Gaza Water & Sanitation

Gaza’s Water and Sanitation Crisis and Implications for Regional Stability

Access to water is a daily challenge in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas on earth. With no perennial streams and low precipitation, Gaza relies almost completely on the underlying coastal aquifer, but severe contamination from sewage and seawater intrusion has irreparably damaged the aquifer. Nearly 97 percent of the water of the Gaza aquifer is unsafe to drink, owing to high levels of salinity.

Gaza’s water crisis also extends to sanitation. The inadequate capacity and disrepair of many wastewater networks and facilities, limitations on repair and construction caused by Israeli import restrictions on materials classified as “dual use,” and insufficient power supply to operate the treatment plants, has led to a severe worsening of the pollution from the outflow of untreated wastewater in recent years into the Mediterranean.

Given that Gaza remains a protracted humanitarian crisis, the humanitarian sector and development community has sought to find ways to augment water supply, ranging from rainwater harvesting to large-scale desalination plants. The current situation, where many households must purchase expensive drinking water of uncertain quality from private vendors, is not a long-term viable solution for meeting society’s basic human needs.

The Coastal Aquifer supplies 95% of Gaza’s water, and is in a state of extreme overuse with water extraction rates more than three times the renewable supply.

As a result, seawater infiltrates into the aquifer, and salinity levels have thus risen well beyond World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for safe drinking water.

This situation is compounded by contamination of the aquifer by nitrates from the untreated sewage of 1.8 million people.

Gaza’s residents are increasingly dependent on small-scale desalination of brackish water. While these small desalination plants reduce salinity, they do not remove the pollutants. The water is sold to the public mostly by private vendors for drinking and cooking purposes, with little supervision of health authorities.

The implications of a Gaza health crisis will not be confined to the Gaza but threaten regional stability. Some 90,000 cubic meters of raw sewage from Gaza flow into the Mediterranean Sea every day. Seawater currents carry this untreated wastewater along the Gaza coast towards Israeli beaches. Due to poor sanitary conditions in Gaza, an outbreak of pandemic disease is a matter of time. As is further witnessed by the current wave of Syrian refugees into Europe, desperate people will not be stopped by border fences. A recent UN report concluded that the Gaza Strip, in just 5 more years of further under development, will be uninhabitable with water, sanitation and energy issues of prime concern. This has dire implications not only for the Palestinian population of Gaza but to the region as a whole.

Israel therefore has a clear vested interest in cooperating with the Palestinian Authority and with the international community to alleviate the current situation.

The following measures are necessary:

  • Double the volume of water sold by Israel to Gaza, from 10 to 20 mcm: In March 2015 the Israeli government committed to double the amount of water sold to Gaza from 5 to 10 mcm. The current capacity of water pipelines crossing into Gaza from Israel is reported to be 20 mcm. The imported water could be blended with groundwater, making 40 mcm of potable water available.
  • Facilitate reservoir building and repair of network: Only 8 mcm of the 10 committed by Israel can presently be supplied due to lack of storage capacity. Additional storage capacity of up to 12 mcm (to accommodate the 20 mcm overall) is needed and urgent investment in network losses, estimated at up to 50%, are needed. The German Development Bank (KFW) is presently completing the refurbishment of the Al Muntar reservoir in Gaza City. Donors are considering an additional reservoir to accommodate water imported from Israel.
  • Increase electricity supply for water and sanitation: In June 2016 Israel approved the supply of additional 6 MW of electricity to Gaza, in order to power a newly built World Bank led wastewater treatment plant in northern Gaza (the NGEST project). However, considering the state of the existing grid connection between Israel and Gaza and the inability to control the allocation of this additional electricity once it has cross the border, without the construction of a dedicated power line that would connect the Israeli provider to the plant, this additional supply may be dispersed and not reach its final destination. The construction of this power line is therefore fundamental for the efficient functioning of the plant. Nevertheless, the construction of a dedicated power line should be considered simply as an interim measure.
  • In the long term, there is a need for a high voltage electricity line that would see an additional 100 MW of electricity (the planned 161 line) and a gas pipeline from Israel to Gaza to directly power the Gaza Power Plant as well as the proposed 55 mcm desalination plant