Restoring U.S. Aid Crucial to Avoid Gaza Water Catastrophe

This article is part of a series of stories and op-eds launched by IPS on the occasion of World Water Day on March 22.

Drinking water in Gaza is causing a rising number of its residents to fall ill and the UN says scarcity and pollution of water resources are at the forefront of the territory’s scourges.

Matthias Schmale, IPS – Inter Press Service, March 27, 2018

GAZA CITY, Mar 21 2018 (IPS) – World Water Day (March 22) could not come at a more critical time for the people of Gaza who are facing a humanitarian catastrophe The recent decision by the United States to reduce funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), jeopardizes its role as a critical source of clean drinking water when Gaza’s supplies slow to a drip.

An estimated 1.2 million Gaza residents have no access to running water. For those who do, up to 97 percent of the water they receive is too polluted with salt and sewage to drink. The salt comes from seawater, which penetrates Gaza’s only aquifer when the water table drops too low. Palestinians in Gaza consume on average fewer liters per person per day than the World Health Organization recommends, and less than a quarter of the average per capita consumption in Israel.

Nevertheless, the combination of rapid population growth and regional climate change extracts 200 million cubic feet of freshwater each year from an aquifer that receives only 60 million cubic feet of diminishing rainfall annually.

As the water level steadily drops, more seawater seeps in, increasing the aquifer’s salinity. Only around 22 percent of wells in Gaza produce water with acceptable salt concentrations. The rest are anywhere from two to eight times saltier than global standards, with some wells exceeding the official standard for “brackish.” The high salinity puts Gazans in jeopardy of kidney stones and urinary tract problems.

But high salinity is not the worst of Gaza’s water problems. Years of conflict have damaged or destroyed much of its critical water and sanitation facilities—including wells, pumps, desalinization plants and sewage treatment plants.

The crippled infrastructure that survives can only be used the few hours a day Gaza receives electrical service. A newly completed World Bank wastewater treatment plant in Beit Lahia, for example, sits idle much of the time because Gaza doesn’t have enough electricity to run it.

Without adequate facilities, untreated sewage backflows onto Gaza’s streets, and the equivalent of 40 Olympic-size swimming pools—more than 100 million liters—discharges into the Mediterranean Sea every day.

The raw sewage contaminates 75 percent of Gaza’s beaches and washes ashore in adjacent Israeli coastal cities, elevating the risk that waterborne diseases like cholera or typhoid could trigger an epidemic.

For 70 years, UNRWA has been fulfilling its mandate delivered by the UN General Assembly, including the United States, to provide humanitarian assistance, food, health care, and education and emergency assistance to Palestine refugees registered with us.

When Gaza’s water situation grows dire, UNRWA provides clean water as emergency assistance in the best interests of its beneficiaries in Gaza. During the 2014 conflict, when hostilities destroyed critical facilities, and the flow of water to much of Gaza slowed to a trickle, UNRWA was there, trucking water twice a day to more than 90 UNRWA schools, where nearly 300,000 Palestinians sought shelter until the violence subdued.

When Palestinians in Gaza struggle to access clean water, sanitation suffers and every child in Gaza is put at risk of contracting waterborne diseases. Last summer, the incidence of diarrhea in children under three doubled.

UNRWA responded by teaming with humanitarian aid organization Mercy Corps on a project to provide the 30,000 refugees in the Maghazi camp—which experienced some of the highest incidences of diarrhea—with at least three liters of potable water per day.

When, despite these efforts, poor sanitation triggers an outbreak of waterborne, communicable disease, UNRWA is there as well, employing over 1,000 individuals at 22 medical clinics in Gaza, caring for the sick and facilitating more than four million patient visits each year.

The long-term solution to Gaza’s water crisis is a robust sewer and drainage system and restored water treatment facilities. But efforts to rebuild water facilities are limited because up to 70 percent of the materials required raise alleged “dual use” security concerns by Israel authorities and are either rejected or delayed from entering Gaza.

Since 2014, only 16 percent of the nearly 3,000 items requested to rebuild Gaza’s water infrastructure have been approved for entry into Gaza. Until Gaza’s infrastructure is rebuilt, the area remains in constant crisis as demand for water increases, conditions worsen and functional infrastructure deteriorates.

Yet, in January, the United States—UNRWA’s single largest and generous supporter for more than six decades—unexpectedly reduced its annual contribution by 83 percent (from $360 million to $60 million).

UNRWA has a humanitarian mandate that is beyond politics and UNRWA implements this mandate in accordance with the four humanitarian principles adopted by the UN General Assembly.

We function based on the mandate affirmed by the UN General Assembly, which has consistently renewed our charge since UNRWA was created, confirming the need for UNRWA to continue providing assistance pending a just and lasting resolution to the question of Palestine refugees.

Humanitarian funding should be preserved from political considerations and remain consistent with universal principles of humanitarian assistance—humanity, neutrality, impartiality and operational independence.

The U.S. funding reduction also jeopardizes UNRWA’s operations, including our life-saving provision of emergency water to Palestine refugees, our critical sanitation programs and the international community’s long-term efforts to rebuild Gaza’s water treatment infrastructure.

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Gaza Unlocked Issues: Electricity

Gaza Unlocked Issues: Electricity — American Friends Service Committee

Gaza’s power system is at risk of collapse. In 2006, the Israeli military bombed Gaza’s only power plant, destroying its six transformers. Under the blockade, the power plant can’t import parts to replace damaged components. Temporary fixes have allowed the plant to function at a minimal level, but those solutions were never made to last.

Other factors have exacerbated the power crisis, including a halt in smuggled fuel from Egypt in 2013, the destruction of fuel storage tanks and other structures at the plant by Israeli airstrikes in 2014, and the destruction of infrastructure and distribution networks throughout Gaza. Since April 2017, the Gaza power plant has been offline due to limited fuel imports, further limiting electricity in Gaza.

While Gaza’s electrical grid is linked with the Israeli system, Israel limits how much power it sells to Gaza, and existing power lines can only supply a fraction of Gaza’s total needs.

Today, less than one-third of Gaza’s electricity demand is being met. Rolling blackouts leave Palestinians in Gaza with less than four hours of electricity per day—affecting the health and well-being of residents; jeopardizing critical services, such as hospitals, schools, and water sanitation; and making it impossible for businesses to function.

Ending the blockade is crucial to address the power crisis, but it will not improve the situation immediately. Even if new parts could be imported and additional infrastructure could be built, it would take up to five years for the system to reach a point where current needs could be met.

People in Gaza have no more than 4 hours of electricity per day.

Why Gaza can't count on electricity

 Download our fact sheet

Quick Facts

  • The Gaza power plant operates at less than one-third of its capacity and has regularly had to shut down, due to fuel shortages, caused by fuel costs and Israeli limitations on importing fuel.

  • Because of the limited power supply, over 70 percent of Gaza households have access to piped water for only six to eight hours once every two to four days.

  • Since 2010, at least 29 people—24 of them children—have died in Gaza from fires or suffocation directly linked to power outages.

  • Water is piped to over 70 percent of Gaza households only once every two to four days for four to six hours at a time. That’s because the insufficient power supply can’t provide uninterrupted access to water. And if homes don’t have power during those periods to operate household pumps used to fill cisterns, then they will receive no water.

  • Hospitals provide only limited services because they rely on generators, which produce insufficient electrical supplies that can damage sensitive medical equipment.

  • Schools often run without electricity, leaving students in the dark and making many educational activities impossible.

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Gaza Unlocked

American Friends Service Committee
Gaza Unlocked
What is Gaza Unlocked?

For over a decade, two million Palestinians in Gaza have lived under a brutal military blockade imposed by Israel.

Media stories about Gaza primarily focus on violence and politics, while stories of how the blockade impacts everyday life remain largely untold.

Gaza Unlocked gives you access to first-hand accounts from Palestinians living in Gaza, information about the blockade, and opportunities to make a difference. Learn more.

Raise awareness. Bring Gaza to your Farmer’s Market

Strawberry farmers in Gaza
Join our summer engagement effort to raise awareness about the Gaza blockade.

Water and Sanitation
Osama Khalili, 46
Head of the Nutrition Department,
Palestinian Ministry of Health


Health care
Rana Joudeh, 42
Employee, NGO


Health care
Water and Sanitation
Said Al-Yacoubi
Medical student


Raeda Sukkar, 28
Youth club project coordinator


Shareef Hamad, 34
Project coordinator, NGO


Ahmed Hamza
Architect and student


Fidaa Zaanin, 27
College graduate


Amal Zeiniyeh, 32
Mother of four children


Salah Abu Fayyad, 28
College graduate
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Amira Hass: I Went to See the Plight of the Dried-out Settlements. I Found a Pool

Amira Hass, Haaretz, June 26, 2016

With Israel having cut the Palestinians’ water supply, I visited two settlements where the people are supposedly suffering too.

Thus tweeted MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) on Friday: “No joke: We’ve gone back 100 years!” He reported on five stations for providing drinking water that were placed that morning in the settlement of Kedumim.

That day, the religious Zionist weekly Makor Rishon published an article titled “The water crisis in Judea and Samaria: In the settlement of Eli huge bags of drinking water were distributed to the residents.”

So I set out to witness this suffering at two settlements. I left before I saw the tweet by one Avraham Benyamin in response to Smotrich: “We’re waiting for a series of empathetic articles in Haaretz. We’ll continue to wait.”

Indeed, last week I started writing my annual series of articles on the systematic theft of water from the Palestinians. I was surprised not to find any newspaper reports about water problems in the settlements. There weren’t any on Army Radio and Israel Radio – notorious clandestine supporters of the BDS movement. But neither did I find any mention of it on websites linked to the settlement lobby.

After all, since the beginning of June, when the Mekorot national water company began cutting water supplies to the Palestinians in the Salfit and Nablus areas by some 30 to 50 percent, Israeli spokespeople have claimed there is a shortage in the settlements too. (Or in the unsanitized words of a Palestinian employee in the Civil Administration: They’re cutting back from the Arabs so there will be water for the settlers.)

Makor Rishon reporter Hodaya Karish Hazony wrote: “In the communities of Migdalim, Yitzhar, Elon Moreh, Tapuah, Givat Haroeh, Alonei Shiloh and others there have been water stoppages. ‘We’re between insanity and despair on this matter,’ said one resident.”

So I went to check the water shortage that’s driving the people from insanity to despair in Eli. I looked for people lining up for water. I didn’t find them. Then I drove from the center of the lush settlement to isolated Hill No. 9, the site of the Hayovel neighborhood mentioned in the article.

There I found two huge and swollen blue sacks from the Water Authority, with faucets attached to them. A sign requests that you “maintain order” while waiting and notes that “priority will be given to the elderly, the ill and children.”

At about 3 P.M. I didn’t see any elderly, ill people or children waiting next to the faucets. Nor did I see any ordinary adults. A few drops leaked from the faucets and wet the asphalt. People entered or left their cars. Artificial grass adorned areas near the neighborhood’s prefab homes.

Near the soldiers’ guard post, about 50 meters from one sack of water, there was an area of natural grass that was quite green. Next to it were a few tree saplings, and the soil around them was wet, with several puddles. A soldier said that over the week there had been several water stoppages, and he thought the sacks were brought on Thursday. The article said Wednesday.

In a small public building nearby, the bathroom was open and sparkling clean. The toilet flushed nicely, and refreshing water flowed from the sink’s faucet. A woman who got out of her car next to the sack of water said, hesitantly, “I’ve used it sometimes.” And why not more? “It’s unpleasant; the water is warm.”

Further down, in the center of Eli, I came across girls holding bags with towels and bathing suits. “Is the pool open? Where is it?” I asked.

Following their instructions I arrived at the Eli pool. Splashing sounds and the joyful shouts of swimmers could be heard from behind the fence. The lawns around the pool were natural and green. I wondered: Where’s the solidarity? Why don’t they bring water from the center of Eli to the neighborhood that’s suffering because of its altitude?

Makor Rishon quoted Meir Shilo, head of infrastructure for the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council: “The problem is overconsumption caused by the [settlers’] population increase and mainly, it seems, because of the consumption of water for agriculture.”

Dror Etkes, an independent researcher of the Israeli colonization policy, told Haaretz that in the settlement bloc surrounding Shiloh, “settlers are cultivating 2,746 dunams [679 acres; most of this is around Shiloh: 2,600 dunams]. Of this, 2,133 dunams are private Palestinian land.”

Meaning: In recent years, the settlers have discovered that piracy (as opposed to state theft) for agricultural purposes facilitates the grab of more Palestinian land than the construction of villas or prefab homes does.

The army, by preventing the lawful Palestinian owners from reaching their land, has made this piracy possible. And along with the private illegal agriculture comes the increase in water consumption at the expense of the Palestinians and their agriculture and drinking water.

From Eli I traveled west to the settlement of Kedumim, where the lush streets welcomed me. I looked for the water stations that Smotrich had tweeted about.

From my car windshield I saw a sign: “The swimming pool in Kedumim is open. Register now.” They probably forgot to take it down from last year.

In the Rashi neighborhood I arrived at a water-distribution station, under the awning of the Rashi religious study hall. Opposite stood a truck with a large water tank. Someone returned from it with a pail and headed for the prefab homes at the top of the hill.

“Yes, there are water stoppages,” he confirmed. “An opportunity to get a taste of the siege of Jerusalem,” he added, referring to the events of 1948.

And why not go down to fill up with water in Kedumim’s lower neighborhoods? “It’s more convenient this way, close to home,” he replied.

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Amira Hass: Israel Incapable of Telling Truth About Water It Steals From Palestinians

Water is the only issue in which Israel (still) finds it difficult to defend its discriminatory, oppressive and destructive policy with pretexts of security and God

Amira Hass, Haaretz, Jun 21, 2016

Israeli spokespeople have three answers ready to pull out when they respond to questions on the water shortage in West Bank Palestinian towns – which stands out starkly compared to the hydrological smugness of the settlements: 1) The Palestinian water system is old, so it suffers from water loss; 2) the Palestinians steal water from each other, and from the Israelis; and 3) in general, Israel has in its great generosity doubled the amount of water it supplies to the Palestinians, compared to what was called for in the Oslo Accords.

“Supplies,” the spokespeople will write in their responses. They will never say Israel sells the Palestinians 64 million cubic meters of water a year instead of the 31 million cubic meters agreed to in the Oslo Accords. Accords that were signed in 1994, and that were supposed to come to an end in 1999. They will not say that Israel sells the Palestinians water that it first stole from them.

Bravo for the demagogy. Bravo for the one-eighth portion of truth in the answer. Water is the only issue in which Israel (still) finds it difficult to defend its discriminatory, oppressive and destructive policy with pretexts of security and God. That is why it must blur and distort this basic fact: Israel controls the water sources. And being in control, it imposes a quota on the amount of water the Palestinians are allowed to produce and consume. On average, the Palestinians consume 73 liters per person per day. Below the recommended minimum. Israelis consume a daily 180 liters on average, and there are those who say even more. And here, unlike there, you will not find thousands who consume 20 liters a day. In the summer.

True, some Palestinians steal water. Desperate farmers, regular chiselers. If it was not for the water shortage, it would not happen. A large part of the thefts are in Area C, under full Israeli control. So please, let the IDF and police find all the criminals. But to justify the crisis with theft – that is deceit.

With the Oslo Accords, Israel imposed an outrageous, racist, arrogant and brutal division of water sources in the West Bank: 80 percent for Israelis (on both sides of the Green Line), and 20 percent for the Palestinians (from wells drilled before 1967, which the Palestinians continued to operate; from the Mekorot water company; from future wells to be drilled in the eastern basin of the mountain aquifer; from agricultural wells and springs. Many of the springs, by the way, dried out because of Israeli deep wells, or because the settlers took them over. The ways of theft know no bounds.)

Twenty percent is actually good, because now only about 14 percent of the water from the mountain aquifer is accessible to Palestinians in the West Bank. Technical reasons, irregularities and human error, insufferable Israeli bureaucratic foot-dragging, whose entire goal is to delay the development of the Palestinian water infrastructure and the upgrading of what now exists; unexpected difficulties in producing water from wells in the allowed places, old wells that have dried out or whose production has fallen, and which Israel does not allow to be replaced by newly-drilled wells – all these explain how we have reached 14 percent instead of what was signed in Oslo, and why Israel sells the Palestinians more water that it committed to back then. After all, it has been left with more water to produce from this natural resource, which, according to international law, an occupying country is forbidden to use for the purposes of its civilian population.

During the summer, the problem becomes worse, of course. The heat rises and the Palestinians’ demand for water rises, not just the settlers’. So in the Salfit district and east of Nablus, Mekorot reduces the amount of water it sells to Palestinians. The spokespeople will not state it that way. They will say “regulating,” they will say, too. that in the settlements “there are also complaints about a water shortage” (it seems I missed the report on Arutz 7 about it).

But in Farkha, Salfit and Deir al-Hatab people describe, on the verge of tears, how humiliating it is to live for weeks without running water. And we have not even spoken about the dozens of Palestinian communities on both sides of the Green Line that Israel, a light unto the nations, refuses to allow to connect to the water infrastructure.

Amira Hass
Haaretz Correspondent


Amira Hass: Israel Admits Cutting West Bank Water Supply, but Blames Palestinian Authority

Israel says region’s intense heatwave combined with Palestinian Water Authority’s refusal to approve additional infrastructure had led to ‘old and limited pipes being unable to transfer all the water needed.’

A water tanker in the Palestinian village of Halhul, near Hebron. Michal Fattal

Amira Hass, Haaretz, Jun 21, 2016

Since the start of this month, tens of thousands of Palestinians have been suffering the harsh effects of a drastic cut in the water supplied them by Israel’s Mekorot water company.

In the Salfit region of the West Bank and in three villages east of Nablus, homes have had no running water for more than two weeks. Factories there have been shut down, gardens and plant nurseries have been ruined and animals have died of thirst or been sold to farmers outside the affected areas.

People have been improvising by drawing water from agricultural wells, or by buying mineral water or paying for water brought in large tankers for household use and to water their livestock. But purchasing water that way is extremely expensive.

Palestinian Water Authority officials told Haaretz that people at Mekorot have told them the supply cuts were going to last the entire summer. The sources said they were told by the Israelis that there is a water shortage and that everything must be done to assure that the local reservoirs (located in the settlements) stay full so that the necessary pressure can be maintained to stream the water through the pipelines leading to other settlements and Palestinian communities.

Palestinian municipal officials say that Palestinian workers for the Civil Administration who are sent to regulate the quantities of water in the Mekorot pipes told them the water cuts were made to meet the area settlements’ demand for water, which is rising in the hot weather. Similar cuts were initiated in the same areas last year, when the severe water supply interruptions also occurred during Ramadan.

Mekorot would not answer questions, referring Haaretz to the Israel Water Authority and the Foreign Ministry. Uri Schor, the Water Authority spokesman, wrote that the quantities of water Israel sells to the Palestinians throughout the West Bank, including in the Salfit area, has gone up over the years.

“A localized water shortage has developed for Israelis and Palestinians alike in northern Samaria and it stems from the especially high consumption because of the region’s intense heat,” Schor wrote. He added that the shortage developed because the Palestinian Water Authority is refusing to approve additional water infrastructure in the West Bank through the joint water committee, “which has led to the old and limited pipes being unable to transfer all the water needed in the region.”

An Israeli security source said settlements are also complaining about water shortages.

Palestinians deny foot-dragging, say water goes to settlements

A senior Palestinian Water Authority official denied that Palestinian foot-dragging was contributing to the water shortages.

“The Israeli Authority is misleading the public,” he said. “The pipes do not need to be upgraded. USAID, for example, just finished the new pipeline in Deir Sha’ar to serve the population in Hebron and Bethlehem. Israel needs to increase the pumping rate from the Deir Sha’ar pumping station and more than half a million Palestinian would receive their equitable share.

“Israel, however, submitted a project to increase the size of the pipe serving Israeli settlements in the Tekoa area, and the Israel Water Authority is blackmailing the Palestinian Authority to approve the Israeli project in exchange for increasing the water from the Deir Sha’ar booster station.”

Schor brought examples from the months of January-May over the past four years that show that there has indeed been an increase in the quantities of water supplied to the Salfit and Nablus districts, from 2.7 million cubic meters of water in 2013 to 3.48 cubic meters this year.

But the internal records of the Palestinian Water Authority show that in May of this year there was a cut in the water supplied to the town of Bidya, with 12,000 residents, from 50,470 cubic meters in March, to 43,440 in May. In May of last year, Bidya received 45,000 cubic meters.

In the town Qarawat Bani Hassan, consumption in May was higher than in March (17,000 cubic meters compared to 15,000), but last May consumption reached 20,000 cubic meters, and according to a Palestinian official there’s no way to explain the drop in usage other than by a drop in supply. The supply cut in June, meanwhile, has been much sharper – of up to 50 percent per hour.

The Oslo Accords, which were meant to remain in effect until 1999, preserved Israeli control over the West Bank’s water sources and discriminates in how the water is divided. Under the agreements, Israel gets 80 percent of the water from the West Bank mountain aquifer, while the rest goes to the Palestinians. The agreement also sets no limit on the amount of water Israel can take, but limits the Palestinians to 118 million cubic meters from the wells that existed prior to the accords, and another 70 million to 80 million cubic meters from new drilling.

For various technical reasons and unexpected drilling failures in the eastern basin of the aquifer (the only place the agreement allows the Palestinians to drill), in practice the Palestinians produce less water than the agreements set. According to B’Tselem, as of 2014 the Palestinians are only getting 14 percent of the aquifer’s water. That is also why Mekorot is selling the Palestinians double the amount of water stipulated in the Oslo agreement – 64 million cubic meters, as opposed to 31 million.

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