Israel Holds Up Vital Spare Parts for Gaza’s Water and Sewage Systems

Israel is holding up the entry of hundreds of vital replacement parts for the proper functioning of Gaza’s water and sewage systems. As a result, partially treated wastewater is being….

Israel is holding up the entry of hundreds of vital replacement parts for the proper functioning of Gaza’s water and sewage systems. As a result, partially treated wastewater is being released into the sea, water leakage from pipes is even worse than usual, rainwater runoff is causing a danger of flooding. The quality and quantity of drinking water, purified in special facilities, is also being affected, and the same problems keep happening because repairs are being made with makeshift materials.

Palestinian officials in the Gaza Water Utility say that there have been unexplained prolonged delays and foot-dragging in getting approvals to bring in the various necessary items since the war ended in May. An Israeli security official rejects the claims of delays.

Maher an-Najar, deputy director general of the Coastal Municipalities (Gaza) Water Utility, says that prior to the war, suppliers and contractors waited from a week to a month to obtain an Israeli permit to bring in urgently needed items for regular maintenance or repairs, whereas the waiting time now is two to five months or more. About 500 water and sewage facilities in Gaza currently have a dire shortage of valves, filters, pumps, pipes, electro-mechanical equipment, electric cables, replacement parts for service vehicles and parts for computers and computerization systems used for inspection oversight, data collection and operation.

“The new projects we built, like the desalination plants, a wastewater treatment plant, water reservoirs and several of the wells are all operated by means of a sophisticated computerized system,” An-Najar says. “And it requires a continuous supply of regular electronic replacement parts in order to function.” He says that before the May war, requests were filed for replacement parts for the computer systems, including for a server needed for the main office. Such requests have not yet been answered since.

One of the affected facilities is the wastewater pumping station in Khan Yunis. Wear and tear on the equipment has led to repeated flooding. Two new pumps were installed there, but the permit for a surge tank (which neutralizes the water pressure in the system) and the accompanying valves, requested before the war, took a long time to come. Pipes began to explode, so the old pumps were reinstalled to keep the new ones from being damaged by the frequent malfunctions. The surge tank finally arrived two months ago, but without the valves, so it has yet to be installed. “Without the ability to neutralize the pressure, every day another pipe at the pumping station explodes, and we improvise a repair,” An-Najar says.

The new wastewater treatment plant in Khan Yunis, which is connected to the aforementioned pumping station, is lacking about a hundred replacement parts for electro-mechanical equipment and valves. During the war, the workers had to leave the plant because of the bombardments, and so regular maintenance work could not be performed.

At the seawater desalination plant in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, the most important item lacking, still awaiting Israeli approval, is the control panel in the central wing (needed to desalinate 3,400 out of 6,000 cubic meters of water daily). Thus, less water is desalinated, and the water utility has to draw water from wells that were decommissioned due to the high salinity of the water in them.

Besides the unexplained delays of recent months, a relatively new Israeli prohibition, from early 2021, is also disrupting the proper functioning of the Gazan water and sewage systems; Israel does not permit the entry of steel pipes larger than 1.5 inches in diameter, while the desalination and wastewater treatment plants require pipes with a diameter between two and 10 inches. Thus, the Gaza water utility workers are unable to repair properly existing pipes, some of which were damaged by bombardments in May. Consequently, water and wastewater is increasingly leaking. An-Najar says the main worry during the current rainy season is flooding in residential neighborhoods and in homes due to poorer drainage.

Officials from the Coordination and Liaison Administration, part of the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories (COGAT), tell the water utility coordinators and engineers to use plastic pipes, but an-Najar says the pipes at the exit points from the pumping stations must be made of metal, because of the water pressure. “Our engineers would not have asked for a metal pipe if a plastic pipe could be installed instead,” he says.

Water purification and desalination plants for drinking water are also suffering from a shortage of replacement parts. There is no substitute for these plants, because the groundwater in Gaza is insufficient for its growing population. Decades-long over-pumping has caused increasing seepage of seawater into the aquifer. Gaza’s 300 wells annually produce 85 million cubic meters of water, which requires desalination and purification.

Israel has refused and still refuses to connect Gaza to the country’s water infrastructure, even though it also controls the West Bank’s water sources, diverting most of its water to the Israeli population. The Palestinian Authority, Hamas and PA donor countries do not insist on a substantial increase in the water Israel does sell to Gaza, and instead rely on developing more desalination facilities.

Today, over two decades since desalination of seawater in Gaza was first discussed, 8 million cubic meters a year come from the desalination plants built there. International recognition that the ongoing water crisis also requires supply from Israel led to an increase in the amount of water that the Mekorot water company sells to Gaza, from 5-8 million cubic meters at the time of the disengagement in 2005 to only 15 million cubic meters today.

In all, only 20 percent of the water in Gaza does not require desalination and purification. When the water purification and desalination plants only function at partial capacity, both quantity and quality of the available drinking water declines significantly, with all their public health implications. Around 100 plants are operated by the municipalities and the water utility, providing a free supply of drinking water to 180,000 residents, mostly poor families. These people cannot afford to buy imported bottled water, or water purified in a private plant. Hundreds of other private plants sell purified water to local residents.

The wastewater treatment plant in Al-Bureij in central Gaza, which serves 800,000 people, has felt some progress lately in receiving Israeli approval for its replacement parts. Germany invested $100 million to build it. Thirty countries and international organizations have contributed to the water and sewage system in Gaza, says An-Najar, but most did not donate such large sums. “And unlike the German government representatives, not all of them can keep asking COGAT why the materials needed for the project they are funding are being held up.” And this facility is only one of 500, an-Najar emphasized. Lacking replacement parts, the Al-Bureij plant can treat only 35,000 cubic meters of wastewater a day rather than 60,000. The rest is directed into older plants, and the partially treated wastewater flows into the sea. “It’s bad for our environment, it’s bad for our seawater desalination plant, and it’s bad for the Israelis’ environment too, because Ashdod and Ashkelon are so close,” An-Najar says.

Contractors and suppliers who won bids from the Palestinian water utility to purchase the replacement parts and raw materials submit their requests for approval to import the equipment. Because of the long handling time and the cumulative storage fees at the ports, the contractors’ bids are about 30 percent higher than the basic costs, An-Najar says. The extra money could have been invested in developing and expanding the network. Workers and administrators at the utility also waste lots of precious time on endless attempts to find out from the Israeli Coordination and Liaison Administration what happened to submitted applications.

COGAT says in response to a Haaretz inquiry about the delays that “in the last months, the administration has been working to integrate technological systems that will shorten the bureaucratic process and improve the process of importing goods into the Gaza Strip, including dual-use materials.” A source at the Palestinian water utility explains that this statement refers to the replacement of the method of registering applications with a different online system. In the new system (called Yuval), the specific item must be listed in its database; if it is not, the system cannot process the request. This condition did not exist in the old system. So the engineers and contractors now have to search for the most similar item that does appear in the Israeli system. For several months, requests were being filed by both systems, but the Israeli administration recently demanded that old requests be refiled according to the Yuval system. So while the Israeli coordination administration says it is improving the system, the change has only complicated the process so far.

The inquiry to COGAT attached a list of 11 requests for missing items for the German financed Al-Bureij wastewater treatment plant. A security source said that no requests were filed for some of the items, that various documents were missing for others, and that others have already been approved. The Palestinian official says each request on the list was assigned a number when it was typed into the (old or new) online system, and that the list itself is evidence that all the requests were filed. Moreover, the utility also sends every online request by email to the person in charge at the Israeli coordination administration to be extra certain. He also said that if some documentation was in fact missing, one would expect the contractors and the water utility to be directly and immediately informed rather than months later.

Gisha, an Israeli human rights organization that researches the impact of Israeli policy on Gaza and strives to change it, is convinced the delays are politically motivated. “Israel is making unacceptable use of its control of the movement of goods into and out of Gaza as a tool to exert political pressure, at the expense of Gazans and without bearing responsibility for the grave effects this conduct has on their living conditions,” it says. Gisha adds that the delay in importing replacement parts for the water infrastructure “is cruel behavior that goes against Israel’s legal duties to sustain normal life in Gaza, and this behavior must end.”