There is no dispute that the Gaza Strip’s people are in dire need of additional sources of water beyond what Israel currently permits them. The 1.6 million residents of the Gaza Strip have been made entirely dependent on a portion of the Coastal Aquifer, an underground water source it shares with Israel and Egypt.
As a result, their portion is drastically over-extracted and highly-polluted, with a staggering 90 to 95 percent of the water unfit for drinking. Some Palestinians in Gaza have come to rely on purchasing drinking water from private vendors who have set up small, unregulated desalination plants.
Desalination of water is an expensive enterprise due to its dependence on electricity, which is itself in scant supply owing to the meagre and strictly-controlled amount Israel allows the tiny coastal region. In 2009, Amnesty International described the emergence of this private enterprise as a “stop-gap” solution, which the vast majority of Palestinians could not afford.
Israel has prevented Palestinians in both the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip from accessing their own natural sources of water — namely the Mountain Aquifer or Jordan River in the West Bank and the Coastal Aquifer that stretches along historic Palestine’s coast, including Gaza. This has left Palestinians with as little as one quarter the amount of water Israeli citizens are supplied.
But recently Israel has created a lot of positive buzz touting its new desalination technology — a technology of which Israel has been at the forefront for the last ten years and that the country now boasts will create a constant source of safe drinking water for its own population.
Last December, Israel and Jordan proudly announced the “Red-Dead Project” with a signing ceremony at the World Bank headquarters in Washington DC. The construction project will build a conduit of water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea and claims to address several issues, including the fact that Dead Sea water levels have dropped a dire 40 meters over the last half-century.
Campaign group Friends of the Earth Middle East says the project has additional goals: “The conveyance would be utilized to generate hydroelectricity and desalinate water, with drinking water to be pumped to regional population centers and desalination brine discharged into the Dead Sea.”
In Gaza, desalination has also been selected as the solution to the water shortages faced by Palestinians. Despite historic reticence towards desalination, the Palestinian Water Authority proposed to pursue this option.
In 2011, 43 countries in the Union for the Mediterranean — including Israel — endorsed the Palestinian Water Authority’s proposal and called on donor countries to to secure funding for the construction of a desalination plant in Gaza.
Undercutting Palestinian claims
However, not everyone supports this approach. The Emergency Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Coalition (EWASH), a group demanding that Palestinians have greater access to clean water, has written a position paper delineating why a desalination plant is not an adequate or just solution to Palestine’s grave water situation.
EWASH underscores that a desalination plant enables the continual denial to Palestinians of the water that legally belongs to them. “Desalination for Gaza, while alleviating the suffering of Palestinians, undercut Palestinian claims to their water resources in the West Bank, including a larger share of the Coastal Aquifer, [therefore] legitimizing Israel’s appropriation of Palestinian water and reducing political pressure on Israel to comply with international water law and international humanitarian law,” the paper says.
As the occupying power, Israel is legally obliged to ensure that the Palestinians living under occupation have access to adequate amounts of water. Yet Palestinians’ right to “an equitable and reasonable share of transboundary water resources” is abused by Israel as a result of how it controls water resources in a discriminatory manner.
The EWASH paper argues a desalination plant would further increase the isolation of Gaza by solidifying its separation from West Bank resources.
The Oslo accords of 1993 established that the West Bank and Gaza Strip were in theory a single territorial entity and yet made no provision allowing for the transfer of water from the West Bank to the Gaza Strip.
EWASH argues that a desalination plant would allow Israel to avoid its obligation to allow Gaza to access water in the West Bank.
“Desalination for Gaza should come after the realization of Palestinian water rights and full sovereignty over their equitable and reasonable share of transboundary water resources,” the paper says.
EWASH also asserts that confining Gaza’s water source to one desalination plant would render the Strip’s 1.6 million inhabitants dangerously vulnerable in the case of an Israeli military attack.
“Concerns surrounding strikes on infrastructure are not without precedent: In 2006, the Israeli military severely damaged Gaza’s sole power plant,” the paper says. Water and sanitation infrastructure has also been targeted. Along with hundreds of wells used by farmers, Israel has destroyed a major water pipeline in Gaza. It also destroyed the Nuseirat sewage pumping station shortly after its construction was completed in 2011.
In addition to the very stark political implications of the building of a desalination plant, the paper raises the practical concern of the cost and feasibility of running a desalination plant that requires scarce and expensive electricity.
Since 2006 Gaza has experienced a significant energy deficit of about 35 percent. Currently, daily power cuts run up to eight hours a day.
“The highly impoverished Gazan economy will not be able to bear the costs of keeping the desalination plant functioning, making the solution very unsustainable,” according to EWASH. “The operation and maintenance costs of the desalination plant would constitute a major obstacle to the operation of the plant.”
In order to procure enough electricity and energy to run the plant, the PWA has estimated that it would need to be subsidized by international sources for at least three years — to the tune of $20 million.
“This would, therefore, increase further and perpetuate Palestinian dependency on international aid, which serves to remove from Israel the burden of responsibility towards the Palestinians and the obligations it owes them under international law,” the EWASH paper says.
The paper points out other general environmental concerns about desalination technology, such as the ejection of concentrated salt and chemicals back into the sea — which Gaza would not be capable of counteracting.
EWASH’s report is a crucial reminder that Palestine’s water crisis has been engineered by the systematic theft of its resources by Israel. The solution must, therefore, begin with the return of that which was stolen.