Even in ‘ordinary times,’ 90% of Gaza’s tap water is undrinkable, and things get worse during war
The family of my friend M. decided not to flee southward, but to remain in her home in the neighborhood of Tel al-Hawa, in Gaza City. They have nowhere to go to in the south, no-one to be with, M. told me.
Also, it’s hard to leave with an elderly mother and a disabled son in a wheelchair, and to live with them in one of the schools run by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) turned into shelters for hundreds of thousands of people.
According to UN estimates, over one million people have been uprooted from their homes and have fled to the southern part of the Strip, due to the direct bomb raids, followed by the Israeli army announcement that they have to evacuate. But there is still an unknown number of families, which, like M.’s family, decided not to leave the northern part of the Strip and to stay home. Some of them went to seek shelter in the Gaza hospitals, M. wrote to me, a day before Al Ahli hospital was hit.
“Tonight we were saved from about 30 bombs and missiles dropped on the neighborhood,” she texted me on the morning of October 16, and continued: “The Hajja (M.’s mother) says: ‘Praise God, we still have a drop of water to drink.’”
Even during “ordinary” times the Gaza Strip suffers from a chronic water shortage. About 90 percent of the water in the faucets is not potable. The majority of the 2.2 million inhabitants depend on water that was desalinated and purified in special facilities that is sold or distributed in containers and at special drinking fountains in the cities. Only a small, specific class of people can afford to buy bottled mineral water.
Things get worse during wars. Now in particular, in addition to the physical danger at every moment from Israeli shelling, in addition to the terror and the mourning and the constant fear for the fate of relatives and friends, thirst and the awareness of the need to drink sparingly are constantly on the minds of every one of the Strip’s inhabitants.
Israel’s announcement that “the water supply to the southern Strip has been renewed,” following a request by the United States, about a week after Energy Minister Israel Katz ordered a halt to all supplies of electricity, water and fuel, has created the mistaken impression that this is a significant gesture. But that’s not the case.
Annual water consumption in Gaza is about 110 million cubic meters. According to Gisha, the human rights center that focuses on the situation in Gaza and is in constant contact with the water departments in Gazan towns, this is about 85 percent of the quantity required for human needs.
This water stems from three sources. The first is the coastal aquifer, from which about 85 million cubic meters are pumped annually through about 300 drillings and wells. This is the only water reservoir in the Strip and has been over-pumped for decades, because of population growth. This aquifer is being contaminated by seawater and sewage intrusion, hence its water is not potable and must be purified. In many places it isn’t even safe for washing. Very few people can afford to wash themselves in purchased purified water.
A second source is three seawater desalination stations established thanks to donations from the international community and in collaboration with the Palestinian Authority. They produce about 8 million cubic meters of water a year and during ordinary times, supply about 300,000 people in the Strip.
The third source is water from the national Israeli water company Mekorot. The PA pays for it (by means of automatic deduction from the customs fees that Israel charges for imported goods destined for the Palestinian area). About two years ago, the quantity that was purchased was 15 million cubic meters per day, and according to Gisha, on the eve of the war the quantity increased to about 18 million cubic meters annually.
But the use of all three water sources depends on a regular supply of electricity and stockpiled fuel to operate generators. Therefore even during “ordinary” times the water supply is irregular and is not a daily occurrence, because the electricity supply doesn’t meet the needs in the Strip either. Israel sells the Strip 120 megawatts of electricity per day.
This supply was discontinued on Katz’s instructions immediately at the start of the war. The local power plant, which is dependent on fuel, generates another 60 megawatts daily and stopped operating at the end of last week. The fuel used by the owners of large neighborhood generators, which supplied electricity for several hours a day, has run out. (The total daily need of the Gaza Strip is around 500 megawatts).
The three facilities for seawater desalination have also closed, in the absence of fuel and electricity – the last of them on Sunday, according to the UN report. Several private or public facilities for water purification may still have an inventory of diesel for their generators, but it too will run out within a few days or even hours.
For the trucks that deliver the purified water that’s still available – it’s becoming harder to reach residential neighborhoods because the roads are being bombed. The AP News Agency reported that in the absence of electricity, most areas have no running water, and the water that drips from the faucet for about 30 minutes a day is that salinated, contaminated water unsuitable for drinking. People are still buying water at municipal supply stations, and this also becomes scarce. The bottles of purified water in the stores that remain open – are running out.
The United Nations has confirmed Mekorot has resumed channeling water to the station in Khan Yunis in the southern part of the Strip. Gisha says that they don’t know how much water there is, but there’s no way of knowing how much of this limited quantity even reaches the inhabitants, when there’s no electricity and fuel. All this is befroe considering the damage caused to the water infrastructure due to the bombings.
Because most of the residents of the northern part of the Strip are crowding into the south in every possible way, the quantity of water in the infrastructure there, or that families stored in containers on the roof or in jerricans in the house before the war – has to serve twice as many people. In the schools and public buildings where hundreds of the uprooted from the north are crowded, the problem is far more severe.
Due to the lack of running water and the crowded conditions in every house and public building that are full of refugees, people are trying to use the bathrooms as little as possible. That’s also a reason to drink less.
Residents said that they try to drink about half a liter a day. People shower once a week at most. In the public buildings it’s also impossible to shower. In the absence of purified water in sufficient quantity, hospitals are forced to clean people’s wounds with saline, polluted water (when there is any at all).
Sewage treatment facilities will also shut down soon, if they haven’t already, and the quantities of sewage that will accumulate and create lakes in the Strip and flow into the sea will increase the danger of disease and epidemics. That is why UNRWA Commissioner General Philippe Lazzarini has called the present water crisis in the Strip a question of life and death. At the beginning of this week, he warned that if fuel and water don’t reach the Strip, quickly – “people will start dying of severe dehydration.”