In Gaza, Water - and Time - Are Running Out

Experts say Gaza water shortage likely to bring about illness.

Israel's desalination plant in Hadera.
Eyal Toueg

The Gaza Strip is facing a severe shortage of potable water and immediate action is necessary, Israeli and Palestinian experts said Monday.

Without the provision of water to meet basic needs in the near future, Gaza could see a spike in diseases due to the reduction in the quality of water available, the environmental and water experts warned at a conference hosted by Tel Aviv's Eretz Israel Museum.

A collaboration by Friends of the Earth Middle East and the Institute for National Security Studies, the conference focused on including environmental and water issues in the talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Among the participants was Prof. Uri Shani, former head of the Water Authority and current Israeli representative in the talks with the Palestinians and Jordanians on water. Shani said Gaza already has a high rate of water pollution-related childhood illnesses, which threaten to cross over to Israel as well. Shani said the international project to establish a desalination plant for Gaza would take years to complete and warned that an additional supply of water is needed now.

Another participant in the conference was Dr. Mohammed al-Hamidi, former director of the Environment Ministry in the Palestinian Authority and now a private environmental consultant. He said there are types of desalination plants that could be set up more quickly if Israel were more flexible and did not hold up permits for their construction. He agreed with Shani that regardless of the progress on the peace process, there was an urgent need to alleviate the water shortage in Gaza.

Hamas is not working to solve the water problem. Israel has ignored it too, and so far has not kept its promises to increase the water supply, said Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli director of Friends of the Earth Middle East, after the conference. In addition, there are problems with the electricity supply in the Gaza Strip, which makes it difficult to construct desalination or sewage treatment facilities. We are facing a disaster, since in a little while there will be no water in Gaza. No fence will stop a million and a half people - with no reprieve offered by Hamas - who will try to reach Israel so that they will have water to drink.

The inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are almost completely dependent on water from the southern coastal aquifer. But increased demand is depleting the aquifer, and it is increasingly vulnerable to penetration by seawater and saltwater penetration from deep layers of soil. In addition, with the lack of treatment facilities sewage is trickling through the soil and threatening contamination.

The demand for water in the Gaza Strip is expected to increase by 60 percent by the end of the decade. According to UN estimates, only one-tenth of the drinking water in Gaza meets the sanitation standards set by the World Health Organization. The WHO estimates that as early as 2016, the groundwater will be unusable, and the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip will be left without a source of water.