a third of their income on it. On top of this, 68% of the desalinated water is also polluted, meaning that people still use low-quality water for drinking and cooking. What are the alternatives then? “There are “no alternatives – no rivers or valleys in the Gaza Strip to halt the water crisis,” said Ramzy Ahel grimly, a Gaza-based water expert.
Another major problem that has been aggravating the water crisis in Gaza is the collapsed wastewater treatment system. The acute electricity crisis that Gaza has been enduring for years affects the operation of sewage treatment plants and hinders the process of removing polluting substances from sewage.
Moreover, more than a quarter of people in Gaza live in areas where the sanitary sewage infrastructure is inadequate. Many of these people use open drains and cesspits to dispose of their wastewater. “Our house is not connected to the sewage system; we depend on sinkholes: open, uncovered pits to collect sewage. When the hole is full, we empty it ourselves,” said Um Amir, a mother of eleven children.
This sanitation crisis results in the flow of nearly 80% of untreated sewage from Gaza into the Mediterranean Sea, damaging marine life and posing serious threats to people’s lives. A disheartening example of the effects of this problem is Mohammed al-Sayis, a five-year-old boy, who died in 2017 after swimming in sewage-contaminated seawater with his family looking to cool off on a warm summer day.
Because of the dysfunctional wastewater treatment system, the contaminants discharged into the sea which caused Mohammed’s death have also been infiltrating the aquifer. While many people are aware of this, they cannot spend most of their income on desalinated water from vendors. Therefore, they use the low-quality desalinated water for drinking and cooking and are forced to rely on the water from the aquifer for cleaning and personal hygiene.
With the ongoing air, land, and sea blockade it first imposed in 2007 and the periodic offensives it has launched against Gaza since, Israel bears responsibility for the water crisis in the Strip. During its 51-day military aggression in 2014 on Gaza, Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant, creating an acute shortage of the electricity needed to operate the sewage treatment plants, and water and wastewater pumps. The damage caused by Israel to the water and sanitation infrastructures in Gaza during this aggression is estimated at $34 million USD. Israel also caused further destruction to the Strip’s water infrastructure during its 11-day onslaught just last year in 2021, leaving 400,000 people without adequate access to water.
The water crisis has also been worsened by the suffocating blockade, through which Israel controls the movement of goods and restricts the entry of materials needed to rebuild water and sanitation infrastructures into Gaza. This is because the Israeli government considers 70% of the equipment Gaza needs for reconstruction, including pumps and chemicals that purify water, to have a dual-use potential, meaning that they could supposedly be used for both civilian and military purposes. Thus, the admittance of this equipment into Gaza needs Israel’s approval, which is neither guaranteed nor easily obtained.
Through this aggression and discriminatory policies, which are also applied in the West Bank, Israel not only worsens the water crisis but also prevents Palestinians from having adequate access to a basic right like freshwater. While Israelis consume on average 300 liters of water a day, Palestinians’ average daily consumption is 73 liters, which is clearly below the 100 liters minimum requirement for daily per capita consumption set by the World Health Organization.
Clearly, Israel uses water as another form of collective punishment against Palestinians.
The Crisis Can No Longer Wait
The water in Gaza has even become unsuitable for gardening purposes. “All my plants dried up and died because of high water salinity and high chloride,” said Muhammed Saleem from northern Gaza. The question then is “[if] the plants have died because of this water, what will it do with people’s bodies?” Saleem asked.
Indeed, water has severe health impacts on people’s health in Gaza. In a recent study on the health situation in Gaza, it was found that water is associated with 26% of diseases in the Strip. Diseases include anemia, liver and kidney diseases, methemoglobinemia, bloody diarrhea, and viral hepatitis. Children and pregnant women are among the most vulnerable to these diseases. According to Mohammed Shehada, Euro-Med Monitor’s chief of communications, “12% of the deaths of young children and infants are linked to intestinal diseases related to contaminated water.”
With all this in mind, the water crisis can no longer wait. The international community needs to call on Israel to end its discriminatory, ruthless policies and facilitate the entry of the materials required to reconstruct the water and sanitation infrastructures and prevent the discharge of wastewater into the sea. Strategies to provide Gazans with freshwater sources and reduce their dependence on the aquifer also need to be developed.
Unless these fundamental steps are taken, Gazans will remain “forced to witness the slow poisoning of their children and loved ones by the water they drink and likely the soil in which they harvest, endlessly, with no change in sight,” lamented Shehada.
Edited by Majeed Malhas