Friday’s Fact: Gaza’s Water Crisis puts Region on the verge of an Ecological Catastrophe

Gaza Beach

The death of five-year-old Mohammed Al-Sayis from the Gaza Strip was recently reported by Al Jazeera English. After swimming in the Mediterranean Sea with his father, the boy fell into a coma and died shortly thereafter. Mohammed was later diagnosed with Ekiri Syndrome, a lethal toxic encephalopathy. The reason for his sickness was most likely the incredible pollution of the sea water along the coast of the Gaza Strip caused by a lack of wastewater treatment facilities. This extreme example followed dozens of cases of mostly children, suffering respiratory and skin infections after taking a swim.

Already in 2012, the United Nations warned in a report that by 2020 there won’t be any “reliable access to sources of safe drinking water” and current developments seem to prove them right. The triad of dirty sea water, lack of drinking water and the ongoing power shortages created a vicious circle: Demographic trends combined with high population density lead to increasing water consumption and, therefore, declining ground water levels. The water consumption outweighs the sustainable yield rate by three. The few wastewater treatment plants are only connected to about 70% of the households in the Gaza Strip and have insufficient capacity for the roughly two million people living there.

Gaza’s lack of clean water has brought the region to facing an ecological catastrophe. Recent power shutdowns stopped the few sewage facilities from running. As a consequence, the in any case war-shaken sanitation infrastructure gets more and more overstrained. After the Gaza hostilities of 2014 reconstruction is still ongoing and far from complete. Israel’s import restrictions on so-called dual use materials, goods that can be used for both civil and military purposes, include materials suitable to maintain and rebuild wastewater facilities, making it even more difficult to rehabilitate Gaza’s infrastructure. Moreover, domestic desalination plants work with just 15% of their capacity. While International Organizations and the European Union fund water projects, like the EU’s first phase desalination plant in Khan Younis that provides safe drinking water for 75,000 people in Gaza since January 2017, more needs to be done to stop the downward spiral.

Latest statements by authorities indicate that, instead of being cleaned by facilities, 100 million litres of wastewater are getting pumped into the Mediterranean out of Gaza every day. That is more than 4 million litres an hour and more than 1.100 litres of wastewater every single second. In early July 2017, even Israeli beaches in the south have been influenced and were closed in order not to risk the health of the people. About a month ago, CNN reported that a group of Israeli mayors had written a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. envoy Jason Greenblatt warning that the entire region is “on the verge of a health crisis that does not take into account political borders.”

In 2014 the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) stated sea water intrusion had affected 91 wells in Gaza. Now, three years and several power shortages later, there is no indication that the situation has improved. In 2015, for example, the PWA did research on chemicals in the pumped water, leading to the conclusion that 81% of the water contained critical Chloride and almost 88% contained critical Nitrate levels by WHO definition. Just 3.6% of the domestic Gaza water reached drinking water quality. Here, as well, ongoing developments will probably lead to massive deterioration. In addition, the ongoing Gaza-blockade leaves just few hopes on necessary rising of water supplies. The UN prognosis, Gaza could run out of water by 2020, is on its bitter way to realization.

With Israel’s restrictions on much needed construction materials and the latest increase in power shortages, which further accelerated the ongoing crisis situation, the outlook for the health of the people in Gaza seems dire. Against the backdrop of the latest rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah it remains to be seen whether the parties can take decisive steps to guarantee the well-being of the people in Gaza or if the Strip is already past the point of no return.

Photoghraph: Where it was once safe to swim, water contamination has emptied Gaza’s beaches and poses a serious health threat
“Gaza Beach 9.8.2010” by gishaorg is licensed under CC BY 2.0; https://www.flickr.com/photos/gishaorg/8342019738/