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When Gazan refugees pour into Tel Aviv

Israel faces the specter of Palestinians streaming en masse over its borders desperately seeking a drink of water

Will the scenes of Syrian refugees in Budapest, Berlin and Calais be replicated by Gazans marching towards Tel Aviv? It’s highly possible. A new UN report released last week that received scant attention in Israel warns that if current socioeconomic trends continue, Gaza will become uninhabitable in less than five years. One of the key issues according to the report is water and sanitation.

The UN already established back in 2012 that Gaza’s main source of potable water, the Coastal Aquifer, will be unfit for human use by 2016 due to rising salinity levels that are the result of over-extraction. Left with no other alternative water source, the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza have been consuming triple the replenishment rates of their groundwater for decades. Furthermore, a severe electricity shortage, starting even before last summer’s war and worsening dramatically in its aftermath, impedes the work of wastewater treatment and brackish water desalination facilities. The lack of sanitation solutions increases the chances of epidemics erupting in Gaza, posing a dire public health threat to both Gaza and Israel: Outbreaks like cholera and typhoid do not stop at the border.

If Gaza’s water economy collapses, tens of thousands of Gazans are likely to start walking towards the border fences of Israel and Egypt. What will the Israeli or Egyptian military do? Would they dare shoot at civilians desperate for drinking water? As we see daily how events are unfolding in Europe, desperate people will stop at nothing to try to save themselves and their families.

Israel is in fact already affected by the lack of proper water and sanitation infrastructure in Gaza. Ninety-thousand cubic meters of raw sewage make their way to the Mediterranean from Gaza every day, and are carried by the natural currents towards Ashkelon beach, where Israel desalinates water for domestic use. Irrespective of the question of the responsibility of Hamas, Israel has a vested interest in alleviating the water shortage in the Gaza Strip by further increasing the water currently supplied to Gaza, as well as providing electricity for sanitation solutions.

Urgent Israeli government action is needed to allow the Palestinian Government and the international donor community more time to secure alternative electricity/energy sources, such as natural gas, and funding for longer term solutions, mainly large-scale desalination and wastewater treatment. Here too Israeli cooperation is needed.

Prior to the last elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu approved the doubling of water from Israel to Gaza from 5 to 10 MCM annually. The prime minister and his new minister of water and energy, Yuval Steinitz, working together with the international community, need to facilitate once again the doubling of water Israel sells to Gaza to 20 MCM – the full capacity of the existing infrastructure — and provide additional electricity to the Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment facility recently completed but inoperable due to lack of electricity.

The question at this moment is whether leadership and a broader understanding of self-interest will trump domestic politics to avoid the approaching catastrophe. The writing is most certainly on the wall.

About the Author
Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli Director of EcoPeace Middle East, a unique regional organization that brings together Jordanian, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists to promote sustainable development and advance peace efforts in the Middle East. Mr. Bromberg is an attorney by profession and previously worked in public interest environmental law.