Water desalination projects to solve Gaza’s problems: a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

For years, Israel has promoted desalination as the solution for Gaza’s water supply problems — while it has bombed water infrastructure systems. 

APA images

The Palestinian Contractors Union recently warned UNICEF, the UN agency for children, of a boycott if it proceeds with offering tenders for the construction of a desalination plant in the Gaza Strip to two Israeli companies, Nirosoft and Odis Filtering. UNICEF responded with a statement clarifying its procurement procedures and saying that the contracts haven’t been offered yet, reverting the final decision on whether to proceed to the Coastal Municipal Water Utility (CMWU), the Palestinian entity responsible for implementing the project.

The issue is far from resolved as there are questions pending on how UNICEF has allowed these two Israeli companies to bid for tendering. Preliminary research shows that Nirosoft is owned by Ron Lauder, a key donor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Odis filtering operates in Hamat Gader, an Israeli settlement in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights that is illegal under international law.

This affair has brought the spotlight on the conduct of aid agencies working in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and their role in dodging accountability. What hasn’t been put to scrutiny yet is the rationale for the construction of a desalination plant in the Gaza Strip.

Gaza’s water sources: overexploited and contaminated

Gaza’s sole source of fresh water is the Coastal Aquifer, a trans-boundary waterway shared with Israel running along the coast up to Haifa. The aquifer is severely deteriorated with up to 95 percent of the extracted water unsuitable for human consumption with dangerous levels of nitrates and chlorides, well above World Health Organization guidelines, with potential for serious health risks for the 1.6 million Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip (“Israel rations Palestinians to trickle of water,” Amnesty International, 27 October 2009).

The section of the aquifer underneath Gaza cannot cope with the demographic pressures of the tiny strip as it is being overexploited by up to three times its sustainable yield, and contaminated with untreated sewage due to Gaza’s dilapidated wastewater treatment infrastructure. It is estimated that Gaza may run out of fresh water within this decade if no action is taken to find alternative sources.

Israel has for years promoted desalination as the solution for Gaza’s water supply problems. This option was included in the now discredited 1993 Oslo accords at the insistence of Israel, and gained new impetus since Israel’s unilateral “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

Israel declared Gaza a “hostile entity” after Hamas took over political administration of the Strip in 2007. As a result of that declaration, Israel took concrete steps to gradually halt the remaining service provision arrangements it has had with Gaza — reducing, for example, electricity coming from Israel’s grids and encouraging the importation of essential supplies through the tunnels with Egypt.

At the same time, Israel’s government initiated a political offensive to promote the idea of Gaza as a separate entity among its allies.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said in the past that Gaza should be dealt with just like the US dealt with Japan in World War II, i.e. with nukes, told the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in 2010 that Israel “is looking for serious partners” to improve the economic situation in Gaza, referring particularly to Israel’s intention for building a desalination plant there.

According to Lieberman, “these projects can resolve a real problem of drinking water and electricity and improve the situation” (“Lieberman: Israel planning to improve Gaza’s water and electricity infrastructure,” Haaretz, 18 July 2010).

Lieberman went further, saying that he wants Gaza to become a fully independent entity and that Israel would eventually hermetically seal Gaza’s borders with Israel (“Report: Lieberman wants Gaza as an independent entity,” Ma’an News Agency, 16 July 2010).

Lieberman found indeed a willing partner in the European Union, which is funding UNICEF’s desalination plant in Gaza and has recently announced a 13 million euro ($16.2 milion) grant to upgrade the Israeli-controlled Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza, currently the only crossing open for imports of goods into the Strip — in effect, contributing to making Israel’s illegal siege on Gaza more palatable to Palestinians (“HR Ashton and Palestinian PM Fayyad sign agreements worth €35 million to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people,” European Union statement, 19 March 2012).

The EU has been criticized for playing a similar role as underwriter of Israel’s occupation in the West Bank.

A “shock doctrine” approach

Aid agencies implement a large chunk of the EU’s money and have, to different degrees, embraced this donor-driven complicit agenda. UNICEF and elements within the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority have been the key proponents of the desalination option for Gaza. The discourse adopted is that of alarmism drawing a doomsday scenario if desalination is not implemented. This “shock doctrine” approach has left little space for discussion or dissent.

No questions have been asked, for example, about Israel’s habit of destroying Gaza’s civilian infrastructure as a form of collective punishment. In 2001, Israel destroyed Gaza’s newly-built airport, and more recently, in 2006, the Israeli army bombed Gaza’s only power plant. Would the desalination facility be protected from similar attacks? Desalination is in fact counterintuitive for Gaza; to sustain it, enormous quantities of energy are required while Gaza regularly experiences fuel and electricity shortages and not even hospitals are spared.

Meeting of interests between Israel and the Palestinian Authority

This UNICEF desalination plant is just the first phase of a larger desalination facility planned for Gaza at a cost of 310 million euros ($386 million). In March, the Palestinian Authority began the fundraising drive for the larger project with France pledging the first 10 million euros ($12.5 million) (“French assistance amounting to 10 million for the Palestinian Territories and €10 million for the Gaza desalination plant,” France Diplomatie, 13 March 2012).

The project was endorsed unanimously last year by the 43 members of the Union for the Mediterranean, including Israel. The union’s deputy Secretary General, Rafiq Husseini, a former aide of the Palestinian Authority president implicated in a corruption sex scandal in 2010, championed the resolution (“Deputy Secretary General Rafiq Husseini advocates for a desalination plant for Gaza in collaboration with Egypt,” Union for the Mediterranean).

Husseini made a swift exit from Ramallah following the scandal as the PA’s candidate for the senior Union for the Mediterranean post in view of influencing the desalination agenda from within.

For-profit water market

Israel promotes itself worldwide as the leader in desalination technology. The government recently announced that it is on course of achieving water surplus (“‘Israel to have water surplus within decade’,” Ynet, 9 February 2012). As such — and as revealed in the Palestine Papers — Israel doesn’t make a secret that it desires to create a profit-making water market on the backs of Palestinians, having made this proposal several times during the final status negotiations (“NSU Presentation: Water for a viable Palestinian state,” Al-Jazeera English).

For its part, the Palestinian Water Authority has adopted an ongoing neoliberal reform program promoted by the World Bank. Signs of its implementation were evident on a recent call for tenders for yet another desalination facility, a third one, planned for east of Gaza City where private firms were invited to bid for “investment” (see Letter of invitation for the private sector for investment in building and operation of a sea water desalination plant in Gaza).

This seeming meeting of interests between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been touted as a “win-win solution.” Meanwhile, the Palestinian people are the real losers as the prospect for the realization of their right to water continues to be eroded.

Solution is rooted in international law and human rights

The solution to Gaza’s water problems is rooted in respect for international law and the human rights of Palestinians. Israel, as the occupying power in the Gaza Strip, is responsible for the well-being of its population, including ensuring electricity, water and a functioning infrastructure. Israel has neglected this responsibility, currently supplying less than 3 percent of Gaza’s water needs through a pre-existing pipeline and recently threatening to cut even this tiny amount (“Israel threatens to cut water and power to Gaza,” The Telegraph, 27 November 2011).

Governments, including the EU and aid agencies such as UNICEF, have let Israel off the hook through a program of assistance that marginalizes meaningful accountability measures which would bring Israel in line with its obligations.

Palestinians in Gaza can no longer be seen in isolation, separated from the fate of the rest of the Palestinian people. While on paper donors and aid agencies have recognized this, in practicality they have acquiesced to Israel’s siege and have been a key instrument in the implementation of Israel’s plans. As Allegra Pacheco noted in an article in The Electronic Intifada two years ago, “the UN and Western-backed relief organizations continued to collaborate and comply with Israel’s prohibitive blockade guidelines.”

It is extremely problematic to promote the supply of water to Gaza from desalination — an unconventional and expensive method — when Palestinians don’t even have their right to water respected. This water lies, for example, on the rich deposits underneath the West Bank, only 30 kilometers away from Gaza, which Israel controls and appropriates leaving Palestinians with only a trickle. Desalination for Gaza would therefore be in lieu of the realization of Palestinian water rights and sovereignty over its share of the aquifer.

This is tantamount to giving Israel a free hand to continue its pillage by relieving it of its obligations under international law.

Governments and aid agencies would do best to channel their sense of urgency on the imminent collapse of Gaza’s aquifer by taking concrete steps to hold Israel accountable including the imposition of sanctions on Israel for its persistent violations of international law. Palestinians and all those who care for justice must oppose Gaza’s desalination plans as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, for it claims to serve the needs of Palestinians while in fact jeopardizing the long-term the realization of Palestinian individual and collective rights.

Editor’s note: this article originally stated that Hamat Ghader is an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. This article has been corrected to state that it is in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights.