Joseph Nichol
Joseph Nichol

Can and should Israel try harder to resolve the water crisis in Gaza?

Israel should use its power to get more fresh water to the Gaza Strip if it wants to avoid a region-wide disaster.
Children hauling water bottles from the Khan Yunis treatment plant in Gaza in 2014. Source: B’Tselem. Credit: Muhammad Sabah. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

The water situation in the blockaded Gaza Strip is dire and it continues to deteriorate with every passing day. Israel has the scientific expertise and the material means needed to help Gaza and it should do more to provide Gazans with potable water.

There are technological solutions but political deadlock between Israel and Hamas hinders their implementation. Nonetheless, the imperatives to solving the crisis – whether moral or pragmatic – are compelling.

Gaza’s water crisis

There are several factors to which the water crisis in Gaza can be attributed.

For a population of over 2 million living in a 365 square-kilometer strip, the natural water resources aren’t enough. There are no wetlands or lakes in Gaza from which water can be pumped. The only natural source of fresh water (at least 95%) is the coastal aquifer, which runs from Binyamina in Israel to the Sinai in Egypt.

Though Gaza is mostly an urban area, high rates of unemployment make many Gazans turn to farming; over half of Gaza’s water demand is for agriculture. But irrigation practices are often inefficient and fertilizer seeps into the aquifer. The vast majority of wells are drilled without a permit and are not subject to inspections or other forms of regulation. This has led to over-pumping of the groundwater and chemical contamination.

Compounding the problems, the overburdened aquifer is also being polluted by seawater. As the reservoir continues to be over-pumped and as sea levels rise as a result of climate change, the aquifer draws in seawater – as dictated by the laws of hydraulics – as it rebalances. Over time, this process has increased the salinity of the underground reservoir.

 “The salty water causes a lot of problems: it damages our hair and fingernails, makes our skin dry and is bad for our teeth and ears. Our eyes and bodies really itch after we shower. My kids complain about the irritation in their eyes and suffer from rashes,” said Buthaynah Abu Ghaben, a mother of seven from a-Shati refugee camp, in a testimony given to B’Tselem. Accounts like this one are ubiquitous.

Khan Yunis Water Authority wastewater treatment facility, 2014. Source: B’ Tselem. Credit: Muhammad Sabah. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Bad sewage treatment management and decaying infrastructure are also to blame for damage to the aquifer and to sanitation in general in Gaza. Many Gazans are still not connected to the sanitary system and rely on cesspits and open drains for sewage disposal. There often isn’t enough electricity to run the existing sewage treatment plants, and there are constant delays in completing new sewage treatment projects. The sewage that accumulates in the cesspits percolates into the soil and pollutes the aquifer. When sewage can’t be disposed of by treatment, it is often dumped into the Mediterranean – on the coastline shared by Israel and Egypt.

The sum of these factors is a humanitarian disaster. The deterioration of the aquifer has resulted in biological and chemical contamination. By some accounts (though epidemiological data collection in Gaza is plagued by a host of challenges), over half of Gaza’s children are afflicted with chronic diarrhea as a result of water contamination.

Chloride, nitrate, and nitrite make their way into the water through sewage, industrial outflow, agricultural runoff, seawater, septic leakage, and landfill pollution. Their elevated presence has devastating consequences on Gaza’s public health.

If chloride concentration in water is over 250 mg/L (the recommended limit for drinking water standards), it can be detected by a saline taste. Though there are no confirmed health risks associated with consuming water with higher concentrations of chloride, its corrosive effects on metal are well-documented. High levels of chloride in Gaza’s water contribute to the decay of the water and wastewater infrastructure.

Man fills water container at public sink of Khan Yunis wastewater treatment plant in Gaza, 2014. Source: B’ Tselem. Credit: Muhammad Sabah. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Intake through drinking water of high levels of nitrate and nitrite, in contrast to chloride, has been linked to disease, particularly in infants. One example is cyanosis (a.k.a. blue baby syndrome), which is characterized by a shortage of oxygen in the blood. The condition can lead to respiratory and digestive problems and can increase the risk of certain kinds of cancer.

In addition to the elevated concentrations of harmful compounds in the groundwater, Gazans are at risk of biological contamination. As wastewater pollutes the aquifer, pathogens enter drinking water through feces. This puts Gazans at risk of exposure to viruses, such as hand-foot-and-mouth disease, meningitis, and polio, to bacteria such as Salmonella and cholera, and to various gastro-intestinal disease-causing parasites.

High salinity of the water causes damage to water infrastructure, including taps and pipes in private households, and leads to myriad health problems, such as, for example, diarrhea, kidney damage, abdominal pain, and cardiovascular disease.

It’s not just the poor quality of the water that impacts Gaza’s public health. The quantity problem also plays a direct role. Diseases – waterborne and otherwise – have an easier time spreading when people don’t have sufficient water for personal hygiene, including, for instance, washing hands and rinsing dishes.

“The water supply only reaches us once every four days, for about six hours at a time. When the water’s running, the flow is weak and the water is very salty. I wait for the water the whole week and check the taps often. Sometimes, I leave the faucet open to hear when the water comes back,” explained Hatem Hamed in his interview with B’Tselem.

Gazans (at least those who can afford it) mostly get their drinking water from other sources. Israel supplies some water to Gaza and there are a number of small desalination facilities (many are poorly regulated) that provide good-quality water. The amount of water Israel supplies has increased over the years and is set to increase again.

The situation as it stands now, and taking into account that each flareup of the conflict intensifies the crisis, is untenable. The ecological damage and the humanitarian disaster caused by the water crisis are profound and they pose risks to the entire region.

Impediments and imperatives

The above is simply a description of the water crisis in Gaza based on the available reports, academic research, and testimony. There is nothing political about it. But obviously the situation did not become this bad in a political vacuum.

For one, materials and resources, including electricity, clean water, concrete, steel, and scientific expertise, to name a few, do not flow freely into Gaza because of the blockade Israel and Egypt have been imposing on Gaza since 2007 following Hamas’s rise to power. Hamas is the government that Israel, the PA, and the international community have to deal with. But since its inception, it has pursued a policy of anti-normalization in its relationship with Israel.

The history of violence and the political rivalry shared between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is another impediment to solving the Gaza water crisis. The PA – and Hamas to a much more extreme extent – has chosen water as one of its frontiers of non-cooperation.

Hamas’s decision-makers are not generally inclined to work with their neighbors to further human flourishing in the region. “The rise of Hamas, whose founding charter rejects the existence of Israel in any borders, keeps water issues from being properly addressed in Gaza by either Israel or the PA,” wrote journalist Seth Siegel, author of Let There Be Water.

Hamas militants brandish weapons and train with rockets in 2009. Source: zoriah.com. Credit: Zoriah. License: blog use permitted, © zoriah/www.zoriah.com

To be clear: Hamas is a fascist Islamist terror organization that rules Gaza with a mixture of incompetence and theocratic totalitarianism.

Hamas’s founding political document openly advocates for genocide. An infamous passage from Article 7 gets the point across:  “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews) when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say: O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.“

Other parts of the Hamas charter read like the transcript of a Nazi propaganda broadcast: “They [the Jews] strived to amass great and substantive material wealth which they devoted to the realisation of their dream. With their money, they took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein.”

If Hamas could annihilate the state of Israel (and deliberately kill as many people as possible), it probably would. There’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t – Hamas’s leaders openly say it’s what they want. Just look at Hamas’s blood-stained track record of blown-up cafes, buses, restaurants, shootings, and indiscriminate rocket fire.

Public bus in Holon (central Israel) hit by Hamas rocket fire in May 2021. Source: Flickr. Credit: Flash90. License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

Hamas is not interested in choosing pragmatics over politics. Article 13 explicitly deals with this stance: “Initiatives, and so-called peaceful solutions and international conferences, are in contradiction to the principles of the Islamic Resistance Movement.” The section continues: “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors.”

The critical point: Hamas is a major impediment to solving the water crisis. This is not least because of its mistreatment of Gaza’s citizens and its mismanagement of aid, public services, and resources. We should not draw naive conclusions about Hamas’s willingness to work with Israel (its number one enemy), toward transforming the conflict and the humanitarian situation.

Israel, too, certainly has much to answer for with regard to the moral history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Highlighting the often-overlooked bellicose intentions of Hamas does not absolve Israel of its share of responsibility or blame for Gaza’s water crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in general. Israeli policies and actions that harm civilians and civilian infrastructure must be scrutinized. For example, when the conflict with Gaza flares up, in addition to causing civilian casualties, Israeli airstrikes damage water and wastewater infrastructure. And of course, restrictions imposed by Egypt and Israel prevent many critical resources from reaching Gazans and providing relief and the means to repair the damage to infrastructure.

Israel and Egypt have legitimate security concerns surrounding the importing of some resources. Concrete and steel, for instance, are considered by Israel “dual use” materials, meaning they can be (and often are) used for military and terrorism purposes. Why should Israel allow concrete into Gaza if Hamas and Islamic Jihad will get their hands on the concrete and use it to build underground tunnels for attacks in Israel? Why should Israel let steel reach Gaza if Hamas and Islamic Jihad will use some of it to manufacture rockets which will be fired right back into Israel? These are genuine barriers and unfortunately the restoration and maintenance of Gaza’s water infrastructure depends on these materials.

Water problems have come up against political impasses. But this doesn’t change the situation on the ground: ordinary Gazans (children, for example) are suffering. The impediments to solving the crisis loom large but the moral imperative is clear.

Even if one were to completely disregard the moral imperative, there are pragmatic considerations. Namely, waterborne diseases and ecological damage do not respect national borders. Contamination of Gaza’s water puts Gazans at risk of disease. Bacteria and viruses enter the water sources through sewage. The risk of infection and illness is elevated due to the lack of sufficient clean water, which inhibits safe hygiene. The contamination has the potential to spread beyond Gaza’s boundaries.

Cholera, for example, could enter Israel’s waterways through the coastal aquifer or the Mediterranean coast, and could cause a deadly outbreak within Israel. Haiti had a big outbreak in 2010; over the course of a few months 4,500 people died and about 300,000 were infected. Limited access to good drinking water and sanitation problems were what triggered the outbreak. Cholera outbreaks can be controlled by antibiotics and vaccines but access to clean water is crucial for prevention.

Gaza’s water problems have threatened Israel’s water supply before. In 2016, the Ashkelon desalination plant, which supplies 15% to 20% of Israel’s drinking water, was temporarily shut down due to hazardous pollution from Gaza.

Whether one is convinced by the moral imperative or the pragmatic considerations or both, it should be clear that Israel should do what it can to intervene.

What needs to happen

All of the above is the bad news. True, it’s a lot. But there’s also good news.

There are scientists and engineers from Gaza who cooperate with their neighbors in Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, and with the international community to do what they can to improve the water situation despite the lack of cooperation on the political level. New projects do get completed and there are reasons for optimism. For example, at the beginning of 2021, construction was completed (after 20 years) of a new wastewater treatment plant, which aims to treat the wastewater of about one million people.

The other good news is that Israel and the international community have the material means and the technical expertise to help. There are a number of creative technical solutions. Gazans and Israelis frequently discuss them in international conferences.

For starters, Israel could inject fresh water into Gaza’s heavily polluted aquifer. Some experts estimate that this could drastically improve the aquifer’s health within five years. It can be done from outside of Gaza’s borders, which would bypass some political constraints.

Israel and the international community could import bulk water into Gaza. A shipping container could approach the coastline and then use floating hoses to fill a storage unit close to the shore to pump water into Gaza’s system. There are tanker companies that offer this service. More sophisticated and long-term solutions include building small or mid-sized desalination plants in Gaza for seawater and brackish water. Their construction requires negotiations, planning, and trained professionals, which certainly demand more cooperation. Israel will not dismantle the blockade and let in all building materials freely, but it needs to focus on containerizing all materials needed for the desalination plant. It should – when safe to do so – evaluate the real security concerns of imported goods and materials in comparison with the region-wide danger of a disease outbreak in Gaza.

There’s a possibility of constructing a floating seawater desalination plant off the coast. The plant could pump water to Gaza via a pipe on the ocean floor. Technologically, it’s a more complex solution, but politically, it may be easier – there is no need to coordinate construction activity within Gaza’s borders. It’s also feasible to construct a floating electricity source.

Israel could swap desalinated water for Gaza’s wastewater when safe to do so, treat it and reuse it for agriculture. This might sound aesthetically objectionable to some, but Israel already treats about 95% of its own wastewater and reuses it. It’s a safe and excellent way to cut costs and increase supply.

There are also many steps that can be taken from inside Gaza, by Gazans. Experts estimate that over 30% of the water that flows through Gaza’s water system is wasted as a result of leaks. Repairing and maintaining the pipes can be done fairly easily. 

Like Israelis, Gazans must also start to reuse most of their wastewater for agriculture. Even though over 50% of the existing water goes to farming, almost none of the wastewater is put to use.

Much of the farming in Gaza relies on flood irrigation. A lot of the water is lost due to surface evaporation. Gazans could also save a lot of water if they switched to drip irrigation (an Israeli invention). Instead of flooding the dirt around crops, drip irrigation systems directly target the roots of the crops with a steady trickle of drops. This technique also increases crop yield because the roots get more oxygen.

Gaza’s water management officials and technical experts need to also drastically tighten up regulation. Most wells in Gaza are not regulated and much of the water infrastructure operates without strict oversight. This is a source of huge waste and damage. These are some of the steps Israel, Gaza, and the international community can take toward solving the water crisis. But this list is by no means exhaustive.

In an imaginary utopian world, where Hamas, the PA, and Israel decide to fully cooperate on solving water issues, the crisis could be averted. Water, the fundamental resource of human flourishing and the source of life itself, must be disentangled from politics.

It almost goes without saying that Hamas – the de facto government in Gaza – should abandon its anti-normalization policies and reorient its goals in order to work with its neighbors to solve the water crisis and alleviate the suffering of its fellow Palestinians. Though based on the terror group’s rhetoric and behavior, deep and transformative cooperation seems unlikely in the short term.

Thus the realistic onus is on Israel and the international community to do what’s in their power to help. Israel should certainly be compelled by humanitarian, moral, and pragmatic considerations. Since cooperation on the political level isn’t happening, Israel should focus on technical solutions which might allow it to bypass Hamas and pump good water into Gaza. If, for example, Israel were to start – tomorrow – injecting Gaza’s heavily polluted aquifer with fresh water or if it were to increase the amount of water it pumps directly into Gaza’s water grid, would Hamas get in the way? Could it get in the way?

Perhaps if the humanitarian situation cannot be improved by first reaching a political agreement, Israel should focus on the former without the consent of Hamas.  

About the Author
Joseph Nichol moved to Israel from Canada in 2011. Currently he works as a project director for the European Desalination Society. The projects he works on focus on desalination, water treatment, and resource recovery.
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