The Water Crisis In Gaza
By Alice Gray
09 August, 2006
The political rhetoric and frequent
violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often serve to mask underlying
environmental issues which, if not resolved, may pose an even greater
threat to the well-being of the Palestinian population than the guns
and bombs of the military occupation. Environmental degradation threatens
to undermine the viability of any future Palestinian state and create
conditions that will make life in many parts of the Palestinian Territories
impossible. Many environmental problems are accelerated and exacerbated
by Occupation practices, which prevent effective environmental management.
This problem is particularly acute in Gaza in relation to the water
resources and the ongoing military conflict.
The roots of Gaza's water problem lie in the over-population of the
area due to a high influx of refugees in 1948, when approximately 200
000 people fled to Gaza from the Jaffa and Beersheva areas of what is
now Israel following Israel's War of Independence. The original population
of the Gaza Strip at that time was 80 000 people, thus this represented
an increase of some 250 %. Today, over three quarters of the estimated
Gazan population of 1.4 million are registered refugees (UNRWA, 2006).
The Gaza Strip is a very small area of land with a total area of only
360 km2. It is underlain by a shallow aquifer, which is contiguous with
the Israeli Coastal Aquifer to the north. Gaza is the 'downstream user'
of the Coastal Aquifer system, and hence water abstraction in Gaza does
not affect Israeli water supplies. The Gaza Aquifer has a natural recharge
rate of approximately 65 million cubic metres (MCM) of water per year
from rainfall and lateral inflow of water from Israel and Egypt (CAMP,
This aquifer is essentially
the only source of fresh water in the Gaza Strip. By 1967, when Israel
occupied Gaza, the sustainable yield of the aquifer was being fully
utilized (Nasser, 2003). Since then, as the population has grown, so
too has the demand for fresh water. No serious attempt was made at exercising
any water management strategy in the Gaza Strip during the Israeli administration,
with the number of registered wells increasing from 1200 in 1967 to
2100 in 1993 (Nasser, 2003). Abstraction from the aquifer was approximately
110 MCM per year by 1993, resulting in falling water levels and degrading
water quality due to seawater infiltration, caused by the over-pumping
that had been taking place. Likewise, there was little investment in
maintaining or improving the deteriorating water infrastructures of
Palestinian municipalities during this period, despite taxes being payed
by Palestinians to the Israeli government (World Bank, 1993).
In 1994, the Gaza-Jericho agreement placed water resources in the Gaza
Strip under the control of the newly formed Palestinian Authority and
in 1995 the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) was formed and given the
mandate for managing water in the Palestinian Territories. At this time
it was widely recognized that there was a serious environmental problem
with the Gaza Aquifer, with experts predicting that if nothing was done,
the entire aquifer would become unusable by the year 2000 (Bleier, 1994).
In addition, the water infrastructure was in a very poor state, with
50 % of water being lost through leaking pipes (PWA, 2003). Therefore
the PWA, with the help of international donors (principally the United
States Agency for International Development - USAID), set out to develop
a management strategy for the Gaza Aquifer and engaged the engineering
firm Metcalf & Eddy to carry out an environmental survey and draw
up a management plan. The Integrated Coastal Aquifer Management Plan
(CAMP) was drawn up in 2000, with an implementation period of 20 years.
The main components of the CAMP included reducing the amount of water
pumped from the aquifer for agricultural irrigation whilst simultaneously
improving supply of drinking water to the population by providing additional
water from sources other than the Aquifer. These included import of
water from Israel, construction of seawater desalination plants and
improving wastewater treatment to allow it to be used for irrigation
and managed aquifer recharge. It was envisaged that, in the longer term,
following a political settlement with Israel and resolution of the Palestinians'
water rights in the West Bank, a pipeline could be constructed between
the West Bank and Gaza to ensure adequate supplies for the growing population.
If implemented on schedule, it was expected that the CAMP would bring
the Gaza Aquifer back into a positive water balance by 2007, whereas
"failure to implement the CAMP in accordance with the schedule
will result in continuing decline in the quantity and quality of the
aquifer water " (CAMP, 2000).
Unfortunately, completion of the CAMP (May, 2000) narrowly preceded
the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. Despite initial
attempts to implement the plan, and small progress in some areas, little
has been achieved since then. The number of agricultural wells, many
of them unregistered, has increased to approximately 4000 (PCBS, 2004);
the supply of water from Israel has declined by approximately half from
1998 to 2004 in breach of the Oslo Accords (WaSH MP, 2005); construction
of the planned regional desalination plant halted in 2003 when one of
the workers was killed; and Gaza's wastewater treatment facilities are
still vastly inadequate with 80 % of sewage being discharged untreated
into the environment (UNEP, 2003).
In addition, missile strikes and ground incursions have repeatedly damaged
and destroyed pipelines, and maintenance personnel have been arrested,
shot at or even killed whilst trying to carry out repairs (E-WaSH 2002).
Inadequate sewage treatment infrastructure and damage to wastewater
and drinking water pipelines has allowed sewage water to contaminate
drinking water supplies, leading to sharp increases in water borne diseases
in many areas. Failure to control over-pumping has led to sea-water
intrusion into the aquifer to the extent that, in 2003, only 10 % of
the wells produced water of World Health Organization (WHO) drinking
water standards (UNEP, 2003). Most recently, this years' Israeli invasion
of Gaza (Operation Summer Rain, June 2006) has caused untold damage
to water infrastructure, with destruction of the Gaza Electric Station
affecting the operation of the majority of wells, pumping stations and
sewage treatment facilities (CMWU, 2006).
In short, Gaza teeters on the brink of a humanitarian and environmental
catastrophe and urgent action is required to prevent widespread suffering.
To compound matters, USAID have recently pulled out of the Palestinian
water sector, abandoning ongoing projects and closing their contactors'
offices, in an international aid embargo aimed at undermining the Hamas
government. As has proved to be the case with so many international
sanctions and embargoes (like Iraq for example), the result of this
move is the communal punishment of every man, woman and child in the
country targeted. It is a clumsy, inept and immoral means of pressuring
the government to fall into line; and primarily hurts the most vulnerable
members of the society.
The options for improving the water situation in Gaza remain effectively
unchanged since 2000. Namely, additional supplies must be made available:
through desalination, wastewater treatment and reuse, import from Israel,
or import from the West Bank. Currently, the unstable conditions in
the Gaza Strip make large scale engineering projects impossible to implement.
The less technically difficult options of water import from Israel or
the West Bank are loaded with political implications and complexities.
Both require the cooperation of Israel to ensure their implementation
as additional pipelines would need to be constructed, and in the first
case, the Israeli water company, Mekorot, would have to supply the water;
whereas in the second, a pipeline would have to be constructed across
Israeli territory and furthermore, an agreement would have to be reached
on Palestinian water rights in the West Bank.
The water situation in the West Bank is almost the exact inverse of
Gaza, in that there are relatively abundant water resources in the Mountain
Aquifer system and Jordan River, but there is very little access to
or sovereignty over them. This is due to the fact that Palestinians
have been denied any access to the Jordan River waters since 1967, and
80 % of the Mountain Aquifer water is utilized by Israel, which is downstream
of the West Bank in terms of water usage. Thus control over water resources
was very tight during the Israeli administration (1967 – 1995),
with only 23 licenses being granted for new wells, and the number of
working wells in fact decreasing from 413 in 1967 to 300 by 1983 (Nasser,
2003). Many communities in the West Bank currently suffer from severe
water shortages, and 13 % of the West Bank population are not connected
to any form of water network (WaSH MP, 2005). The Oslo Agreements of
the 1990s deferred definition of Palestinian water rights in the West
Bank to final status negotiations, which have not yet taken place.
Thus resolution of Palestine's water problems is utterly dependent on
cooperation from Israel; and inaction will lead to a serious environmental
disaster in Gaza and to continued suffering for many water starved communities
in the West Bank. Water shortage also undermines the agricultural sector
and prevents it from developing, with consequences for the food security
and economic well-being of the Palestinian population. In short, access
to adequate water supplies underpins the viability of life in the Palestinian
When considering the likelihood of cooperation being forthcoming from
Israel, it is worth reviewing several statements that have been made
by Israel's leaders in recent years. Yitzak Rabin, the architect of
the Oslo Peace Process stated in 1974, during his tenure as Israeli
Minister of Defense stated that:
"Israel will create
in the course of the next 10 or 20 years conditions which would attract
natural and voluntary migration of the refugees from the Gaza Strip
and the West Bank to Jordan." (Yitzak Rabin, former Labor Party
It may be that he had changed
his mind by the time he made the historic move of shaking hands with
Yasser Arafat and legitimizing the Palestinian Authority. It is possible,
although various features of the Oslo Accords, such as the minimal transfer
of sovereignty over environmental resources would suggest otherwise.
It is possible. No-one can tell what Israel and Palestine would have
looked like today if Rabin had not been assassinated by a far right
Jewish extremist. However, if Rabin no longer believed in transfer of
the West Bank and Gazan populations, Ariel Sharon, architect of the
Gaza Disengagement Plan certainly did:
"It is the duty of Israeli
leaders to explain to public opinion, clearly and courageously, a certain
number of facts that are forgotten with time. The first of these is
that there is no Zionism, colonization or Jewish state without the eviction
of the Arabs and the expropriation of their lands." (Ariel Sharon,
former Likud Party Prime Minister, Agence France Press, November 15,
"You don’t simply
bundle people onto trucks and drive them away. I prefer to advocate
a positive policy, to create, in effect, a condition that in a positive
way will induce people to leave." (Ariel Sharon, August 24, 1988)
Olmert, Sharon's heir, has
also recently avowed his commitment to the ideal of 'Eretz Israel':
"Only a person in whose
soul Eretz Yisrael burns knows the pain of letting go of our ancestral
heritage" (Ehud Olmert, May 4th 2006, speech to the Knesset whilst
presenting the Unilateral Disengagement Plan)
"I believed, and to
this day still believe, in our people’s eternal and historic right
to this entire land." (Ehud Olmert, Israeli Prime Minister, to
the US House of Representatives, June 2006)
What can be perceived here
is that many of Israel's leaders, whilst appearing to make concessions
to the Palestinians, have in fact retained an ideological commitment
to 'Eretz Israel from the river to the sea', and have concentrated their
policy towards creating 'facts on the ground' that will make life for
the Palestinians impossible, hence creating the 'positive conditions'
required to induce people to leave. A close examination of the Gazan
water crisis illustrates this point very well. If nothing is done, there
will be no usable water resources in Gaza and it will become impossible
to live there. Nothing can be done without Israeli cooperation. Thus
whilst Israel may not have intentionally set out to create the Gaza
water crisis, it fits in rather well with Zionist expansionist aspirations
to perpetuate the situation and prevent meaningful action being taken
to resolve it.
If one examines the process
that is taking place in the West Bank, whereby a series of Bantustans
are being created through land confiscation, settlement expansion and
the building of the 'Separation Barrier', with the population becoming
ever more urbanized and access to resources such as water and land becoming
ever more restricted, it is possible to see that what in effect is happening
is the creation of a number of 'mini Gazas'. To illustrate this point:
the building of the Wall in the north of the West Bank led to the destruction
of 25 wells and the isolation of 50 more (WaSH MP 2004), isolating many
localities from their only source of water and destroying the irrigated
farming industry. One estimate anticipates that when completed, the
Wall will isolate Palestinians from 65 % of their water resources (CAABU,
2003), although so much uncertainty surrounds its final route that no
solid predictions can be made. Thus a number of highly urbanized communities
will be created, with poor economic and social conditions and inadequate
resources to sustain themselves. This is the manifestation of Sharon's
"positive policy", which essentially amounts to ethnic cleansing
by other means, causing widespread suffering, illness and death.
It is clear that the viability
of the Palestinian state and the livelihoods of the Palestinian people
are being systematically undermined. The situation is not yet so far
gone that it is irreversible. However, given the advantages to Israel
of allowing the current state of affairs to persist, and the urgency
of immediate action to avert catastrophe in Gaza, it is clear that international
intervention is required to protect the human rights of the Palestinian
people and prevent humanitarian and environmental disaster. The current
violent conflict in the region should not blind us to the pressing need
to address underlying environmental issues, which have the potential
to cause as much, indeed possibly much greater suffering, than direct
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