Tamar Lavi

A Spillover Crisis: How Gaza’s Water Shortage Affects Israel

July 11, 2019

Recently, the Israel Water Authority announced an upgrade to the water supply line from Israel to the Gaza Strip. The renovations will be carried out on Israeli territory. But will upgrading the water supply on only one side of the border solve an transboundary issue?

The main source of water in the Gaza Strip is the Coastal Aquifer, where groundwater is stored for domestic, industrial, and agricultural use. The aquifer stretches along the entirety of the Mediterranean coastline in Gaza and Israel and is primarily recharged by rainwater. However, water that returns to the ground after agricultural use also fills the aquifer. In addition, there is groundwater movement within the aquifer itself.

Saltwater from the Mediterranean Sea, which infiltrates the groundwater during the pumping process, is squeezed back out by the increasing level of fresh water when the reservoir is recharging. This process forms a boundary between the freshwater and saltwater called “interface,” which keeps the freshwater uncontaminated and potable.

Unfortunately, in Gaza exact data on groundwater is non-existent. The average annual rainfall in the Gaza Strip is 365 mm, which is not a lot to begin with. The amount of water that enters the aquifer in Gaza each year makes it possible to extract 50 million cubic meters of water without harming the groundwater through over-pumping. When an aquifer is over-pumped, the groundwater is reduced to a level at which seawater infiltration is possible, which increases the salinity of the water.

Currently, the section of the Coastal Aquifer that serves Gaza is pumped three times beyond its sustainable yield, which is the amount of water that can be extracted without exerting too much pressure on the water table and thereby harming water quality.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) standard in 2015, 96.4% of the water produced by the aquifer in the Gaza area is unfit for human use on account of over-pumping. Continual over-pumping is a severe threat to long-term water availability. Indeed, according to the WHO report, by 2020, the aquifer is expected to be irreversibly polluted and saline.

One of the most substantial problems is that rainwater in the Gaza Strip cannot easily seep into the ground due to urbanization. The region has become overloaded with built-up areas at the expense of sandy areas, making it difficult for water to penetrate the ground. Therefore, when it rains, the water tends to accumulate on the surface rather than seeping into the soil and enhancing the water table. At the same time, the population density in the Gaza Strip is increasing. In order to meet the resident’s needs, water is persistently over-pumped from the aquifer, which causes the water table in the area to decline continuously. It has now reached more than 10 m below sea level, which exposes the groundwater to the infiltration of saline water. In addition, the water supply pipe inside Gaza is not adequately sealed, and large quantities of water are lost in the pumping process.

Photo by Muhammad Sabah

More Than Salt

Another problem in Gaza is that sewage is not properly treated. Every day more than 100,000 cubic meters of raw sewage is dumped into the Mediterranean Sea. The groundwater level drops and the seawater begins to fill the aquifer, which brings in not only saltwater but pollutants and toxins. About 90% of all the water pumped from the aquifer contains nitrate concentrations (pollution caused by sewage and agricultural fertilizer), exceeding WHO’s recommended levels by two to eight times. This environmental nuisance has health implications including that 30% of Gaza’s illnesses are caused by water pollution, such as the ‘blue baby syndrome’ which may cause temporary digestive and breathing problems.

The water shortage in Gaza is encouraging more and more people to turn to desalination as a solution. Desalination in Gaza is performed by public and private desalination plants, of which about only a third operate with a license and under supervision. Although these small desalination facilities may very well reduce the saline water levels, they do not eliminate the abundance of pollutants in the drinking water.

“Today, the water and sanitation crisis in Gaza already affects Israel,” says Gideon Bromberg, the Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East, an organization that works with Jordanians, Palestinians, and Israelis to promote cooperative efforts to protect environmental heritage in the region. “In the past, Zikim Beach (a popular bathing beach only about a mile north of the Gaza Strip) has already been closed due to high levels of pollution. Apart from the damage to the beachgoers, the desalination plant in the port city of Ashkelon, which supplies 15% of the drinking water of the State of Israel, was forced to suspend all operations temporarily. Currently, 70% of the water used for domestic use in Israel comes from five desalination plants, four of which are located south of Tel Aviv,” Bromberg adds.

According to Bromberg, in addition to the risk of water security, national security may also be at risk. “If cholera breaks out in Gaza, we can certainly reach a situation where fear of disease will drive people to fences in Israel and Egypt, demanding to be saved and receive drinkable water,” Bromberg stresses.

In this context, one must also consider the fact that in Gaza, building materials are frequently misused for terroristic purposes. For example, Hamas is actively engaged in digging tunnels into Israel, which constitutes a strategic threat to the residents of the Gaza vicinity as well as to IDF forces in the area. Various building materials designated for civilian applications such as cement are utilized to strengthen the terrorist groups’ offense against Israel. Therefore, Israel has imposed certain restrictions on the transfer of these materials into Gaza.

“Israel has changed its policy recently, and today it allows the transfer of more construction materials into the Strip. Until this change, the regulations made it difficult to build basic infrastructure, both for water supply and sewage treatment.”, says Bromberg. “As an Israeli citizen who runs for shelter when there are rockets fired from Gaza, you can understand that we do not want to allow Hamas to receive dual-use materials that can be used against us. On the other hand, however, without cement, there is no way to build infrastructures. The policy was necessary in order to prevent disaster here.” Bromberg concludes.

Photo by Marcin Monko on Flickr

Not All in Israel’s Hands

According to Bromberg, a large part of the problem of supplying electricity and water in Gaza is the ongoing conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA pays for 12 million cubic meters of water that Israel transfers to the Gaza Strip annually. While the infrastructure has the capacity to carry up to 20 million cubic meters a year, the PA is unwilling to increase their payment because Hamas keeps public funds instead of transferring them to the Authority.

Today, those who pay the price of the conflict between the Palestinian factions are the two million people in Gaza. Even if they build further desalination facilities, it will be difficult to operate them without significant additional energy, which is another serious problem for Gaza’s infrastructure.

A potential solution to this problem may come from the current US administration, which initiated a conference last month in Bahrain, where representatives from various countries, including Israel, were scheduled to discuss the economic development of the Palestinian Authority. It is possible that these discussions will ultimately yield infrastructural development initiatives that will improve the water and sewage situation in Gaza, which will benefit both Gaza and Israel.

This ZAVIT article was also published in The Jewish Journal on 07/08 /2019.