How to Solve Gaza’s Water Crisis

5 minute read
Jim McDermott is Democrat U.S. Representative from Washington, and Kate Gould is the legislative representative for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.

As Israeli-Palestinian violence continues to escalate, and Israel’s occupation enters its 50th year, Gaza could be just months away from running out of safe drinking water. As drinking water underneath Gaza vanishes, the threat of pandemics and violence is on the rise. Like the Flint, Mich., water travesty, the water crisis in Gaza is man-made. And like in Flint, what is most lacking to resolve it are not technical solutions but political will.

The Gaza water crisis is a ticking global-health time bomb. With dire water and electricity shortages in one of the planet’s most densely populated areas, the threat of a pandemic in Gaza—and also across Israel’s borders—is real.

There are three steps that can help defuse this crisis and ensure a brighter future for Israelis and Palestinians:

1. Israel can double the amount of water it sells to Gaza.

Under the Oslo II Accords of 1995, Israel has control over the great majority of shared water resources. Israel also agreed to sell 10 million cubic meters of water to Gaza each year. Last year, Israel met this threshold for the first time by doubling the previous amount of 5 mcm of water Israel sold to Gaza each year.

This was an important step forward, and we must build on that momentum. Since the Oslo II Accords were signed, the strip’s population has more than doubled. Since the Oslo accords were intended to be merely an interim solution, the agreement didn’t account for Gaza’s projected population growth more than 20 years later.

The Oslo accords also didn’t account for the almost total depletion and contamination of Gaza’s only source of freshwater, the Coastal aquifer. The U.N. predicts this aquifer could be entirely unfit for human consumption by the end of 2016, and irreversibly damaged by 2020.

2. Israel can increase its sale of electricity to Gaza.

Israel increasing its sale of water to Gaza is an urgently needed first step, but not a sustainable solution in the long run. As Israeli Knesset MK Omer Bar Lev of Israel’s Labor Party has said: “Israel should, in the short term, double the volume of water it sells to Gaza but in the long term Gaza must have large scale desalination in place.”

Large-scale desalination is an obvious answer for the coastal enclave, but almost impossible given Gaza’s chronic shortage of electricity. Desalination is extremely energy-intensive. With Israel and Egypt tightly restricting fuel sold to Gaza since Hamas seized power in 2007, Gaza experiences rolling daily blackouts of 12-16 hours. Hospitals struggle to keep incubators and dialysis machines running.

Gaza doesn’t have enough electricity to treat its own sewage, and as a result, 3.5 million cubic feet of raw and partially treated sewage flows into the Mediterranean every day. Gaza’s sewage has already ended up on Israel’s beaches, and could ultimately contaminate Israel’s own desalination plant in Ashkelon, just a few miles north of Gaza.

Fortunately, there is a ready-made solution that can begin to address this disaster. Gaza already has a large-scale sewage plant. It only needs power to start operating. The plant, built by the World Bank, needs 3 megawatts of power to run. Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli Director of the joint Israeli-Palestinian organization called EcoPeace has asked Israel to “sell enough electricity to power the newly built sewage treatment plant in northern Gaza,” warning that “failure to do so is shooting ourselves in the foot.”By increasing its fuel sales to Gaza, Israel could prevent the spread of waterborne diseases in Gaza and within Israel’s own borders. Further fuel sales would allow Gaza the chance to begin the only long-term solution to the drinking water shortage: desalination. Large-scale desalination requires large-scale electric infrastructure, necessitating a high voltage electricity line and a gas pipeline to power the Gaza power station.

By increasing its fuel sales to Gaza, Israel could prevent the spread of waterborne diseases in Gaza and within Israel’s own borders. Further fuel sales would allow Gaza the chance to begin the only long-term solution to the drinking water shortage: desalination.

3. Gaza must be permitted to repair its water and electricity infrastructure.

Much of Gaza’s water, electricity and sewage infrastructure is in a state of disrepair after the three wars over the past decade. Rather than invest in repairing destroyed water and power lines, Hamas has prioritized tunnels to transport weapons and militants to launch vicious attacks on Israel.

However, even the most concerted efforts to rebuild Gaza’s water, sewage and electric infrastructure is all but impossible under Israel’s crippling blockade of Gaza. The blockade, now entering its 10th year, has prevented Gaza from being able to rebuild most of the infrastructure destroyed by Israeli bombing attacks over the years. Israel has legitimate security concerns, and we must ensure that Gaza’s borders are heavily guarded against the infiltration of terrorists and weapons. At the same time, Gaza should not be closed to supplies desperately needed for repairing Gaza’s civilian water and electricity infrastructure, or the flow of other civilian goods.

Walls, fences and checkpoints can stop terrorist infiltration, but they can’t stop the infiltration of sewage, or water borne diseases like cholera or dysentery. Walls can’t stop polio, which the World Health Organization has found some evidence of in Gaza’s sewage.

Everyone should have access to safe drinking water. By increasing Israeli sales of water and electricity, and allowing Gaza to rebuild water and power lines, a region-wide catastrophe can be averted. These steps can make a real impact on the lives of Israelis and Palestinians, improving prospects for an eventual two-state solution that ends Israel’s military occupation and provides a brighter future for all the peoples of the region.

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