Al Mezan Center for Human Rights

On Thursday 26 May 2011, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights organized a workshop on “Filtered Water in Gaza Strip: Reality and Horizons”. The workshop was held at Al Mezan’s main office in Gaza City. The workshop is a response to deteriorating water quality in the Gaza Strip – over 95% of the drinking water in the Gaza Strip falls below World Health Organization (WHO) standards. This problem is exacerbated by the high levels of pollution which contaminates drinking water, shortage of rainfall levels, which is the main source of groundwater, and an increase in water consumption due to a rising population.

With such a serious water situation, the concerned authorities’ sole alternative is filtering water pumped from the aquifer. Over time, private sector filtering units for commercial purposes have become common. According to experts in Gaza, more than 50% of water filtering plants in Gaza are not licensed and are not subject to adequate monitoring and regulation.

Al Mezan’s workshop raised questions about available and/or possible mechanisms to enable the concerned authorities to improve the quality of filtered water. The workshop is a follow up to a factsheet published by Al Mezan on the situation of filtered water in Gaza Strip. The factsheet details Al Mezan’s findings of ineffective monitoring of filtered water which have seriously implications on quality and safety.

Dr. Alaa’ Matar, researcher at Al Mezan, opened the workshop and welcomed the participants. He talked about the content of the right to water and its protection mechanisms as established in International Human Rights Law (IHRL) and International Humanitarian Law (IHL). He said that the “right to water is an indispensable right for people to live in dignity and it is a critical prerequisite for several other human rights”. He added that the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) continue to violate Palestinians’ right to water and that IOF violations are the main reason behind the water crisis in the Gaza Strip. He presented the recently published Al Mezan factsheet on the situation of filtered water in the Gaza Strip showing that there is a worrying failure on the part of the local authorities with regard to monitoring water filtering plants, many of which lack a license to work in this sector, which is the main reason behind the pollution of the filtered water they produce.

Sameh Abu Za’nouna, an engineer from the Water Monitoring Directorate at the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA), then spoke and said that the PWA holds responsibility for and organizes the work of water filtering plants in accordance with a special policy that serves its strategies for the water sector. He said that water filtering plants divide the source water into filtered water with less minerals and water with condensed minerals. Mr Abu Za’nouna explained that the plants sell the first type of water to the public, while the second type is usually disposed of through the sewage network. He asserted that the effectiveness of filtering plants is only between 40-60%, which means there is significant waste of the aquifer’s water. He pointed out that the total dissolved salts (TDS) was between 50-120 mg/liter, which is relatively low. He also claimed that there is a problem with how filtered water is judged by the general public. He said that people tend to judge water quality on taste, whereas it should be judged on mineral content, which has little relation to taste.

Dr. Fouad Aj-Jmassi, Director of the Environmental Health Directorate at the Ministry of Health, said that monitoring water was one of the most important tasks of his directorate due to its importance in providing protection from contagious diseases and maintaining public health. He pointed out that the tests of water samples show high levels of chemicals and bacteria of up to around 90%. These levels do not meet WHO standards, which require a percentage of 96%. Only about 84% of the collected water samples from the filtering plants met the standards, while only 24% of the filtered water tanks and 21% of the filtered water distribution vehicles met the standards. He added that this situation is due to irregular chlorination processes in most plants (most customers do not like chlorinated water), a lack of hygiene in filtering plants, and a lack of necessary preventive measures to protect water from pollution during its transfer, distribution, and storing processes.

Dr. Sa’eed Ghabayin, a water quality expert and a professor at the Islamic University in Gaza said that two main factors were of concern as far as the health and quality of water produced by filtering plants were concerned. First, there is bacteriological pollution, which raises questions about the extent to which the chlorination or sterilization systems are maintained and the percentage of chlorine used, which must be balanced in order to deal with microbes and prevent their reproduction. The second factor is the lack of certain essential minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, from the produced water. About 80% of water filtering plants in the Gaza Strip do not produce water that meet the correct levels of such minerals. Dr Ghabayin also asserted the importance of securing the necessary percentage of these minerals using an appropriate method.

A number of specialized and interested persons as well as owners of water filtering plants attended the workshop and raised questions and presented diverse arguments focusing on various aspects of the problem and their perspectives on ways to solve it. The workshop was concluded with recommendations on the problems that would enable concerned bodies to develop the filtered water sector in Gaza. The participants made the following specific recommendations:

To the international community:

1) The international community must uphold its international obligations in securing respect for and adherence to international law and exert pressure on Israel not to obstruct the Palestinians people’s right to water and to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure, including the water infrastructure, from attacks by the IOF.

2) The international community must take effective action to end Israel’s closure of Gaza, which has hindered the maintenance and development of the water sector and caused serious deterioration to Gaza’s sole aquifer, rendering its water unfit for human consumption. The closure must be lifted without any delay.

To the Palestinian authorities:

3) The relevant authorities should invest in the existing water infrastructure, including in ways that make use of fresh water sources, especially those located in evacuated settlements, or to import water to avoid the wide-scale use of filtered water from the aquifer.

4) Authorities should encourage public and private investment in the desalination of sea water as an alternative for the exhausted Gaza aquifer in order to secure a supply for and recovery of the aquifer.

5) Public awareness on best practices concerning water consumption should be raised and efforts made to avoid wasting water to prevent further exhaustion of the Gaza aquifer.

6) Efforts should be made to raise public awareness on the assessment of filtered water. The public should be encouraged not to judge filtered water based on taste alone and authorities should emphasize that it is important to maintain essential minerals in filtered water as well.

7) Authorities ought to ensure that certain levels of minerals are maintained and/or added to filtered water in the filtering plants by using appropriate methods and in accordance with the scientific recommendations.

8) Authorities should activate government monitoring and oversight over water filtering plants during the production, storage, and distribution of water.

9) A set of criteria and standards for filtered water in the occupied Palestinian territory should be specified.