Children swimming next to sewage drains on the beach, fishermen throwing their nets into contaminated water, wastewater leaking into the street. These scenes exemplify the water and electricity crisis in Gaza, where a harrowing prediction could soon become reality.
In 2015, a report published by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development warned that Gaza’s infrastructure, ravaged by years of military operations and conflict, may be unable to support a population by 2020 – a year that is, famously, only a few months away.
I’ve lived on the Gaza Strip for more than 30 years. For me and 2 million other Palestinians living under war and the ongoing blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt after Hamas took control in 2007, talk of the next environmental disaster doesn’t mean much. It’s as if people have decided they need to move forward and don’t have the space for a “new catastrophe” in their lives.
But with 97 percent of Gaza’s drinking water supply contaminated, and sewage treatment plants shut down thanks to constant power cuts, our latest catastrophe simply can’t be ignored. But it is. I tried asking some of my friends if they’re afraid of Gaza’s environmental disasters worsening next year. One of them replied: “It’s not time to think about the environment, we need to focus on improving our economic situation.” Another friend told me Gaza was simply a lost cause.
My friends have been through a lot, so maybe they’ve earned the right to not pay attention to the scale of our environmental problems. But everything is intertwined – the water crisis is actually directly linked to many of the issues that have plagued this region for decades.
Water and war don’t mix
Just one in ten households have access to clean water in Gaza, but this isn’t a new issue. The area’s main water source is a coastal aquifer (a natural underground fresh water reserve), but pollution and sewer leakages have contaminated 97 percent of the supply. Following the Oslo Peace Agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) in 1994, a committee developed a national plan to resolve Gaza’s water problems. But then came the second Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation in 2000, followed by Israel and Egypt’s 2006 blockade, and then the Hamas takeover in 2007. All plans were halted as Gaza’s water supply continued to deplete.
During a study by the Water Committee in the 1990s, right after the PNA was established, specialists were able to draw 55 to 60 million cubic litres per year from the Gaza Strip’s groundwater wells. The study proposed a central desalination plant that would make an additional 60 million cubic litres of seawater drinkable, in addition to the possibility of importing 10 to 20 million litres from Israel. But, like everything in Gaza, things didn’t go to plan.
“The desalination plant should have been implemented,” says Monzer Shiblak, director of the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, “but unfortunately in the year 2000, after securing funds, the second intifada [uprising] began and everything stopped, forcing us to rely solely on groundwater wells.”
“With the population increasing from nearly 1.5 million to 2 million, we are consuming approximately 200 million cubic litres per year, causing seawater to creep into the aquifer,” adds Shiblak. In short, Gaza’s only remaining water source is becoming undrinkable.
No electricity means no sewage system
In 2006, Israel bombed Gaza’s only power plant, causing a complete shutdown. Currently, the central power station, based in Deir al-Balah, is only operating at half capacity. Constant power cuts have closed Gaza’s sewage treatment plants, leading the authorities to pump untreated sewage directly into the sea.
“We needed to drain the wastewater with the least damage,” says Shiblak. “We had two options: either to let it leak into the houses close-by, or discharge it to the sea without treatment, so we decided to discharge it into the sea – we had no other choice.”
According to the UNEP, 70 to 80 percent of Gaza’s sewage is released directly into the sea. The Ministry of Health called this “one of the most dangerous causes of [Gaza’s] water pollution” in a 2017 report.
“It is estimated that 50 million cubic metres of wastewater is discharged in the sea annually,” says environmental expert Dr Samer Abu Zer, adding that those who come into contact with the water are at risk of diarrhoea and liver and kidney failure. A study entitled “The Impact of Climate Change on Children’s Health: Diarrhoea in the Gaza Strip”, by researcher Yosr Al Atrash, found that contaminated groundwater is also a leading cause of diarrhoea among children.
Dr Abdullah Al Kishawi, kidney specialist at Shifa Hospital, has previously raised concern around the rate of kidney failure, which has increased by 14 percent annually in Gaza.
Bear in mind that the fishermen continue fishing, often close to the shore, where the sewage attracts fish. This means most of the fish we eat in Gaza is contaminated, and a serious health risk.
No water, no electricity and no rain
On top of political and economic troubles, the Gaza Strip has also fallen victim to the impacts of climate change. In recent years, rainfall has been largely restricted to January and February only, affecting the groundwater wells. What rain we do have often falls on buildings and roads and is mixed with the sewage. Lots of farmers are now forced to rely on brackish water, causing damage to future crops.
And so continues a vicious cycle. In light of the ongoing crisis, other nations and organisations have tried to prevent the ominous prediction for next year; 48 small desalination plants have been established and there are plans to have sewage treatment plants operational early next year.
But it’s obvious that none of these projects can solve our problems without 24-hour electricity. And so Gaza residents expect the current situation to continue during next year, unless another military intervention brings more destruction – or a politician is able to negotiate a solution to a less-polluted and more liveable environment for us all.