Gaza Severely Short of Water for Drinking and Bathing

A major consequence of the water shortage, caused by Israeli strikes, is the outbreak of skin disease and other infections.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian children collect water during a five-day truce in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, August 14, 2014.
Palestinian children collect water during a five-day truce in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, August 14, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Almost all the Gaza Strip’s 1.8 million residents are suffering from a severe lack of water for drinking and washing, since Israeli bombs seriously damaged the Strip’s water, electricity and sewage infrastructure.

One of the most serious consequences of the water shortage has been an outbreak of skin disease and other infections in the temporary shelters that today house some 275,000 displaced Gazans. That number is expected to rise now that the fighting has resumed.

Because of the damage to wells, Gaza is pumping only about half as much water as usual. The electricity supply has improved slightly after damaged high-voltage wires were repaired, but it is still limited to six hours of every 12. That, combined with the shortage of generator fuel, has disrupted both the pumping of water and its distribution through the pipelines.

During the week-long cease-fire, technicians labored to repair the damaged water infrastructure, while aid organizations, led by the United Nations and the Red Cross, continued to distribute bottles of drinking water and tanks of purified water to schools that serve as shelters for displaced persons.

Special task forces ensured that water for cleaning was used only for the schools’ bathrooms. Nevertheless, people are suffering greatly from the state of the bathrooms and the long lines for using them.

Aside from the 275,000 Gazans living in schools, another 115,000 displaced people are living with friends or relatives, in vacant apartments, in warehouses, stores and even parks. All the almost 400,000 displaced people complain that they haven’t showered in weeks. Some are using bottled water to at least wash their children.

The Palestinian Water Authority says that 11 wells and two purification plants were completely destroyed by the bombing, while 15 wells and four purification plants were partly destroyed. Twenty-nine kilometers (18 miles) of pipeline was destroyed and another 17 kilometers was damaged. Thus only about half the water system is functional, and even the functional parts get water only once every five days, according to Ewash, a coalition of international aid organizations that specialize in water and sanitation systems.

Even in normal times, more than 90 percent of Gaza’s water is unfit for drinking because Israel requires the Palestinian Authority — which is responsible for the water system — to make do with the groundwater located in Gaza itself, despite the enormous growth of the Strip’s population. This has led to constant overpumping, which in turn has resulted in seawater and sewage contaminating the groundwater. Therefore, people depend on the purification plants for drinking water.

During the cease-fire, technicians carried out 11 major repairs to wells and pipelines. The Ministry of Local Government also distributed some 5,000 liters of chloride to wells in Gaza City. But the resumption of the fighting on Tuesday is expected to slow down both the repair work and the distribution of water, since both jobs will now be much more dangerous.

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