Activists around the world are marking World Water Day today with school campaigns, films, and concerts – all designed to draw attention to the fact that access to safe drinking water is something 1 in 5 people don't enjoy, while 40 percent of the world's population doesn't have adequate sanitation.
An acute example of the human cost can be found in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where experts say a potent mix of politics and geography are pointing toward the onset of a full-blown water crisis. In the small coastal territory, resources are either scarce or contaminated, sewage goes largely untreated, and already ailing infrastructure buckles under an Israeli economic blockade in place since Hamas took over in 2007. According to the United Nations (UN), the current environmental damage could “take centuries to reverse.”
“If the situation continues like this any longer, we’ll be faced with a very serious water crisis in the Gaza Strip,” Stéphane Beytrison, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Gaza, told the Monitor recently. “And any real efforts at developing the water and sanitation system, whether by the local authorities or by aid agencies, are hampered completely by the closure. It’s a real and very crucial problem.”
Sewage seeping into key aquifer
Israel and Egypt keep Gaza under a tight economic blockade to weaken the Islamist movement Hamas, which it and the US consider a terrorist organization. But the blockade also keeps out key construction materials and spare parts used for developing and repairing local infrastructure.
“The pollution, the poor wastewater treatment, the lack of pipes and cement for repairs – all of this is more a result of the blockade than anything else,” says Muralee Thummurkady, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) coordinator in Gaza. “There are environmental and geographic concerns, but there also political problems.”
In large part due to the closure, the UN says, nearly half of Gaza’s population relies on septic tanks or cesspools to dispose of its raw sewage, with only three wastewater treatment plants for the entire territory.
The sewage in the cesspools, one of them larger than 100 acres, seep back into the coastal aquifer, the sole source of freshwater for Gaza’s 1.5 million people.
Aquifer also becoming salty, contaminated
Once a vehicle for Gaza’s historical position as a major agricultural export hub for neighboring empires, the aquifer is now at the crux of its twin problems of water scarcity and pollution.
The more the aquifer is used, the more salty and contaminated it becomes, says Mr. Thummarukudy. At least 90 percent of the water sampled from the aquifer is unsuitable for drinking as a result.
“More water is currently extracted from the aquifer than is flowing back into it,” Thummarukudy says. “The contaminated saltwater from the sea then fills that gap – and the people are left with no choice but to drink it.”
Gaza’s drinking water, according to rights group Amnesty International, contains dangerously high levels of both saline, or salt, and nitrate, an organic compound often used in fertilizer and particularly harmful to infants.
How Gaza residents are coping
Many of the enclave’s residents, however, are finding ways to cope, says the head of the government-run Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), Ibrahim Alejla.
According to Mr. Alejla, those that can afford it are purchasing locally bottled water or installing filters and small desalinization units at home. Others travel far distances, often on rudimentary mule-drawn carts, to fetch cleaner, safer water from wells outside their villages.
Israel in January also approved the import of its own bottled water. Mineral water bottled locally in Gaza, according to the UNEP, contains “dangerous and volatile compounds.”
But Mr. Beytrison of the ICRC says none of these coping mechanisms can be viewed as acceptable solutions to Gaza’s growing water crisis.
“In the long-term, these minor ways of dealing with things, they are nothing,” he says. “They are like drops of water in the ocean.”
A new plan to resolve the crisis
Mr. Beytrison says the ICRC is looking at new ways to replenish Gaza’s aquifer, including the construction of a treated sewage lagoon that would allow the filtered water to seep back into the ground. He says right now a small number of Gaza farmers are diverting the treated sewage water from the ICRC’s two wastewater plants in the southern strip towns of Rafah and Khan Younis, rather than digging private wells that only access the contaminated aquifer.
Thummakudury says the only real solution for Gaza’s water woes is to “develop an alternative water supply” in order to allow the territory’s aquifer to rest and replenish.
He proposes the construction of a massive desalinization plant that, along with sewage repair and environmental clean-up over the next twenty years, would cost international donors some $1.2 billion “if the political will is there.”
Water pipe from Israel to Gaza never completed
Under the Oslo Accords, a declaration of principles signed by both Israel and Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1995, Israel is required to provide the Gaza Strip with five cubic meters, approximately 1,300 gallons, of desalinized drinking water each year.
But the Palestinian Authority (PA) never completed the construction of the pipe on the Gaza side of the border, citing the outbreak of the second intifada (uprising) and subsequent closure of Gaza.
And while the Oslo Accords also state that Gaza and the West Bank are one territorial entity, and that water is under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA), there are no provisions for shared water between the two Palestinian enclaves.
Gaza and the West Bank are now divided both geographically and politically between the US-backed PA in the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Martha Myer, the Israel-Palestine country director for CARE International, a US-based development organization that carries out water and sanitation projects in the Gaza Strip, says the poor state of Gaza’s water needs to be viewed in a wider regional and even decades-long context.
“As the population increases and infrastructure keeps collapsing,” she says, “we – the international community and Gaza’s neighbors – need to be cognizant of the fact that, ecologically, Gaza is simply not sustainable.”