Gaza Need Not Be a Sewer
By Alon Tal and and Yousef Abu-Mayla

OP-ED published Dec. 2, 2013. Source: NYTimes, access here

For two decades, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists set aside their differences to call for urgent measures to address the impending water crisis in the Gaza Strip. These calls went unheeded. The price of inaction, protracted conflict and unsustainable policies is being paid today by the 1.7 million residents of Gaza, who face catastrophic conditions thanks to the collapse of Gaza’s sewage system.

Since the Israeli and Egyptian blockade, Gaza has not had sufficient fuel to sustain its electricity supply and keep its 290 water and sewage facilities running. The Hamas government refuses to buy alternative fuels, because taxes on these would go to the rival Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. As a result, pumping stations ceased operation in November, and many streets in southern Gaza City are now inundated with human excrement.

Residents must sandbag their homes so they won’t be flooded by raw sewage. The stench is intolerable. With the pumping stations out of action, fresh water will soon cease to reach taps at all.

The health impact is already apparent. According to a recent UNICEF survey, 20 percent of Gazan children suffer from waterborne diseases. Without remedial action, the situation will only get worse.

Aside from humanitarian decency, there are ample pragmatic reasons for Israel to be concerned. Every day, 3.5 million cubic feet of sewage pours into the Mediterranean. Israel’s own drinking water supply is increasingly dependent on seawater desalination. One of its largest facilities, in Ashkelon, is just a few miles north along the coast from Gaza. Erecting a fence can prevent terrorist infiltration, but it can’t stop the flow of feces.

This sewage crisis is only the most acute manifestation of Gaza’s hydrological nightmare. Pressure on water resources long since became unsustainable. Historically, Gaza obtained its water from a shallow aquifer below its sandy soils. This aquifer was already overexploited before 1967, when Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, and extensive contamination by seawater occurred. Its annual recharge from rainfall is no more than 1.8 to 1.9 billion cubic feet, but Gaza’s rapidly growing population uses more than 6 billion cubic feet of water a year. This mounting deficit exacerbates the problem: Last year, the United Nations reported that 95 percent of the aquifer’s water was unfit for human consumption because of pollution from seawater intrusion, fertilizers and sewage. Demand is expected to increase by 60 percent by 2020.

Well aware that the water in their taps makes them sick, many Gaza residents purchase bottled and filtered water at considerable cost. Others take matters into their own hands. After the 2005 Israeli withdrawal, thousands of unregistered wells were drilled in Gaza — causing water tables and water quality to decline still further.

Gaza’s water crisis can be tackled, but fundamental change is necessary to begin the slow process of aquifer restoration. Water demand needs to be controlled effectively. A reduction can be achieved by better conservation in domestic supply and in agriculture, while new infrastructure will save on loss through leaks in the municipal system. But technical fixes alone won’t reduce demand as long as Gaza’s population continues to grow at a steep annual rate of 3.2 percent.

A complete moratorium on groundwater extraction is imperative. Gaza’s water should come from alternative sources, such as comprehensive programs to collect roof rainwater and catch runoff from streets. Sewage treatment should be upgraded so that wastewater can be reused in agriculture (as is done in water-stressed states like Texas and Arizona).

Finally, most of Gaza’s water should come from the sea. Desalination has been done since Roman times. Today, economies of scale and improvements in reverse-osmosis technology have reduced the price of desalinated water significantly. Israel’s water authority reports that, on average, each of Israel’s five major facilities can produce 1,000 liters of water for roughly 60 cents.

For over 20 years, a major desalination plant for Gaza has been discussed, but nothing has been done. Large desalination facilities could easily provide Gazans with affordable potable water. There are several small pilot plants already operating, most sponsored by international agencies, but they can meet only a fraction of present demand.

The Palestinian water authority has approved a large-scale $500 million facility, which Israel supports. And Israel has quietly begun to offer Palestinians desalination training. With funding doubtful, though, construction delays continue.

The other obstacle is that desalination plants require large amounts of electricity, which is in short supply in Gaza, where much of the power is still provided by Israel’s utility company. The festering conflict between Israel and Gaza’s government does not help the situation, even though Israel remains committed to selling power to the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. Israel continues to sell water to Gaza, and both parties have agreed on a pipeline that will double the amount of water supplied to the Gaza Strip.

Of course, just this sort of good will might smooth a path to progress in the vexed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But with no sign of any meaningful advance in the negotiations, it is time to think about decoupling the water conflict from other, more intractable issues. The interim water accord signed in 1995 needs to reflect Gaza’s new realities, but there is no reason its people should lack basic water resources.

The United Nations Environmental Program warns that if present trends continue, the Gaza aquifer may be irreversibly damaged by 2020. This is one area where the international community could get involved to bring a meaningful improvement to Palestinians’ quality of life. That, at least, would decontaminate a perilously toxic environment.

Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a visiting professor at the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. Yousef Abu Mayla is a water expert at Al Azhar University in Gaza.