Almost all of the drinking water in the Gaza Strip is impotable because of sewage pollution or high salinity levels, according to data presented last week by a hydrologist who advises the Palestinian Water Authority.
Ahmed al-Yaqoubi said most Gazans don’t drink the water from their taps because of its poor quality. Instead, they buy expensive water from private enterprises that operate small desalination plants.
Moreover, almost 90 percent of the drinking water in Gaza exceeds the maximum salinity standard of the World Health Organization and is expected to become even more saline in the years to come.
Yaqoubi was in Israel last week to take part in a discussion at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in southern Israel. Former Palestinian minister Tahani Abu Daqqa also participated in the session discussing the water crisis in Gaza.
The Strip’s 2 million residents depend almost entirely on the coastal aquifer for their water needs (other than a small amount that Israel sends to the area). However, population growth and low rainfall has led to overpumping in recent years.
Yaqoubi told Haaretz that while the annual quantity that can be pumped without compromising the aquifer’s ability to renew itself is some 60 million cubic meters, about 200 million cubic meters of water are actually being pumped every year.
Half of this is for domestic use – and this is only the quantity the authority can measure, Yaqoubi said. The other half, mainly for agriculture, is an estimate and includes water drawn from 5,000 private wells.
Overpumping has led to a sharp drop in aquifer levels, which in turn allows seawater to penetrate by as much as three or four kilometers (1.9 to 2.5 miles), which salinates the water table.
The concentration of chloride (salts) in Gaza’s wells is between 400 and 2,000 milligrams per liter, while the standard is 250 milligrams per liter. Only a little over 10 percent of the water in Gaza meets that standard.
Gaza’s water supply has also been extensively contaminated by sewage. Some 70 percent of Gaza’s homes are connected to the sewage system, but due to poor maintenance, much of that sewage seeps into the aquifer. As a result, the concentration of nitrates – which are indicators of contamination – has gone up. There are too-high concentrations of either chloride or nitrates in 97 percent of the water supplied to the residents of Gaza.
Due to this situation, the Strip’s residents have turned to private suppliers for their drinking water. These suppliers operate 136 small desalination plants that operate near wells and provide water that is low in contaminants. However, this water costs six times as much as regular water. For other household uses, Gazans rely on the contaminated water – but even that is in short supply.
Because of the shortage of electricity, Yaqoubi explained, the wells can’t be fully operated and sometimes only work for a few hours a day.
The electricity shortage also prevents the Strip’s sewage treatment plants from operating, allowing untreated sewage water to flow directly into the sea. The sewage reaches the adjacent Israeli coastal cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod, but first it pollutes Gaza’s beaches, Yaqoubi said.
Officially, swimming isn’t allowed at Gaza’s beaches, but since that’s the only place the people can go for recreational purposes, they do so anyway, he noted.
At a separate conference on the Gazan water crisis two weeks ago, sponsored by the Institute for National Security Studies, in cooperation with EcoPeace, Israel Water Authority head Giora Shaham said Israel is planning to supply another 10 million cubic meters of water to the Gaza Strip – over and above the 10 million cubic meters it already supplies. However, it has been unable to do so until now because there is no infrastructure to contain the water.
Yaqoubi said last week that the Palestinian Water Authority is preparing to issue a tender to build the pipes and reservoirs needed to hold the water Israel is planning to send to the Strip.
However, the long-term solution to Gaza’s water crisis is to build a large desalination plant there. In fact, one is currently in the planning stages that would be able to supply 135 million cubic meters of water annually. The Palestinian Authority has obtained half of the necessary funding from international sources and is now working on securing the rest of the funds.
Yaqoubi warned, though, that without electricity and funding for maintenance of the desalination plant, it will not be able to operate efficiently. That is also true of the new sewage treatment plants currently under construction, he added.
One of these, in the northern Gaza Strip, has already been completed but is difficult to operate due to the lack of electricity. Gazans’ economic situation needs to improve as well – otherwise it will be impossible to charge for the operation and maintenance of these facilities.