People of Gaza may have to flee in search of fresh water

November 26, 2013
Sarah Benton

From Moign Khawaja, Foreign Policy Journal No kidding! This is the kind of water that comes from the taps in bathrooms and kitchens in Gaza. When I wake up in the morning to wash my face and brush my teeth, sometimes this is the type of water I’ve to put up with. And it’s not just me. This is the tale of every single household in Gaza. Do you wonder why? The Zionist occupier won’t allow us to rebuild our water treatment and sewerage system that it regularly destroys. Around 90-95% of the drinking water in Gaza is contaminated and unfit for consumption. This is not my assessment. Amnesty International says this in its report.

And if you’re going to suggest me to use bottled water, know that it’s harmful too. A United Nations survey found that recycling factories in Gaza do not have the capability to cleanse the plastic bottles properly. As a result, contaminants are widely found in plastic bottles and containers.

The petition from Thirsting for Justice is followed by an article from the ISM on the dire lack of potable water in Gaza. Then there is a more critical article from the Saudi Gazette and the introduction to B’Tselem’s October newsletter which focuses on Gaza. Last, Harriet Sherwood on the impact of the Egyptian closure of the tunnels.

Gaza: drinking water is running out. Petition and updates

From Thirsting for Justice, Avaaz:”If this petition reaches 100,000 signatures, campaign ambassadors will lobby European governments and deliver them your signatures, and demand that they take concrete action. “Don’t wait until Gaza’s aquifer collapses, sign this petition now, and help us to ensure water rights for Gaza!” The Gaza Strip is fast running out of clean drinking water. Unless immediate action is taken, the UN estimates that the underground aquifer on which Gaza relies will be unusable by 2016, and irreversibly damaged by 2020. You can take action today and support the people of Gaza by:

1. Signing the petition “Gaza to run out of drinking water by 2016“  by clicking here and in Action Alert on left-hand column of homepage.

Helping us collect more signatures by distributing the petition among your friends and family

The rest will be done by us. Once the petition reaches 100,000 signatures, we will deliver it to EU representatives calling on them to demand that Israel comply with international law and uphold Palestinian water rights.

[This petition, like the people of Gaza, is not popular, so they need all the help they can get just to secure access to fresh water.]

A Palestinian girl rides a donkey cart loaded with containers before filling them with water from public taps in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip June 20, 2013. Photo by Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/ Reuters

To sign the petition, click on headline below. Started on September 26th the number of signatures had crept up to 8,731 by Sunday November 17th and to 8,886 by Sunday November 24th. They hope to reach  100,000.

Gaza to run out of drinking water by 2016

Why this petition is important

Gaza’s population of 1.6 million Palestinians are without clean drinking water. The only source of water they can access—the underground water aquifer—is being over-utilized and is now highly polluted with sea water and sewage intrusion. The UN warns that unless a solution is found to provide Gaza with safe and affordable water, Gaza’s aquifer will become unusable by 2016, and irreversibly damaged by 2020.

Today, only 5% of the water Gazans extract from the Coastal aquifer is now safe to drink. Most families in Gaza are forced to buy drinking water from private companies at high cost, with some paying as much as a third of their income on water.

The portion of the coastal aquifer running beneath Gaza represents only a small percentage of the total freshwater resources available to Israelis and Palestinians. Israel continues to exploit 90% of the available freshwater for exclusive Israeli use – particularly the underground mountain aquifer in the occupied West Bank – while Palestinians have access to less than 10%. It does so in violation of international water law, which calls for these resources to be shared “equitably and reasonably” between Palestinians and Israelis.

There is a solution, and it starts with the implementation of Palestinian water rights. If Palestinians have access to their rightful share of the available water resources, and if Israel lifts its blockade over the Gaza Strip, which restricts water imports as well as the entry of materials and goods needed to upgrade and repair its deteriorating water infrastructure, many of Gaza’s water problems would be solved.

Young boys in Gaza collect water.

The water in Gaza is not only water

By Charlie Andreasson, International Solidarity Movement
November 22, 2013

I was just going to make dinner when I realized the filtered water in my tank was almost done. Perhaps it would be enough if I used the last of my bottled water. But then I would have nothing to drink with my meal. And there would be no coffee, not after the food and not for breakfast. Glances at the tap, I considered diluting the filtered water with tapwater, in order to save time and to avoid having to walk two blocks to fill the tank. It was dark outside, and the shop with water might be closed.

Tapwater cannot be used for cooking, or should not be used for cooking. I avoid doing it anyway. I wash dishes in it, but do not use it to cook my rice. It’s salt. Saltwater penetrates the underground aquifier, which it is larger than the natural supply of fresh water can fill. But the seawater is not its only contaminant. According to the United Nation, chemicals and sewage also pollute it, which is not surprising when 90,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage gush out every day. Sewage, from the toilets, back in the taps. With water treatment plants, that works. But in Gaza, the problem is that there is not enough diesel to run the generators around the clock. And for those Israel has bombed, well, it also stops the import of replacement parts. Meanwhile seawater, chemicals and sewage increase in the water supply. By 2016, UN expects the water to become completely unusable. Only three years are left until then. And at 2020, no one they say, no one will be able to live here.

I open the fridge, hoping to find something that does not require water for cooking. I close it again. Maybe the store is open, but the cistern outside it is empty. It’s not just me who needs water. And some families have to spend as much as a third of their income on it. They must use the contaminated tapwater far more than I do. When I first came here, I used tapwater to brush my teeth. That was a mistake I will not repeat. But I rinse the toothbrush in it afterwards, shaking it carefully. I think that’s okay. A Swiss woman visiting Gaza asked if I drank the filtered water. It should be drinkable, but someone told me it is only filtered from salt. I do not want to find out how things are, do not want to know. I buy the more expensive bottled water. But I wash my clothes in water from the plumbing system, like everyone else here is forced to do. I wash my hands in it, my face. I take my showers in it, washing off my salty sweat with contaminated water, polluted not only by salt, like everyone else here must.

It becomes more polluted every year. The farmers have problems with it. It’s too salty for citrus seeds to germinate, and causes harvests to decline for the products that still grow. Tanker trucks drive to those who can afford to pay. Israel says it’s concerned, has plans to pull in a pipeline and talks about desalination plants, the same plants it keeps from entering. And I think about what will happen when the disaster strikes, when no one can live here, when everyone is forced to flee: a new Nakba, caused not by the force of arms but by the siege. Where can they go? Who is prepared to receive them? And what will happen then? Will Israel then will take over the empty land, this terra nullius, pumping in water, getting the desert to bloom? I hear it as an echo.

The water is running out in Gaza: Humanitarian catastrophe looms as territory’s only aquifer fails

By Reuters/The Independent
June 30, 2013

The Gaza Strip, a tiny wedge of land jammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, is heading inexorably into a water crisis that the United Nations says could make the Palestinian enclave uninhabitable in just a few years.

With 90 to 95 per cent of the territory’s only aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater, neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents. But these small-scale projects provide water for only about 20 per cent of the population, forcing many more residents in the impoverished territory to buy bottled water at a premium. The UN estimates that more than 80 per cent of Gazans buy their drinking water. “Families are paying as much as a third of their household income for water,” said June Kunugi, a special representative of the UN children’s fund Unicef.

The Gaza Strip, governed by the Islamist group Hamas and in a permanent state of tension with Israel, is not the only place in the Middle East facing water woes. A Nasa study of satellite data released this year showed that between 2003 and 2009 the region lost 144 cubic kilometres of stored freshwater – equivalent to the amount in the Dead Sea – making a bad situation much worse.

But the situation in Gaza is particularly acute, with the UN warning that its sole aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with the damage potentially irreversible by 2020. Between 5 and 10 per cent only of the aquifer’s water is safe to drink, but even this can mix with poor-quality water during distribution, making it good only for washing.

“The tap water from the municipality is not fit to drink, and my husband is a kidney patient,” said Sahar Moussa, a mother of three, who lives in a cramped, ramshackle house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, near the Egyptian border. She spends 45 shekels (£8.20) each month – a large sum for most Palestinians in the area – to buy filtered water that she stores in a 500L plastic tank.

Further complicating the issue is Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which activists say has prevented the import of materials needed for repairs on water and waste facilities. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent arms from reaching Hamas, which is opposed to the existence of the Jewish state.

With no streams or rivers to speak of, Gaza has historically relied almost exclusively on its coastal aquifer, which receives some 50 to 60 million cubic metres of refill each year thanks to rainfall and run-off from the Hebron hills to the east. But the needs of Gaza’s rapidly growing population, as well as those of the nearby Israeli farmers, means an estimated 160 million cubic metres of water is drawn from the compromised aquifer each year. As the levels sink, seawater seeps in from the nearby Mediterranean. This saline pollution is made worse by untreated waste, with 90,000 cubic metres of raw sewage allowed to flow into the shallow sea waters each day from Gaza, according to UN data.

Even with the aquifer, regular running tap water is a luxury unknown to many Gazans. People living across the territory say that during the summer months water might spurt out of their taps every other day, and the pressure is often so low that those living on upper floors might see just a trickle.

Children queue up for a mouthful of fresh water at a communal tap in Gaza. Photo from Break the Silence Media and Art project.

Many families have opted to drill private wells drawing from water deep underground. Authorisation is required but rigid restrictions mean that most households dig their wells in secret. Hired labourers erect large plastic sheets to try to hide their work from prying neighbours. “As you can see, this is like a crime scene,” said a 45-year-old father of six, who gave his name as Abu Mohammed. A clothes merchant from Gaza city, he paid his clandestine, seven-strong crew £2,300 to drill a well and came across water at a depth of 48 metres. “We begin the work after sunset and… cover the sound of digging with music,” he said. A senior Israeli security official estimates that as many as 6,000 wells have been sunk in Gaza, many without authorisation.

While Israel shares the polluted aquifer, which stretches all the way to Caesarea, about 37 miles north of Tel Aviv, the problem is less acute than in Gaza which is downstream. In addition, Israel can access water from the Sea of Galilee and the mountain aquifer that also spans the West Bank.

As Gaza borders the sea, the obvious answer is desalination. Gaza already hosts 18 small plants, one treating seawater, the others water from brackish wells – most of them supplied by Unicef and Oxfam.

The Palestinian Water Authority has started work on two new seawater desalination plants and is planning a third, larger facility, which is designed to produce 55 million cubic metres of water a year. But with funding for the $450m (£295m) project still uncertain, construction is not due to start until 2017. By that time, cash-strapped Gaza may not have enough electricity available to power the energy-intensive plants. The UN estimates that Gaza needs an additional 100 megawatts of production capacity even before the big water facility is built.

Israel is trying to drum up aid for Gaza, the senior security official said, alarmed at the prospect of a looming water catastrophe and possible humanitarian crisis on its doorstep. “We have talked to everyone we know in the international community because 1.4 million people will be without water in a few years,” he said, asking not to be named because of the issue’s sensitivity. He said Israel, a leader in the desalination industry, was helping to train a few Gazans in the latest water technology, which the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) confirmed.

Rebhi El Sheikh, deputy chairman of the PWA, has called on international donors to help fund energy, water and sewage projects, warning of disaster if nothing happens. “A small investment is needed to avoid a bigger one, and it is a humanitarian issue that has nothing to do with politics or security,” he said.

Water wars

Water scarcity has become a growing problem in the Middle East, East Africa and the US.

Although the Middle East has experienced water scarcity for quite some time, Jay Famiglietti, principal investigator of a recently published Nasa study, has said that there was an “alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently has the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India”. With tensions already high in this region, water scarcity could become another cause of conflict.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the driest regions in the world. East Africa, in particular the Nile River basin, has seen conflict rise over who controls fresh water supplies. Due to limited resources, the Sudanese civil war between 1983 and 2005 became a struggle over territory which in turn led to conflicts over water supplies. The impact on the population and irrigation of the country would be substantial. After 22 years of fighting, 400,000 people were killed and 2.5 million were displaced from their homes.

Water cleanliness is an issue that is having considerable impact on sub-Saharan Africa. According to the charity WaterAid, 16.4 million people in Kenya and 43.4 million people in Ethiopia don’t have access to safe water.

The US is also facing significant strain on fresh-water supplies. According to WaterSense, a partnership program of the US Environmental Protection Agency: “Nearly every region of the country has experienced water shortages. At least 36 states are anticipating local, regional, or state-wide water shortages” this year, “even under non-drought conditions”.

Water scarcity was recently addressed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who warned that by 2030 nearly half the world’s population could be facing a scarcity of water, with demand outstripping supply by 40 per cent.

B’Tselem Newsletter. Gaza
October 2013

[The report on access to farmland is at IDF’s unmarked firing zone keeps farmers of Gaza off their land]
In Israel, the Gaza Strip often seems like a distant universe. Since the 2005 “disengagement”, life in Gaza has been out of sight and out of mind for most Israelis.

Yet Israel still controls many aspects of daily life there and is, therefore, still responsible for related violations of human rights of Gaza residents. B’Tselem has decided to bring you three examples of this daily reality, so that Gaza and its predicament won’t fall by the wayside.

First, Israel controls practically all crossings into and out of the Gaza Strip. It imposes strict restrictions on importing construction material and other goods, as well as a near total ban on exports. These factors contribute to the high unemployment rate and the hardships faced by the younger generation.

Second, Rafah Crossing, which is the only way to travel abroad from Gaza, is controlled by Egypt. It does not operate regularly. Even when the crossing is open, goods may not be shipped through it, Gazans cannot use it to reach the West Bank, and going through Egypt to reach other countries entails a long, perilous journey through the Sinai desert. Israel, which prevents regularizing air and sea transport from Gaza, must allow residents to travel abroad by going through its territory.

Finally, Israel restricts Palestinian’s access to farmland near the Israel-Gaza border fence. This land constitutes a third of all Gazan farmland and is a major source of income.

We at B’Tselem will continue to monitor Israel’s influence on life in Gaza, to highlight pertinent aspects, and to demand that Israel uphold its obligations as set out in international law.

Suhair Abdi,
Data Coordinator responsible for the Gaza Strip

Unemployment in Gaza reaches 43 percent

By Mohammed Mar’i, Saudi Gazette
October 29, 2013

RAMALLAH – The Hamas government on Sunday said that unemployment rate in Gaza Strip reached 43 percent due to Israeli siege.

Hatim Owaidah, the Deputy Minister of Economy in the Hamas government, said that the siege that Israeli imposed on Gaza Strip “badly affected all sectors of production.”

Owaidah added that the production rate reached 10.5 percent, compared to 13.5 percent in 2012.

The official added that the government is incapable of absorbing the thousands of young men and women who graduate every year.

Israel imposed an economic siege on Gaza Strip in June 2006 when Hamas-led armed groups kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in a cross border raid near the enclave.

It tightened the siege in June 2007, when Hamas routed President Mahmoud Abbas’ security forces and ousted his Fatah movement from the area.

Israel says the measures against Gaza are necessary to stop weapons smuggling and to put pressure on Hamas, but the UN insists the restrictions amount to collective punishment of Gaza’s population.

The restrictions was eased by Israel last year in response to international pressure, after nine Turkish activists were killed in clashes with Israeli troops who boarded their aid flotilla which was trying to break the blockade.

Israel and the West consider Hamas a terrorist movement.

The Quartet, which comprises the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, has asked Hamas to recognize Israel, accept peace deals and abandon violence in exchange for an international recognition of the movement.

Gaza chokes as Egypt’s economic garotte tightens

With the network of underground supply tunnels rapidly being shut down, prices have soared for Palestinians in the Strip

By Harriet Sherwood, Guardian
October 14, 2013

In Gaza City’s main market Mohammed Hilis stood disconsolately among piles of fruit and vegetables, waiting for customers. In the runup to Eid al-Adha, the second most important festival in the Muslim calendar, the market was unusually quiet. Steep price rises, unpaid salaries and layoffs – the consequences of the new Egyptian regime’s antipathy towards Hamas – have been painfully felt by the Gaza Strip.

“A kilo of tomatoes used to be one shekel [17p]; now it is five shekels. Most prices have gone up 50 – 60%,” said Hilis. “Why? Because of the costs of transportation, because there is no power to pump water to the fields, because there is no water. So people buy less.” As a result, his wages have slumped from 30 – 20 shekels a day, playing its small part in propelling the downward spiral of Gaza’s economy.

Six years after Israel imposed a stranglehold on Gaza as a punitive measure against the Hamas government, the strip of land along the Mediterranean is facing a new chokepoint from the south. After the Egyptian military forced President Mohamed Morsi out of office in July amid a brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the army embarked on a drive to regain control of the anarchic Sinai peninsula, isolate the Brotherhood’s allies in neighbouring Gaza, and halt the traffic in goods, weapons and people through the tunnels under the border with the Palestinian territory.

According to the commander of Egypt’s border guards force, Major-General Ahmad Ibrahim, almost 800 tunnels have been destroyed by his troops this year. Hamas is coy about the number of tunnels put out of action. But Hatem Owida, Gaza’s deputy economic minister, said activity had been reduced by 80-90% since the military takeover in Egypt.

The impact has been swift and harsh for the people of Gaza. The plentiful supply of cheap Egyptian fuel has almost dried up; fuel from Israel is both scarce and twice the price. The fuel crisis has meant Gaza’s daily power cuts now last up to eight hours. Prices of basic foodstuffs have risen, according to Owida: flour is up 9%; cooking oil 4 – 5%; and sugar 7%.

The flow of construction materials has also slowed to a trickle, reversing a building boom seen in Gaza in the last few years. As a result of the crisis, Israel has eased its tight restrictions on the import of cement, gravel and iron, but only about 25% of Gaza’s needs are being met and prices are around 30% higher. And on Sunday, Israel suspended delivery of construction materials following the discovery of a tunnel between Gaza and Israel, which it said was intended to be used to launch an attack.

The impact on the Gazan building industry has been catastrophic. “This is the second worst year we have known,” said Nabil Abu Muaileq, head of the Palestinian Contractors’ Union. Only 2008 – after Israel imposed its blockade – was worse. At least 15,000 construction jobs had been lost, he estimated. “The situation is very unstable.”

According to a paper produced by the economics ministry, $450m (£280m) was lost to the Gazan economy between mid-June and the end of August as a result of the tunnels closures. More than a quarter of a million jobs have been lost across all sectors, with construction, services, transport and storage, manufacturing and agriculture taking big hits. It is a massive blow to an economy which had been showing small signs of growth.

Now, the beleaguered and overcrowded Gaza Strip faces a new economic free fall. The Hamas government’s income has slumped, having lost nearly all its revenue from the taxes imposed on goods brought through the tunnels. “We cannot deny we are affected badly,” said Owida. “We’ve lost about 30% of our income.”

Around 47,000 government employees were paid only half their salaries for August, and had received nothing for September, although some payment was expected before the start of Eid.

The new regime in Cairo has also closed the Rafah crossing for long periods, the only exit from Gaza to Egypt. According to Gisha, an Israeli organisation that monitors the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza, the number of people leaving through Rafah has fallen by 76% since July.

Although Israel has increased by 24% the much smaller number of permits it grants to exit through the Erez crossing at the northern end of the Gaza Strip, there are still thousands of Palestinians trapped in Gaza: patients unable to access medical treatment; students unable to take up university places; expatriate Gazans unable to return to jobs in the Gulf states and elsewhere.

Fida’a Abu Assi, 25, was supposed to enrol at the University of Indianapolis by the 26 August for a masters in international relations, for which she had won a rare scholarship. On 7 October, the deadline for entry to the US detailed on her documentation, she was still in Gaza City, unable to leave either via Rafah or Erez.

“I blame Israel because they make our lives hell, and I blame Egypt for closing the Rafah border. They know there are students, patients, businessmen trapped here. People’s lives are not a game. They are collectively punishing us,” she said. “Every time you think things are getting better in Gaza, it gets worse again. You learn not to have any expectations.”

Gaza’s oldest travel agency, Shurafa Tours, has been dealing with the practical consequences of closures for decades. “People feel they are in a big prison. Every movement needs a permit, there is no schedule for when the crossings will be open, people just have to wait,” said the manager, Nabil al-Shurafa, adding that some travellers were rebooking tickets three or four times at huge expense.

The military takeover in Egypt, and the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, has had a significant political, as well as economic, impact. “Yes, it’s a blow to Hamas,” said Taher al-Nounou, an official in the Palestinian movement.

In the past two years, Hamas has loosened its ties with its former sponsors and allies – Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – while investing hope and expectation in the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. The strategy now appears to have backfired.

“The isolation imposed on Hamas and the Gaza Strip is now even worse than in the summer of 2007,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al-Azhar University Gaza, referring to the period after Hamas took control of the Strip 18 months after winning elections. In an indication of the chill winds felt by the movement, Hamas leaders have largely gone to ground since the Egyptian coup, rarely travelling and making relatively few public appearances.

“The issue is not just about Egypt and Hamas; the whole region is now becoming more hostile to Islamists,” said Abusada. “Hamas looks at this as a new siege of Gaza. And people on the street are sick and tired of being kept in a cage. The situation here could be on the verge of collapse.”

Notes and links

See also Nothing may move in or out of Gaza – except sewage
Why water should be on the table

23 August 2010: Water supplied in Gaza unfit for drinking; Israel prevents entry of materials needed to repair system Report from B’tselem



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