How Gaza's water crisis is creating a humanitarian disaster

: Palestinian children collect drinking water - Getty
5 min read
01 December, 2021
In-depth: Israel's blockade and the destruction of key infrastructure during military operations have created a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, where 97 percent of the water is undrinkable.

Access to safe drinking water is an internationally recognised human right. But for Gazans, it is in short supply.

The Palestinian coastal enclave, home to more than two million people, suffers from an ongoing water crisis due to Israeli restrictions, the depletion of natural sources, and groundwater pollution. 

Every day, Mohammed al-Assar, a resident from the al-Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, walks about 800 meters to fill three gallons of water that he takes from a mosque that provides it for free. 

The 49-year-old father of seven told The New Arab that he could not use the water provided by the local municipality as it was salty and unsuitable for human use, especially drinking.

"The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor says water in Gaza is 'undrinkable' and 'slowly poisoning' people"

For years, he says, he used to buy desalinated water for his family, but it doubled his daily expenses. Two years ago, with the eruption of the coronavirus pandemic, he was forced to stop buying freshwater simply because he didn't have the means to purchase it.

Today, al-Assar is dependent on the $100 provided by a monthly Qatari grant for needy Palestinian families in the Gaza Strip. He is also reliant on food aid provided by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). 

"In the past, I was forced to buy 500 litres of drinking water a week, paying 10 US dollars, but currently, I do not think I can do this," he said with annoyance and anger.

Other families in similar conditions rely on charity organisations that set up water stations where they distribute these basic necessities, which have now become a commodity in Gaza.

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Often, they are operated in front of mosques where dozens of local children gather to fill their pots and bottles with water. 

Samah al-Masry, a teacher from Gaza city, also complains about the burden of accessing drinking water. The 39-year-old mother of two told TNA that she is forced to spend about 15 percent of her $350 monthly salary on water and electricity expenses. 

"Usually, we rely on tap water for our daily housework, including showering, washing clothes and utensils, as well as cleaning the house. But the problem is that even basics such as tap water arrive three days a week, which means that women need to store water in large pots".

Amal al-Harazin, from the Jabalia refugee camp, suffers from the same crisis.

She says the salinity of the water has severe health repercussions, causing skin diseases and hair damage, not to mention the fact that her household utensils become corroded, the 36-year-old mother of four told TNA.  

"If I buy desalinated water for housework, I will need to spend double of what my husband earns every day, and this means that we will all die of starvation," the Palestinian woman said, as she finished cooking for lunch. 

How Gaza's water crisis is creating a humanitarian disaster
Israel's deadly war in May caused extensive damage to water infrastructure in Gaza. [Getty]

The situation is similar for many families who live below the poverty line in Gaza.  

The Hamas-run Water Authority accuses Israel of being responsible for exacerbating the water crisis after it imposed a strict blockade on Gaza in 2007.

According to officials in the Water Authority, about 97 percent of groundwater is polluted due to the suspension of most development projects and contamination with seawater.

Human rights organisations have warned for years about the deteriorating water situation in the Gaza Strip.

At the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council in October, the Global Institute for Water, Environment and Health and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said water in Gaza is "undrinkable" and "slowly poisoning" people.

The acute electricity crisis also hinders the operation of water wells and sewage treatment plants, leading to 80 percent of Gaza's untreated sewage being discharged into the sea, while 20 percent seeps underground.

"About 50 percent of Gaza's children suffer from water-related infections, the World Health Organization says"

In his speech to the Human Rights Council, Muhammed Shehada, chief of programs and communications at Euro-Med Monitor, said that about one-quarter of diseases spread in Gaza are caused by water pollution, and 12 percent of the deaths of young children are linked to intestinal infections related to contaminated water.

He added that the 11-day Israeli offensive on Gaza in May has severely affected basic water infrastructure and exacerbated the crisis in the besieged enclave.

Gaza municipality authorities said in a statement that 290 water supply facilities, including the sole desalination plant in northern Gaza, were damaged during the war and are in urgent need of repair. Sewage networks were also destroyed, flooding streets with dirty water.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), both salinity and nitrate levels in Gaza's groundwater have been "well above" the guidelines for safe drinking water.

About 50 percent of Gaza's children suffer from water-related infections, the WHO said.

In an effort to provide safe drinking water to Gazans, local authorities and private organisations have established desalination plants across the Strip.

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Yassin desalination plant is one of the central stations in the sector that works on solar energy, producing approximately 800-900 cups of water per day.

"The water desalination process goes through several stages, including the removal of impurities, the addition of chemicals, their filtration, and the addition of sterilisers to the final product turning it into drinkable water," said Oday al-Danaf, the supervisor of the company's desalination process.

But although these plants help to ease the crisis, they are incapable of solving it all together.

According to Ahmed Helles, an environmental expert from Gaza, there are about 220 private desalination plants in the Strip, 70 percent of which are unlicensed and unattended and offer a product below the required level of quality.

"More than two million people are trapped between two options, the best of which is bitter. They are forced to use either water that is unsuitable for human use or desalinated water," he said.

He added that the main reason for the aggravation of the crisis is Israeli measures targeting the water sector, especially during times of escalation when the Israeli army bombs water wells, large reservoirs, and treatment plants.

In Gaza, three large factories manufacture desalinated water and package it in plastic containers for sale, while water from desalination plants is sold to smaller merchants.

Sally Ibrahim is a Palestinian reporter with The New Arab based in the Gaza Strip