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There has been much talk in Israel of late about the implications of Lebanon pumping water from the Hatzbani River, but a far more serious water problem already exists in the Gaza Strip. And, as a new study points out, coping with it will necessitate Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.

For several years now, experts have been monitoring with concern the deterioration of the quality of the groundwater in the Gaza Strip, which is the main source of the Palestinians' drinking water. A new study, conducted by the European Union's FP5 project (the Fifth European Community Framework Program, covering research, technological development and demonstration activities) examined both the seriousness of the problem and the reasons underlying it.

According to the study, the Palestinians pump about 140 million cubic meters of water from more than 1,000 wells annually from the southern coastal aquifer. Many of these wells are privately owned, and most of them are not under any sort of supervision. The population of the Gaza Strip, which numbers more than one million, is increasing by 70,000 people a year. The rising demand is one the coastal aquifer will not be able to meet.

The quality of the water that is used by the residents of the Gaza Strip has already deteriorated and does not meet any international standard. The concentration of chlorides (a gauge of salinity) is above 1,000 milligrams per liter, whereas in Israel the maximum permitted amount in drinking water is 600. The nitrate concentration (a measure of pollution originating in sewerage and fertilizers) has been found to be more than 500 milligrams per liter in some places; the Israeli standard is 70, and Israel is definitely not one of the stricter countries in this regard.

Water of such low quality constitutes a concrete threat to the health of the population and endangers farm crops that are sensitive mainly to high levels of salt and a metalloid material called boron, which is also present in high concentrations in the Gaza Strip's groundwater. Geochemical tests that were carried out as part of the EU's research study show that over-pumping in the Gaza Strip lowers the level of the sweet water and brings about the penetration of salty seawater. In addition, the groundwater is becoming polluted from sewerage and from a natural source - groundwater that is flowing from Israel.

In the light of the serious situation that exists in the Gaza Strip in almost every sphere, it is plain to see that the Palestinians will have a very hard time dealing with the worsening water problem by themselves. Coping with the problem requires greater international aid, but above all the cooperation of Israel.

The conclusions reached by the research team show that, contrary to the situation on the border with Lebanon or in Judea and Samaria, in the Gaza Strip there is no dispute over control of a water source that begins in the territory of one side but also enters the territory of the other side. In the case of the Gaza Strip, the source of water is one of little use for Israel, nor is it part of a significant clash over historical water rights, as in the case of the Jordan River or the Judea and Samaria aquifer. Most of the water lies in the territory of the Gaza Strip and its main consumers are the Palestinians.

Both sides have a clear interest in preventing the aggravation of the water crisis in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians, the Israelis and international organizations have to act jointly to rehabilitate the wells that have become polluted, to stop the operation of pirate wells that are accelerating salinity and to prevent the seepage of sewerage into the groundwater. One water purification facility has already been built near Gaza City with American aid.

The long-term solution may turn out to be the diversion to the Gaza Strip of water from the desalination facilities that Israel intends to establish. It is still not clear how the Palestinians could finance the purchase of this water, and they may have to seek international funding.

Without an additional source of water the Palestinians will not be able to get the volume of water they need. The use of desalinated water will make it possible to reduce gradually the pumping of water from the aquifer and will thereby contribute to raising the level of groundwater and repressing the saltwater from the sea. The earlier Israel deploys to address these scenarios, the better the prospect that it will not have to deal with a population which, in addition to facing mass unemployment and being under curfew, will also suffer from thirst.