The nexus between water and energy is the global theme of World Water Day this year March 22, 2014. The case of Gaza and the water and energy crises facing the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip has significant geopolitical implications for Israel, Hamas and PA President Abu Mazen and reflects the urgency to both better understand the nexus and the need to act now before it is too late.
By all accounts on water supply, sanitation services and electricity production, Gaza is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.
For water supply Gaza relies almost completely on its underlying Coastal Aquifer for fresh water. While the annual recharge rate of the Aquifer is estimated at 50-60 million cubic meters, current annual abstraction of water is estimated at 160 mcm – triple the recharge. Groundwater levels subsequently decline and sea water infiltrates form the Mediterranean Sea. Salinity levels have thus risen well beyond guidelines of the World Health Organization for safe drinking water. The result is that 90% of water from the aquifer is not safe for drinking without treatment and the UN warns that without immediate reduction in over pumping, the damage to the aquifer will be irreversible by 2020. Many Gazan residents today cope by sourcing drinking water from very small desalination facilities constructed in each neighborhood. With the continued rise, however, in salinity levels of aquifer water, because of continued over pumping, these small desalination facilities are quickly starting to fail unable to provide the drinking water needed.
On sanitation services the international community has invested in the building of three large regional sewage treatments facilities with the treatment plant for northern Gaza completed since September last year. No treatment plant though is able to operate, as Gaza has insufficient electricity supply to power them. For drinking water, the result is that high salinity levels are further compounded by contamination of the aquifer by nitrates from untreated sewage. High salinity levels in drinking water in particular impacts infants and can lead to blue baby disease. Polluted water leads to population wide commutable diseases.
Electricity supply in Gaza is estimated at around 180 megawatts while demand is 360 megawatts, resulting in a 50% shortfall and therefore the present rationing of electricity, with electricity blackouts of up to 8 hours in every Gaza neighborhood, every day.
In theory, sea water desalination could provide the potable water urgently needed for Gaza, but there is no electricity available to power a large-scale desalination plant. Gaza sewage could be treated today but there is no electricity to run the plants. Israel currently supplies half the energy needs of Gaza but is itself running at near full capacity, with little electricity to spare. Egypt is supplying Gaza with less electricity then already promised and Hamas is reluctant to import more fuel from Israel to power the existing Gaza power station as tax revenues for fuel imports coming in from Israel are paid to the PA in Ramallah and not to Hamas in Gaza. In the short term while Israel could sell small additional amounts of electricity directly to power new Gaza sewage treatment plants, large sea water desalination in Gaza is not a realistic option to solve the water supply crises faced.
No less for its own self interest, Israel holds the key for a much needed interim measure: selling desalinated water from nearby Ashkelon to Gaza. This isn’t far-fetched: Israel is already selling an annual average of 4.7 mcm of water to Gaza and had committed to supply an additional 10 mcm yearly. Israel recently agreed to sell up to an additional 30 million cubic meters to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the Memorandum of Understanding signed late last year between the Water Ministers of Israel, Jordan and the PA. The Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), as part of an agreement with Hamas, is responsible for the water sector in Gaza and should request to use this additional amount agreed to Israel in Gaza rather than the West Bank. PA President Abu Mazen would reap the political benefits highlighting to his own people that unlike Hamas he can provide for the needs of Gaza. According to World Bank estimates the strip requires an additional 50 mcm a year: 30 mcm from Israel in addition to the volumes already delivered today would therefore be a significant step in that direction. If Israel increases the volumes delivered today to equal earlier commitments, the final result would go even closer to meet the total demand.
Israel is not responsible for all of Gaza’s misery. Hamas’ rule has proved more than capable in that respect. Israel should however cooperate with the donor community that is trying to grapple with the water and energy crises facing Gaza’s population, not least for the sake of Israel itself. The political and environmental price of the collapse of potable water supply in Gaza, the continued pollution of water resources and consequent outbreak of disease will not stop at the fence built between Gaza and Israel. No fence will be able to hold back 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza who have run out of potable water.
On this world water day focus needs to be squarely placed on the water and energy nexus in Gaza and the geopolitical implications for Israel and the region of failure to act.