Bloomberg News

Gaza’s Contaminated Water Worsens Health for Palestinians

September 03, 2012

The aquifer that provides water to the Gaza Strip may become unusable within four years and irreversibly damaged by 2020 unless pumping stops and major infrastructure upgrades are made, the United Nations said.

“Today, 90 percent of the water from the aquifer isn’t safe for drinking without treatment,” the UN report said about the seaside enclave between Egypt and Israel where 1.6 million people live amid a blockade restricting the movement of goods.

Availability of clean water is “limited for most Gazans” and if desalination and wastewater treatment investments aren’t stepped up, the UN expects Gaza’s power, living and sanitation conditions to worsen, it said in an Aug. 27 report.

While Gaza water has shown high saline levels for decades, it’s grown more contaminated the past five years due to overpumping of part of the coastal aquifer that runs beneath Gaza. Three times more water is extracted from the aquifer each year than it recharges, the Palestinian Water Authority said.

Sharing scarce water resources has been one of the knottiest issues between Israelis and Palestinians over 19 years of peace talks.

At the Shati refugee camp in Gaza, the water from Khalil Awad’s kitchen sink is contaminated with encroaching seawater and traces of sewage that leak into the aquifer.

“There’s no healthy water in all of Shati and I can’t afford to buy bottled water for all my children,” Awad, 55, said last month, pointing to his rusty faucet. “Everyone knows drinking this water makes you sick.”

Trucks circulate daily in Gaza offering desalinated water for one-fifth the 4 shekels ($1) a cubic meter that it costs when bought from state-owned Mekorot Water Authority, which supplies 80 percent of Israel’s drinking water.

Water Contamination

“Microbiological water contamination, mainly from sewage seeping into the aquifer, is pervasive and responsible for high incidents of diarrhea and other water-associated diseases in Gaza’s children under five in particular,” the charity group Oxfam said in a July report.

Israel sells the Palestinian Authority 5 million cubic meters of water a year for Gaza, ruled by the Islamic group Hamas since 2007. Negotiations to double that have bogged down amid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Efforts to build desalination plants that create potable water from the sea are slowed by Israeli and Egyptian blockades, imposed after Hamas ousted forces loyal to the Palestinian Authority. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., European Union and Israel.

One plant is proposed, and a smaller desalination plant in Gaza has been built. Blocking agreements are arguments over “price, quality and quantity,” said Monther Shublaq, director of Gaza’s water utility.

‘Numerous Obstacles’

While the blockade makes exceptions for projects run by UN and aid groups, Oxfam said it encountered “numerous obstacles” getting raw material and equipment through Israeli crossings while building a newly opened water treatment plant for brackish water in the Gaza town of Rafah.

Israel says it restricts construction material imports because they can be used to build rockets or bombs.

Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry blames Israel for blocking equipment from being brought in to repair water and sewage networks, pushing the Gaza deeper into poverty.

“Israel is responsible because it keeps a siege imposed on Gaza and controls most of our water resources,” said Zeyad Nonat, director of the health ministry’s water and sewage department.

Guy Inbar, a spokesman for Israel’s military coordination office for Gaza, said equipment to fix water works was allowed into Gaza though he acknowledged delays. Those were largely due to difficulties dealing with the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, he said. “We’re trying to help.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jonathan Ferziger in Tel Aviv at jferziger@bloomberg.net; Saud Abu Ramadan in Gaza City at sramadan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net


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