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The water supply in the Gaza Strip is on the very of collapse due to pollution that has been worsened by damage to infrastructure during Operation Cast Lead, according to a United Nations Environment Program report released Tuesday.

Sewage contamination of the water table far exceeds allowable levels set by the World Health Organization, the report states. The UN report notes that it will take more than 20 years and a billion dollars to rehabilitate the water system in Gaza.

The report, based on a visit by representatives of the United Nations Environmental Program to Gaza in May, says that nearly one-fifth of the greenhouses in Gaza were destroyed in the war in Gaza. The movement of tanks caused long-term damage to the ground that will impede cultivation.

Damage to sewage facilities apparently led to waste water penetrating the aquifer.

In a number of places, high concentrations of toxic substances were found, which had originated from within homes or industrial structures, although no significant source of pollution dangerous to humans was found.

However, the most severe problem according to the UN report is a decline in the quality of drinking water. The decline is not directly connected to Operation Cast Lead, but rather to prolonged over-pumping from Gaza's aquifer, which has led to its salination.

The report recommends seeking alternative water sources as soon as possible for Gaza, including desalinated sea water.

Gaza's population faces severe health problems due to the decline in drinking- water quality, such as the so-called "blue baby syndrome" in which babies' blood is damaged by exposure to nitrate compounds in waste. The babies become cyanotic, which causes their skin to take on a blue tinge, and to suffer from respiratory and intestinal problems.