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Troubled waters

A boy crosses the river at Wadi Gaza

When the Israeli airstrike destroyed his neighbour’s house, Rafat Ali Al-Araj was sitting in the garden with his five-year-old daughter, Iman. “As the attack happened we didn’t even hear it, we were so close,” he tells me. “Iman was buried in the sand, we could hardly get her out.” Her left arm and right leg were fractured and she had shrapnel wounds to her body. “Now, when she hears the sounds of planes, she says ‘Let’s run away.’”  Iman looks bemused at being the centre of attention but, after some prompting by her father, she shows us the dirty plaster casts covering her arm and leg.

You don’t have to look far in Gaza to find stories like Iman’s – the physical effects of any raid are clear to see. What is less immediately obvious to the outside observer is the devastation of the underlying infrastructure, particularly the water system.

Al-Araj and his family live in the Fakhari refugee camp, south of Khan Younis, which sustained extensive damage during operation “Pillar of Defence”. Water and sewage pipes were destroyed and rooftop water tanks were ruptured. When we meet, several weeks after the end of conflict, Al-Araj’s water supply has still not been reconnected.

Every day the family struggles to carry two large jerry cans to the local hospital for free water. “I’ve run out of stock. I don’t even have enough water to wash my hands,” Al-Araj tells me as we survey the wreckage of his
neighbourhood. “I don’t know what to do, I feel hopeless. I should be providing water for my family.” He is forced to put his family’s waste in a manhole with a bucket. When it is full, he has to empty it in the street and cover it with sand.

Repairing the water supply is fraught with danger. Rami Salamah, supervisor of a UN desalination plant in Khan Younis, told me that it can be dangerous to transfer water pipes during Israeli military operations. “They look like rockets from above!” he told me. “We are afraid the Israelis will think that we are fighters.”  After the ceasefire, Israeli fighter jets still periodically write contrail loops in the sky as they circle high above Gaza in a show of force that underlines the potential of further destruction.

Access to drinking water was restricted during “Pillar of Defence” as it wasn’t safe for trucks to travel. A road bridge crossing Wadi Gaza near Nuseirat that carried a water pipe was destroyed, leaving more than 10,000 people without water. Reservoirs and water towers were damaged by airstrikes and drone attacks.

But while Israeli rocket attacks worsened the problem, Gaza’s water supply was already in a desperate state before the start of “Pillar of Defence”. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Wadi Gaza.


An Israeli jet leaves contrails in the sky above Gaza

Destruction after Pillar of Defence

From nature reserve to cesspit

Wadi Gaza used to be a nature reserve, and was once nominated as a World Heritage site. The valley’s river carries water that has flowed down from the mountains near Hebron in the West Bank, through Israel and into the central part of Gaza, before spilling out into the Mediterranean. Faiz Farajalla, 57, lives in a settlement by the banks of the river near Nuseirat.  It is around a month after the end of “Pillar of Defence” and we are sitting with him in the bare earth courtyard outside his corrugated iron shack, the walls of which are stuffed with yellowing palm leaves. He remembers 20 to 30 years ago: “The valley was very clean, people used to drink from the river and the sand was like beach sand.”

Then Israel began to dam the river further upstream and the water reaching Wadi Gaza dwindled. Sewage seeped in from the failing infrastructure and the residents began using the valley as an area to dump garbage.

“We are forced to live like this.Life here is miserable. There is no reason to stay. Gaza is not fit to be a cow farm”

Now the river is sluggish with raw sewage. It carries a cloying stench that goes straight to the stomach. Hens pick their way through rubbish choked among the reeds. Under a bridge that crosses the river, the water bubbles with gas escaping from untreated excrement. Despite the stink, herders take goats and sheep to graze and drink the river water. Children play with marbles along the filthy banks.

There are now only a few small waste-water treatment plants in Gaza and they are failing to cope with the demand. The waste-water plant near Wadi Gaza – previously the largest in Gaza – lies in ruins. It was destroyed by Israel during Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and was never rebuilt. The plant near Gaza City has a capacity of 30,000m3/day but it is dealing with double that – the rest is going into the sea untreated. Wastewater infiltrates the aquifer, compounding its degradation.

It is shocking to see the people living amid such abject squalor.  Around 16,000 live in Wadi Gaza. Many of them are refugees and they can’t afford to move anywhere else. “We are forced to live like this,” Farajalla tells me. “Life here is miserable. There is no reason to stay. Gaza is not fit to be a cow farm.”

In the past Israel opened the dam’s gates further upstream when the water level became too high. Farajalla tells me that when this happens the water surges down into the valley and a wall of sewage-laden water, sometimes two metres high, floods the village, destroying flimsy huts and drowning people and animals. “We just have to flee, we can do nothing else,” he says. In recognition of the dangers faced in Wadi Gaza, a nearby village is known as “Al-Moghrada”, meaning “place of the drowned”.

In addition to the ever-present stench and the risk of flooding, the blighted landscape carries the threat of disease. Even in the winter there are a lot of insects. Typhoid and salmonella have been detected in the water.

Children are particularly susceptible to illness as they play in contaminated areas.  “They don’t have parks, there are no options, no one can stop them,” Fawdi Farajalla, 47, tells me. “We can’t imprison them in the house and the kids don’t understand the consequences.”

Polluted water and the increasingly crowded conditions in which people in Gaza live help the rapid spread disease and infection. “Year by year, things get worse. There is a huge increase in infection,” says Dr Nasif Al-Haj, a dermatologist working in nearby Nuseirat. Children walk barefoot through sewage and polluted water that has been in the streets for weeks and is infested with insects and bacteria.

Wadi Gaza also suffers from the severe shortage of safe drinking water that afflicts the whole of the Gaza Strip. The tap water is incredibly salty, but most people are forced to drink and wash it nonetheless, causing skin problems and hair loss.

Wadi Gaza, which used to be a nature reserve

Killing the aquifer

So how did it come to the point where most people in the Gaza Strip turn on their taps and only salty water
comes out?

Ashraf Abu Shamala, project manager at the Infrastructure and Environment Unit at the UNDP, told me that “As we extract more fresh water from the aquifer, more seawater intrudes.  This is causing a crisis – for drinking water, and for water for domestic and agricultural use. Gaza’s water security is under threat.”

Gaza relies almost completely on the underlying coastal aquifer for its freshwater but the rate of extraction is rapidly killing it. The aquifer can provide a sustainable yearly yield of water of 50 to 60 million m3 in Gaza. However, the current rate of extraction currently stands at 160 million m3 each year. By 2020 the population of the tiny coastal enclave (which is around the size of the Isle of Wight) is expected to reach 2.1 million people, requiring an unfeasible yearly extraction rate of 260 million m3.

Critically, according to the UN’s recent ‘Gaza in 2020’ report, the aquifer could become unusable by 2016 and the damage could become irreversible by 2020, making Gaza uninhabitable. The report argues that urgent action must be taken to avoid a catastrophe, and urges complete cessation of water extraction to reserve the aquifer. Even if this were to happen, it would still take decades for the aquifer to recover.

According to the UN, only 10 percent of Gaza’s freshwater is now safe for drinking. The depletion of the aquifer causes increased levels of chloride to reach the water supply, which is causing kidney problems among Gazans. A high level of nitrate in the water affects pregnant mothers as it absorbs oxygen from the blood, starving babies of oxygen in the womb.

The destruction of the aquifer also means increased levels of poisonous heavy metals such as cobalt, lead and uranium are in drinking water. Abu Shamala told me that they are still not sure whether Israel used dangerous explosive materials in the last conflicts. They’ll find out eventually – the soil and sand absorb pollutants, which filter down through the ground and contaminate the aquifer.

The high salinity in the water forces people to buy expensive desalinated water from private vendors, but this carries its own risks. “They often transfer the water in dirty tanks and dirty pipes, with poor hygiene controls,” says Abu Shamala. “When it is finally given to the customer it is often contaminated.” The Gaza-based Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) and the UNDP estimate that around 70 percent of water sold privately is contaminated.

Although the water problem is partly one of overextraction, Gaza’s per capita use of water is only 91 litres per day, according to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem. This is a tiny fraction of the daily per capita amount used in urban areas of Israel which stands at 242 litres per day.

Crossing Wadi Gaza

A Palestinian girl carries clean water distributed by the UN

The politics of water

We meet Monther Shoblak, director of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), in his sleek Gaza City office a couple of weeks after “Pillar of Defence”.  Although he welcomed the ‘Gaza in 2020’ report, he believes it was way overdue. “Unfortunately this report came very, very late,” he tells me. “We have been talking about this situation for at least a decade.”

The international donors that Gaza relies on to finance desalination and wastewater infrastructure projects largely pulled out after Hamas’s victory in the 2006 election. Yet, as Shoblak points out, “Hamas was not punished; it was the poor people who paid for this.” Now that Gaza is facing a human and environmental crisis, he says, “I hope that this report will encourage them to return and work on the same projects which have been identified
for decades.”

Shoblak’s frustration is not limited to Israel or the international community. “The Palestinian side is not taking this sector seriously,” he says. “They put other issues above it – education, health, politics – which are important but without water you have no development: you have health concerns, consequences for education, tourism…”

He claims that the CMWU has never been approached by the central treasury to give its estimated needs for the five-year budgets. “They say, ‘By 2020 we need an additional 100 schools,’” said Shoblak. “They don’t say how many more litres of water we will need for the additional 500,000 people to live.”

Shoblack is adamant that it is critical to build large desalination and waste-water plants quickly. The site for a huge seawater desalination plant in Gaza has been identified and the authorities are trying to secure funds in the region of $450 million to begin work. However, even if international donors stump up funds, the Israeli-imposed blockade on goods and materials entering Gaza could cause critical shortages and delays. Any materials must be approved by Israeli-controlled checkpoints as importing materials via Egypt through tunnels is illegal and unreliable. It can take years to approve the import of materials for infrastructure projects.

Abu Shamala from the UNDP points out that under normal  conditions such a desalination plant could take two years to build. With the blockade it seems that it will take at least four or five years. Wastewater plants suffer from the same constraints, and by the time they are built it may be too late to save Gaza’s aquifer. The problems are exacerbated by the severe lack of electricity in Gaza. The restrictions on fuel and materials mean that Gaza’s single power station is operating over-capacity on expensive, limited fuel. There are power cuts on a daily basis. To build and then run desalination and wastewater plants requires a huge amount of power, which may not be available.

Forbidden resources

“It is not too late,” says Ghada Snunu from EWASH, a coordination body seeking to improve water and sanitation in the occupied Palestinian territories. “We can save the aquifer by providing water from other sources. Depending on the desalination plant is not enough.”

The problem is one of access. There is plenty of fresh water in the Palestinian territories but it is concentrated in the West Bank, which remains under Israeli occupation. EWASH argues that Palestinians in the West Bank are denied their rightful share of fresh water, reporting: “While customary international water law calls for all such trans-boundary fresh water resources to be shared ‘equitably and reasonably,’ Israel currently exploits over 90 percent of these resources for exclusive Israeli use, including for use in Israeli settlements.”

Palestinians are prevented from accessing any water from the River Jordan and from building any water infrastructure in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank.  Even when Palestinians can access water in the West Bank, Israel’s blockade prevents it from being imported to the Gaza Strip. “It is not a question of asking for support from Israel but taking our own rights,” insists Abu Shamala. “Water is a vital need and a human right. It should not be controlled by any occupying force.”

Lack of electricity, education, housing, food and restrictions on trade are all major issues for Gaza. But without reliable access to safe drinking water and a functioning sanitation infrastructure, there is no chance of Gazans living the “dignified, healthy and productive lives in peace and security” that the UN’s ‘Gaza in 2020’ report has called for.

Back in Fakhari refugee camp, the crisis outlined in the report is being lived out by the Al-Araj family. Rafat Ali Al-Araj surveys the neighbouring houses sprayed with sand, the destroyed water tanks and the broken manhole cover kept in place by a towel and some bricks. The cracked arch leading to his garden needs only the slightest touch to collapse. “I don’t think that any organisations will help me and I don’t think that we will return the house to its former state,” he tells me. Even if they are reconnected to the water and sewage network, the Al-Araj family will revert to the familiar struggle of receiving intermittent, salty water from the municipality and dealing with a failing sanitation system.

The 18 members of the family, spread across the four rooms of the house, will soon become 19 as Al-Araj’s daughter-in-law is heavily pregnant.  The celebration of a new addition to the family will be tempered by the pressure of seeing a child born into crisis – and wondering how its thirst will be quenched.

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