by Shai Grunberg
One out of five people in the Gaza Strip does not currently have regular access to running or potable water. The Israeli attacks in the Strip in May 2021 caused extensive damage to civilian infrastructure and facilities, causing severe harm to water infrastructure needed for consumption, hygiene, and sanitation. Grids, pipes, desalination facilities, water reservoirs, wells, pumping stations, sewage treatment facilities, and many more were directly or indirectly damaged by the bombings, and some were put out of commission. Many of the effects are still being discovered. Shockwaves caused by the strikes rattled and broke various internal components and impaired piping, triggering a domino effect of malfunctions.
According to figures provided by the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), a third of the pipes damaged during the hostilities has yet to be properly repaired. Domestic water consumption per capita has plummeted to about 55 liters per day, roughly half of the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Water quality has also been undermined: Chloride concentrations, which serve as a salinity indicator, have risen from 400 to 600 milligrams per liter to 800 to1000 mg per liter, and residents report rusty tasting drinking water and adverse effects on hair and skin after bathing. About a third of Gaza’s sewage, roughly 50,000 cubic meters per day, remains untreated or partially treated. Some sewage collects in pools near residential neighborhoods and seeps into the groundwater. Some is dumped into the sea – the only refuge from the scorching heat of summer available to Gaza residents – where it mixes with the waves that carry it to the shores of Ashkelon in Israel, and beyond.
Starting on May 11, Israel blocked the entry of goods from Israel and the West Bank into Gaza via Kerem Shalom Crossing, including construction supplies, raw materials, spare parts, and many more items that are essential for the proper functioning of water and sewage infrastructure. Fuel for Gaza’s sole power plant was also barred entry, directly impacting the operation of water and sanitation facilities, particularly sewage treatment plants which rely on around-the-clock electricity.
Two days after a ceasefire was reached, on May 23, Israeli Minister of Defense Gantz was quoted by Haaretz as saying: “We have to permit a basic humanitarian response in the Gaza Strip as much as necessary.” According to the paper, Gantz added that anything other than that will be conditioned on resolving the issue of the missing and the captive Israelis in Gaza. After the hostilities, Israel began allowing food, animal feed and humanitarian aid destined for international organizations into Gaza. All other goods, including fuel for the power plant, equipment essential for the operation of basic infrastructure and for repairing the damage caused to facilities, as well as construction materials, were not permitted into the Strip.
In early June, we met with Maher Najjar, a resident of Gaza, an engineer, and Deputy Director General of the CMWU. Najjar appeared visibly concerned during a Zoom meeting with Gisha staff. He pleaded: “We urgently need 5,000 different types of items to repair water and sewage grids and systems. Israel won’t allow any of them into the Strip,” Najjar said, adding that the equipment necessary for running and developing infrastructure that had been purchased and given clearance to enter before the hostilities began is still stuck in warehouses in Ashdod.
Najjar said he was extremely perturbed by the acute shortage of steel pipes, which predated the fighting, and was caused by increased restrictions imposed by Israel on their entry into Gaza in the past year. “This is the only type that fits all the grids and systems in Gaza and can withstand the high pressure from pumping. There is no alternative.” Najjar explained that since the hostilities, there is an acute shortage of pumps, valves, various kinds of pipes, metal mesh filters used to sift sand from pumped water, and other raw materials. A shortage in epoxy, for instance, is preventing completion of a new desalination facility built with funding from an international aid organization. “I always tell all the actors in the region – leave water and electricity out of the conflict,” Najjar concluded his conversation with us, imploring us to spread this message.
In the weeks after our meeting, Israel began allowing a slow trickle of goods into the Strip, though entry of fuel for the power plant was not approved until June 28, and most items and raw materials needed for operating and repairing civilian infrastructure remained banned. On July 5 (Arabic), due to a shortage in antiscalants, which are essential for preventing scaling on water filtration systems, the CMWU reported it had to shut down one of Gaza’s desalination facilities, which supplies water to about 200,000 residents. The shortage also threatened the operation of Gaza’s two other desalination facilities, and Israel only allowed the required materials to enter through Kerem Shalom Crossing after international officials intervened.
Several days later, on July 13, Defense Minister Gantz emphasized that “we are providing humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza as well… We, the citizens of Israel, Arabs and Jews alike, are human beings. We remember there are millions of people in the Gaza Strip, and we will consider all possible measures from a humanitarian perspective. It’s our interest too.” Gantz then clarified Israel had made reconstruction in Gaza conditional on the resolution of the missing and captive Israelis issue.
Following additional reports of entry of “humanitarian aid,” we reached out to Najjar to find out where things stand with respect to the entry of essential materials and equipment for water and sewage infrastructure. “We’re doing worse than we were when we first talked,” he said. “Israel continues to block the entry of thousands of items. We have been using the equipment we still had left to repair some of the damage, but our stocks have completely run out. In light of the dire shortage of raw materials, local production of some of the pipes needed for the water system has stopped as well.” The limited entry of goods via the Egyptian border falls short of meeting the immediate needs of Gaza’s water authority, and in any event, goods already purchased and currently stored in Israeli warehouses cannot be brought in through Egypt.
As a result, the state of Gaza’s infrastructure has deteriorated even further, and development projects started before the escalation, including the construction of new water reservoirs and the expansion of a new desalination facility in the south of the Strip, have come to a grinding halt. Najjar said he was worried that the severe setbacks would deter international donors, adding that bringing in equipment that has been stuck in Israel would mean going through the coordination process again, but importers do not know when they will be able to begin the process. The uncertainty has also resulted in the suspension of contractual agreements with builders to perform various elements of the work. “Even if Israel enables us to bring in everything we need right now,” Najjar explained, “It would take us at least nine months to get the water infrastructure back to where it was before the hostilities.”
Before the escalation began, Najjar dared to hope that the CMWU would meet the infrastructure improvement targets it had set for itself in its yearly strategic plan. Improving water and sewage infrastructure in Gaza is an urgent matter. Ninety-five percent of Gaza’s water is considered undrinkable, as the coastal aquifer, Gaza’s only natural water source, has been severely damaged after years of over-pumping and seepage of fertilizers and seawater into the groundwater. The water pumped from the aquifer is mixed with desalinated water and must go through another purification process. To improve quality, water is purchased from the Israeli water company, Mekorot, but some of this water goes to waste due to pipe leakage. Population growth and falling precipitation rates due to climate change could make matters worse. Studies from recent years have shown that poor sanitation and the consumption of contaminated water are the source of more than a quarter of reported diseases in Gaza, and that poor water quality is a leading cause of child mortality.
Past military attacks and Israel’s ongoing policy of closure and stringent restrictions have impeded the repair and development of Gaza’s water and sewage infrastructure for years. Israel routinely categorizes about 70 percent of the civilian items needed for the Strip’s infrastructure as “dual-use,” as it suspects they may be used for military purposes. Equipment and spare parts that are essential for operating, expanding, and improving water and sanitation systems can only enter via Israel and with its permission. Long delays in issuing permits on Israel’s part have already slowed work on various projects, including by international organizations, and impede the normal functioning of infrastructure as well as any prospect for improvement.
Najjar further explained that the impact of the closure and military operations on local residents’ economic situation has ramifications for the possibility of payment collection for water services. This, in turn, impacts the ability to purchase fuel necessary to run the generators at a capacity that can allow wells, desalination facilities and sewage pumping stations to function adequately. “Food isn’t the only humanitarian necessity – water supply and sewage treatment are too, especially during COVID,” he said. “How can people be expected to take precautions and follow hygiene requirements when there’s no water?”
This is being written nearly three months after the ceasefire came into effect. Israeli officials repeatedly claim that the state’s only obligation is to meet “a basic humanitarian threshold,” and maintain that Israel is in fact meeting this obligation. On the ground, these claims don’t hold water. Israel not only denies Gaza residents one of the most basic human necessities, but also uses it to leverage the residents’ distress in negotiations with Hamas.
This situation is flagrantly unacceptable. Israel’s control over the crossings has far-reaching ramifications for the lives of Gaza’s two million residents, half of whom are children. This control comes with legal and moral obligations to protect their rights and ensure access to everything needed to facilitate normal life, all the more so given the destruction of thousands of residential and commercial units, health care centers, and civilian infrastructure. However, instead of fulfilling its obligations, Israel cynically exploits its control of the crossings to collectively punish Gaza residents, who have no connection to or influence over talks between Israel and Hamas.
When Israel announced, in mid-August, that coordination for entry of essential items for water and sewage infrastructure could resume, we contacted Najjar again. The short list of approved items, he told us, did not include numerous items and materials needed to operate and repair the systems, and it is unknown when the items that were included in the list would actually be allowed to enter the Strip. Israel did not let the large volume of items that had been stuck at the port of Ashdod into Gaza until late August. The Water Authority is still waiting for Israel’s response to requests filed to bring in additional items needed to repair the damage caused during the hostilities. “We keep discovering more and more damage. We fix what we can, but it’s not enough,” Najjar said anxiously. “Winter is approaching, and if we don’t fix the damage by then, homes will be flooded. How is it that Israel doesn’t consider water and sewage a humanitarian issue?” He wondered. “People need them to survive.”
The writer is the spokesperson for Gisha – an organization dedicated to promoting freedom of movement for people and goods to and from the Gaza Strip.
This article was originally published in Hebrew in the September 2021 issue of the Israeli Water Magazine. To view the original article (Hebrew), click here.