The lack of drinking water beneath the coastal enclave poses a threat to regional stability. What happens if thousands of Gazans rush the Israeli and Egyptian fences, pleading for water to survive?
By Gidon Bromberg and Earl Blumenauer | Apr. 12, 2015

The prospect for real and substantial progress in the peace process seems currently out of reach. Yet that does not mean that progress can’t be made by focusing on a narrower, yet critical, set of issues that would improve the lives and security of all in the region. The perfect place to start is water.

The good news is that progress on the water issue has already begun. Days before the election, the Israeli government announced that it would double the amount of water it sells to Gaza, from 5 to 10 million cubic meters annually. This is positive momentum that we must build on, because while it is an important step, the quantity is insufficient to prevent a humanitarian disaster for both Gaza and the region.

Without rapid action, the drinking water beneath Gaza – or the lack thereof – poses a threat to the region as severe as the one posed by tunnels dug by Hamas from Gaza into Israel. That is because the Coastal Aquifer – the only domestic source of drinking water for the 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza – may collapse as soon as 2016, according to the United Nations.

Like the cities of Los Angeles or Tel Aviv, Gaza cannot currently meet its water needs from within its boundaries. This is compounded by the fact that Gaza’s population is rapidly increasing and now consumes three times the amount of water that is annually added from rainfall into the Coastal Aquifer. Due to the massive amount of water withdrawn from the aquifer over the past several decades, the salty Mediterranean Sea contaminates the drinking water at an ever-increasing pace.

A 2012 UN report concluded that 90% of water in the Coastal Aquifer is too salty for drinking purposes. Now this figure is estimated to be 95%, and by the end of 2016, the entire aquifer will be unusable. Unless action is taken by 2020, the destruction will be irreversible.

To make matters worse, Gaza does not have a large and modern sewage treatment plant in operation. The sewage from almost 2 million residents further pollutes the groundwater and is creating the risk of outbreaks of pandemic diseases such as cholera and typhoid, as 90,000 cubic meters of raw sewage flows into the Mediterranean every day, as noted in the UN report.

Israeli intelligence reportedly knew and warned about the Hamas tunnels long before they were used but Israeli politicians chose not to act. Environmental and water experts have been warning for many years of the eminent collapse of Gaza’s Coastal Aquifer, but politicians on both sides have failed to respond meaningfully. While we don’t want to minimize Israel’s important move to authorize additional water for Gaza, it doesn’t prevent the region’s looming water crisis.

All of us have to ask ourselves: What happens if thousands of Gazans rush the Israeli and Egyptian fences, pleading for water to survive? Will a water crisis broaden the appeal of Hamas’ malice in Gaza, precipitating greater violence in the future? The recent events in neighboring Syria offer some clues. Severe droughts played a key role in driving people from farms and villages, sparking the initial uprisings and the resulting downward spiral.

Such dire outcomes could be avoided if additional measures are employed immediately. With its existing infrastructure, Israel has the potential to double the quantity of water supplied to Gaza overnight, from the 10 million cubic meters currently promised, to 20 million cubic meters a year. A wastewater treatment plant recently built under World Bank management in north Gaza could reduce by one-third the amount of untreated wastewater that pollutes both groundwater and Palestinian and Israeli beaches. All it would take is an additional three megawatts of power from Israel, according to our sources at the World Bank.

All of us – U.S. Congress, the Obama administration, the newly elected Israeli government, the Palestinian Authority and civic organizations – must play a constructive role starting now, because the clock is ticking. It is clearly in Israel’s interest to facilitate public-private partnerships that will lead to greater energy independence for Gaza and assist the Palestinian Water Authority. Help and collaboration from the international community could enable the construction of a large desalination plant and related infrastructure in Gaza to fully meet the population’s needs. Strengthening the Palestinian Authority by increasing the water supply in Gaza weakens Hamas and highlights its inability to provide public services.

The situation is quite complex, and it is a challenging time for those seeking to achieve progress and solutions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Taking action on water and sanitation, however, is a critical step that everyone should support, benefiting Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Earl Blumenauer, Democrat, represents Oregon’s Third District in the House where he has focused on efforts to increase access to clean water and sanitation. Gidon Bromberg is the Israeli co-Director of EcoPeace Middle East, a regional Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, organization dedicated to water diplomacy and environmental peacemaking efforts.