Water in Gaza: “it’s not a simple problem”

Palestinian children at the Oxfam water project in Gaza. (Neil Ashour)

For the last year Mark Buttle has been the coordinator for the “WASH cluster,” the group of aid organizations working on water, sanitation and hygiene in the Gaza Strip. A chartered water engineer, Buttle has worked for a development-oriented nongovernmental organization (NGO) for more than a decade, including in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has been based in Gaza since May 2009. He spoke to The Electronic Intifada contributor Sarah Irving about the challenges faced by international agencies working in Gaza.

Sarah Irving: What are the typical activities your job entails?

Mark Buttle: It’s all about getting people around the table. We have a coordination meeting every week or two and people are invited to attend so that everyone knows who’s doing what, where, and they can exchange information. We’ve been prioritizing developing a contingency plan for the water sector, working out what the water sector needs to do in the event of a worst case scenario.

SI: What is the biggest problem the water sector faces?

Mark Buttle in Gaza (Oxfam)

MB: The materials issue. Gaza is a small place, it’s only 365 square kilometers, so it’s not hard for the larger agencies to coordinate with one another. But materials are the biggest issue we have to deal with. One thing we’ve done is to work with Oxfam and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) to help set up a WASH Advocacy Task Force. It’s the first time ECHO has funded any direct advocacy work, anywhere, so we’ve been under the microscope, but we’ve had quite a lot of success. We try to speak to diplomats and politicians visiting Gaza, to sit down and have face-to-face meetings with them rather than just shouting into the air, and that’s been really successful in terms of raising awareness of the issue of materials entry for water projects.

One of the other things we’ve done on materials entry is to work with the water company in Gaza, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, the UN and with other NGOs to create a list of the key water projects that need to happen in Gaza. As part of that there’s a shortlist of the materials that are urgently required. That list goes to the Israelis and we would be involved in negotiating for those items to come in, but our advocacy work helps to reach UN people at a higher level and for our list to be used in negotiations.

SI: What is on that list? What are the main materials that you can’t get?

MB: Water pipes, cement, steel bar, aggregates and any sort of fittings. And we have a real problem getting generators and mobile water pumps. Pump motors also haven’t been allowed in. I’ll give you an example: we drew up a clear priority list of things we thought we’d need for winter 2009 and started negotiating for those in October. We only actually received items from that list in March, April and May 2010. Perhaps we should have allowed more time, but we knew the majority of items we asked for were sitting in warehouses in Ashkelon or in Kerem Shalom near the crossing, so it’s not as if we were asking for something unusual or hard to describe — they were very standard generators.

One problem is that organizations implementing projects never actually get any written response from COGAT, the Israeli government organization which controls the entry of materials to Gaza, to say: “we have now agreed that this can enter.” The other problem is that there are quite clearly two levels of authorization. There’s a political “yes,” and there’s a security “yes,” and we find that even if we can get a very clear political “yes” from COGAT, the security clearance from Shin Bet [the Israeli Security Agency also known as “the Shabak”] could delay it by several months, easily.

SI: It’s still early, but do you have any sense of whether the new control system announced by Israel will make any difference?

MB: I think the jury is out on that. We would obviously welcome a change of heart, but on the other hand we have to try and define what the actual change is. When there is no publicized list of what is allowed in and what isn’t, one has to ask, how can you possibly monitor a change in it? For example, I think the BBC reported that building materials will now be allowed in under the supervision of international organizations. However, it’s not clear how that is different from before, and if it’s still going to take four months to get building materials in, there isn’t really a change. So if they do add those things it would be a change, of course, but I would say we need a more transparent system. It’s not good enough to have a situation where you never get a written agreement to do something. Which other organization in the world can function like that? It’s a simple issue of: “Can I get these materials in? Just give me confirmation, and we’ll do it all.” Because organizations in Gaza are hiring drivers and trucks to bring materials in and if you get a false “yes” you’ve wasted a lot of money.

SI: What are the implications of this situation for ordinary people in Gaza?

MB: There are two sides to this. There’s the environment and then the health implications. From an environmental point of view, the UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] report published in September 2009 mentioned that water extraction is roughly double what it should be. That means the level is going down in boreholes and that means additional pollution of water from two places, from the saline aquifer next door, east of Rafah, and from the sea.

Additional pollution is being caused by nitrates and the main reason for that is sewage infiltrating into the ground. Agriculture plays a part through fertilizers, but if you look at a map there’s a big bubble of nitrates in the groundwater around [the city of] Khan Younis, because Khan Younis relies entirely on cesspits and isn’t connected to sewers. Also there was a localized pollution problem stemming from the storm water lagoon which had a lot of sewage flowing into it for a few years. So when you look at a map of Gaza shaded to indicate where the groundwater is polluted with nitrates, there’s a red area around Khan Younis, which shows clearly that there is a sewage problem not a fertilizer problem.

Big sewage and wastewater projects cannot progress without materials coming from Israel, and we’re talking tens of thousands of tons of cement, but in the meantime the environment is suffering and people are drinking unsafe water. Ninety to ninety-five percent of all wells contain water which is undrinkable by World Health Organization standards. It’s either too salty or there are too many nitrates, or both. That means that the water that’s put into the piped system tastes salty, so people tend to buy from private vendors instead, so there’s a whole parallel drinking water system from the private sector. There are about 70 privately-run boreholes in Gaza and each one has its own private desalination plant and tanker trucks to deliver the water to people’s homes. When that water is produced it’s normally pure: according to our tests it doesn’t contain bacteria or nitrates or chlorides. It tastes fantastic and people love it. The trouble is that when you test that same water in people’s homes, for example where people have a 200 liter tank near the kitchen which is filled by the tanker with a small pump, 70 percent of samples show positive for bacteriological pollution. That represents a health risk to young children or the elderly and I think the main source of pollution is through the delivery process, because during a delivery run dozens of people might handle the pipe that runs from the tanker, and it only takes one of them not to have washed their hands.

Affordability is also a factor. According to the Palestinian Hydrology Group, about 83 percent of people in Gaza rely on privately-sold drinking water, but many people can’t afford that. At the moment it’s about one shekel [$0.25] per jerry can, or about 18 liters, and the price varies in different areas. That has to be taken in the context of over 40 percent of people being unemployed and 80 percent of people relying on aid. At the start of 2010, UNRWA [the UN Agency for Palestinian refugees] had approximately 300,000 people on their list of families living in abject poverty and the year before it was only 100,000, which indicates that people’s coping mechanisms are coming to an end. For two or three years people have been getting by — borrowing or selling the odd asset — but I think there’s an indication that people are fundamentally running out of coping mechanisms.

SI: What are the main projects that Oxfam and other agencies are now involved in?

MB: At Oxfam, we’re working mostly in [the cities of] Rafah and Khan Younis. We’ve recently completed a project to install a piped sewer main in Tel al-Sultan. We were lucky that materials entered in April and May. And in Khan Younis we are considering a pilot project to build an innovative wastewater treatment plant for a small area, where treated wastewater could be used for agriculture. The need for that is driven for that by the fact that big projects can’t happen. There should be a large wastewater treatment plant built to the east of Khan Younis, and that project has been delayed and delayed, which is why organizations like Oxfam are now having to take an emergency approach to the wastewater situation.

There are projects going on to try and improve overall water coverage, because some areas are suffering from decrepit pipes. A lot of problems now are not due to [Israel’s invasion of Gaza in winter 2008-09 dubbed] “Operation Cast Lead.” They’re down to the overall deterioration of things over time. More than 45 percent of all water in Gaza is leaking into the ground. Compare that with the 2006 scandal around Thames Water in the UK where a leakage rate of about 33 percent caused people and the authorities to react very strongly. So there’s a very high level of leakage and we would like to be able to tackle that waste. If we had pipes and water meters, we’d put water meters on major trunk lines so we could see where the leaks were, and then tackle it if we could get hold of the pipes. At the moment there is one pipe factory in Gaza which is producing, but there are knotty problems for aid agencies about the legalities of buying pipes when you are unsure if the raw materials entered Gaza through the tunnels. It’s a not a simple problem.

Sarah Irving (www.sarahirving.net,” is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the BombsPluto Press - Gaza,” co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.