Water pollution reaches catastrophic levels in Gaza

Three children carry large containers of water as they walk along a dirt road

Palestinian children carry drinking water in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, in March 2016.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Abeer Abu Nimer had to wait for her son to come home from school with a bucket of water.

The 34-year-old had started to do the laundry but the supply of water at her home ran out.

And though he had spent a long day at school, her son Ahmad, 11, went back and forth nearly half a kilometer a dozen times to fetch buckets of water from a truck near the municipality building in Khan Younis, where the family lives. The laundry had to be done.

Mother and child have gotten used to this routine. “The norm is not to have water during the day,” Abeer told The Electronic Intifada. “It is very tiring for my child to fill a bucket and carry it at least 400 meters like this.”

Frequent power cuts in Gaza have made it impossible to provide homes with running water all day. With summer approaching, moreover, Gaza is threatened with a water scarcity crisis that has been compounded by successive Israeli military assaults and a nearly 10-year-old blockade.

Muhammad Abu Shamala, an official at the Khan Younis water plant, describes the situation as “catastrophic.”

“Pollution of our water resources has reached alarming proportions and the salinity of the underground aquifer continues to increase,” Abu Shamala said.

The United Nations stated that Palestinians in Gaza use on average less than half of the minimum 100 liters of water per person per day recommended by the World Health Organization.

By way of contrast, Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank use 369 liters per person per day.

Crisis measures

The Khan Younis municipality has no capacity to address mounting concerns: there is a lack of functioning infrastructure and no ability to undertake repairs. The necessary building materials are either difficult or impossible to import because of the Israeli-imposed siege.

“The situation gets even worse in the summers,” said Abeer Abu Nimer. “This is why we have to be even more careful when we use water.”

With their hands tied, authorities regularly launch public information campaigns to urge and help residents save water.

“We try to raise awareness that these water resources have to be carefully used; otherwise the next generations are going to pay a high price,” Abu Shamala said.

Eitaf Harb is certain that the water in Gaza is unfit for human use. The 31-year-old moved to Khan Younis three years ago when she got married. Since then, she has started to suffer from skin irritations she thinks is caused by the water used to bathe.

Unfit for human consumption

Harb was born in the Gulf and began to notice her skin reacting after just two months in Gaza. She showed The Electronic Intifada brown blotches on her arms and legs that she had never suffered from before. Her experience of life outside Gaza means she is more acutely aware of the quality of water here.

“The water is salty and cannot be safely used for bathing or even washing the dishes,” she said.

Gaza’s water is dangerously polluted, a situation that has only worsened with Israeli bombings. The water contains such high levels of chloride and nitrates that the United Nations estimates that 96 percent is unsafe for drinking.

Water quality has also been adversely affected by the lack of proper sewage infrastructure. Sewage either flows straight into the sea just off the coast or into cesspits.

In both cases, it then seeps into Gaza’s only underwater aquifer. Gaza’s authorities are unable to bring in the necessary materials to build a proper sewage network because of the Israeli blockade.

Yasser al-Shanti, the head of Gaza’s water authority, blames Israel for the decreased quality of the drinking water in Gaza.

Israeli shelling destroyed a number of desalination plants — both privately built or officially sanctioned — which were used to treat wastewater and provide clean drinking water.

“We have more than a hundred desalination plants, but very few are fully operating due to the damage they sustained during the latest conflict in 2014,” al-Shanti told The Electronic Intifada.

The presence of privately built desalination plants is another headache for authorities who say they are not properly regulated and therefore potentially unsafe. Officials regularly warn Gazans against buying water from such plants.

Tottering infrastructure

Al-Shanti estimates that about 778 underground wells were damaged during the 2014 assault, of which only 162 have been fixed. The numbers are hard to verify since many wells are dug privately. Israel has denied entrance for the materials needed to do most of the urgent repairs.

The official said approximately 100 million cubic meters of water are lost annually because of poor infrastructure. Winter downpours could have replenished reservoirs had they been properly functioning but al-Shanti estimates that, instead, 60 percent of rainwater simply seeps into the sea.

Compounding the problem, a decrease in farmland and a growth in populated areas leaves the soil dry and unable to absorb rainwater.

“When we continue to consume water from our reservoir, the water becomes more saline. It should be replenished, but unfortunately this is not how things go,” al-Shanti said.

To mitigate the crisis, Gaza’s municipality now buys an extra 5 million cubic meters of water every year from Israel, doubling the previous amount. But the al-Muntar reservoir that had been built to receive extra water was destroyed by Israel in 2014 and, al-Shanti said, Gaza does not get to use the full amount of water.

“Our facilities cannot save the whole amount of water we buy, at a high price,” he said. “That is because they have to be developed and extended to absorb the delivered quantities of water.”

Isra Saleh el-Namey is a journalist based in the Gaza Strip