How Israel’s war has left Gaza dry

Wars waged in the Gaza Strip have further degraded already limited utility infrastructure even as the enclave suffers from a shortage of fresh water.

Fayez Harazin as water is being pumped into the large plastic containers for water at a home in the Al Mansara district near Gaza city. Heidi Levine for The National
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GAZA CITY // A tanker pulls up on a dirt road outside a two-level house where five families live. Three men jump out and unwind a plastic hose through the gates.

Because there is no electricity supply, the men have to struggle with a diesel-powered pump before they can start filling five black plastic Oxfam tanks each holding 500 litres near the gate and two more on the roof.

The residents of the house in Al Mansara, part of Gaza’s Shujaieh neighbourhood, are receiving their twice-monthly delivery of water.

Three wars in the Gaza Strip in just six years have left the coastal enclave’s already stretched infrastructure degraded even further. The most recent, Israel’s 50-day bombardment of the territory last summer, forced 600,000 Gazans from their homes. Utilities such as power, water supply and sewage disposal were also badly damaged in the war. Up to 30 per cent of the water pipes in the territory were destroyed or damaged, along with 23 municipal wells. A total of 500 septic tanks were also destroyed, according to the Palestinian Authority.

The house in Al Mansara rarely receives piped water, according to Fayez Harazin, 59, head of one of the five families living there after their own homes were bombed and destroyed last summer. When it does, “it’s yellow or brown and it’s either sweet or salty — it’s not safe to drink”, he said.

The water, delivered from private desalination plants, costs Mr Harazin 15 shekels (Dh14) for each tank and his family use it to bathe, cook and drink. According to the UN, Gaza is facing a water and sanitation crisis with 96 per cent of the fresh water available from the underground aquifer unsafe for human consumption. Over-extraction from Gaza’s only freshwater aquifer and the intrusion of seawater, coupled with the seepage of agricultural fertilisers and untreated sewage has resulted in levels of chloride and nitrates up to three times the World Health Organization’s recommended standards.

A UN report this year has warned that as Gaza’s population increases from 1.6 million to 2.1 million by 2020, the damage to the aquifer will be irreversible and the territory will be uninhabitable.

According to the water department at Gaza’s health ministry there are 120 water desalination plants in Gaza, many of them unlicensed and drawing water from wells illegally and desalinating it. Officials say the proliferation of desalinated water is a health risk as most of it is not tested or regulated. Water from the aquifer and wells in Gaza is highly saline, with a high concentration of sodium nitrate.

Small desalination companies partially treat the water they deliver to homes, but Monther Shoblak, director of Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, says the supply is as polluted as water from Gaza’s aquifer.

“We are disinfecting the water, we put chlorine in it, but the private vendors don’t,” Mr Shoblak said.

Back in Al Mansara, a group of children crowd around a USAID water distribution centre, where a giant bladder holding water sits inside a small room. Bashar, 15, who arrives with a small trolley and a plastic container, says his family pick up small quantities of water at the station for free because the water pipes to their home were destroyed in the war last year and they cannot afford water deliveries.

A carload of men and small children arrives and the children fill up empty soft drink bottles. Then a small pickup lorry pulls up with a water tank on the back.

The manager of the centre, Baha Al Khouri, 23, says the bladder is filled daily from a private vendor and is often empty by the end of the day. Up to 400 people from the southern Shujaieh area come to get water each day.

Few of the water distribution centres established after the 2014 war are still active, while the water lorry comes door-to-door and is considered a more reliable source for those that can afford it.

The lack of safe drinking water in Gaza is compounded by a problem that becomes clear at the Wadi Gaza bridge, on the coastal road south of Gaza City, where a large concrete pipe spews brown liquid into the Mediterranean and an overpowering smell fills the air. The pipe is one of seven along the coast that altogether pour out roughly 100 million litres each day of raw sewage from central Gaza because the area has only semi- functioning wastewater treatment plant.

Even though 72 per cent of Gazan homes are connected to a sewage network, the territory’s waste treatment plants are either not operational or are hampered by the lack of power. The largest treatment plant, Sheikh Eijlin in central Gaza, gets electricity for a maximum of four hours a day.

Mr Shoblak said Gazans who were not connected to sewage system made their own arrangements without adhering to any kind of standards. Many build unlined septic tanks and some communities create large sewage ponds or cesspits, which allows sewage to seep into the groundwater.

Gaza has four wastewater treatment plants that are not fully treating water because there is not enough power to run the treatment plants.

Three new plants built with overseas funding are to replace the existing four, but Israel is restricting the entry of the finishing materials.

One is a treatment facility worth US$50 million (Dh183m) funded by the World Bank in the north of Gaza, but it cannot be opened until Israel permits chemicals and equipment into Gaza. Another in the north, which was set up with funding of $76m is also waiting to open for the same reason.

The third wastewater treatment plant in central Gaza had been ready to start operations in 2012 but now needs to be refurbished after long delays to its opening due to Israel not allowing chemicals in. It could now be ready to start by 2017.

“To me it looks like global punishment of the people of Gaza — delays mean donors decide to withdraw from Gaza. This has had a huge impact on the water sector,” Mr Shoblak said.