'Israel’s decision to double water supplies to Gaza is an improvement but still inadequate'

While water experts and environmental activists are widely praising Israel’s decision, many argue the increase is simply not enough.

March 6, 2015 05:04
Gaza Strip

Palestinian children in Gaza fetch water from a container. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Israel’s decision to double its water allocations to Gaza is a positive step forward, environmental experts said Thursday, but agreed that it is still far from sufficient to satisfy the territory’s needs.

Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai announced to the Jerusalem-based daily Al-Quds on Wednesday that Gaza would soon receive 10 million cubic meters of water per year instead of the current 5 million. The additional quantity is expected to begin flowing within the next week, a spokeswoman subsequently told The Jerusalem Post.

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While water experts and environmental activists are widely praising Israel’s decision, many argue the increase is simply not enough.

“We congratulate the Israeli authorities for this important decision to double the supply of water to Gaza and call on them to complement this important move by further enlarging the quantity of water to Gaza by an additional 10 m.cu.m., to match the full capacity of their existing infrastructure,” said Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of the regional environmental organization EcoPeace Middle East (formerly Friends of the Earth Middle East).

Doubling the amount of water flowing to Gaza is “an important step that will help the 1.8 million Palestinian residents of Gaza to overcome the severe shortage of potable water,” but much more can be done, the organization argued. Also critical, Bromberg said, is treating the sewage that is currently running raw into the groundwater.

Israel has the capability to provide 8.5 m.cu.m. annually by means of existing infrastructure – through which it has supplied the 5 m.cu.m.

until now – as well as an additional 12 m.cu.m. using the new connection built in Nahal Oz, according to EcoPeace information, which cited data from the Water Authority.

In Gaza, the average annual natural addition of water – through rainfall – amounts to about 60 m.cu.m., after rain penetrates into the soil and accumulates in the groundwater, explained Prof. Uri Shani, former commissioner of the Israel Water Authority and an expert in soil and water sciences.

While Israel estimates that Gazans consume about 120 m.cu.m. of water annually, Gazan authorities report that usage at about 150 m.cu.m., Shani explained.

“The point is that they use much more than what they have,” he told the Post on Thursday.

Shani also serves as the chairman of the Israeli government’s steering committee for the historic water agreement signed between Israel and Jordan last week, involving the swapping of water resources and the conveyance of concentrated brine from desalinated Red Sea water to the Dead Sea.

Gazans are able to “use much more than what they have” because, in the shortterm, they are exploiting the reserve water quantities in the coastal aquifer, Shani said. However, this over-exploitation has led to a situation in which the water table is depleting. When the water table is depleted enough, as in the current situation, seawater begins to enter, he explained.

“Then it becomes saline,” Shani said. “Slowly, slowly, over the years, the seawater goes inside the aquifer.”

Meanwhile, another “source” of water feeding into the aquifer is raw effluent leaking from the Gazan sewage system, he added.

Because the soil is sandy and the sewage treatment infrastructure in Gaza is poor, the sewage enters the soil fairly easily, Shani explained.

In order to cope with the poor quality of their water, most households in Gaza have desalination instruments to make their water potable, according to Shani.

“Practically, you can say they solved the water problem,” he said. “But actually, what happens there is that when you perform desalination, the brine goes back into the groundwater, so it makes the salinization process faster.”

Shani also confirmed that the increased quantity is insufficient for the territory’s needs.

“Of course it’s not enough,” he said. “Ten is much more than zero, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”

What is necessary to solve the water shortage crisis in Gaza, he said, is the construction of a sizable desalination plant there, or the purchase of large quantities of desalinated water from Israel.

In early October, EcoPeace’s Bromberg, along with Michal Milner from his own organization and Dr. Oded Eran, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, released a detailed report titled “The Water, Sanitation and Energy Crises in Gaza,” which the authors had prepared during the summer.

The authors described “a serious humanitarian crisis in Gaza” that revolves around water, arguing that insufficient electricity supplies bar them from treating or pumping sewage, thereby causing risks of pandemic diseases.

A second report by B’Tselem last year found that 90 percent of the water in the Gaza Strip was “unfit for drinking.”

The European Union estimates that as much as 95% of the resource is unsuitable for human consumption.

While the World Bank has completed construction of a sewage treatment facility in Gaza near Beit Lahiya, it requires three megawatts of electricity to operate, Bromberg explained. The Palestinian Authority has a NIS 1.9 billion debt to Israel Electric Corporation, but the World Bank has committed to provide the funds for this specific three megawatts of electricity, according to Bromberg.

“There’s no additional cost to Israel and it could be [an electricity] line that is dedicated to the wastewater treatment plant,” he said.

As raw sewage continues to spill into the coastal aquifer and into the Mediterranean Sea, the Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment Facility stands idle, Bromberg explained.

“It could not only improve the water quality of Gaza but could also improve the quality of our beaches this summer,” he said.

In the mid- to long-term, EcoPeace is calling upon the Israeli government to facilitate Palestinian efforts to develop the Gaza marine natural-gas field, as well as assist the Palestinian Water Authority and international community members in building a large desalination plant in Gaza. However, in the short-term, the organization sees the wastewater treatment plant’s connection as critical.

“It’s ready to go,” Bromberg said. “It’s sitting there like a white elephant.”

Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.

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