Creede Newton | 08 Nov 2015

After an unseasonably warm October, one would expect the cool rainfall of autumn to be welcomed in the Gaza Strip.

But the downpours only make life harder, as excess rainwater springs from roads, sidewalks, and courtyards.

The territory’s water infrastructure has shuddered under the burden of an almost decade-long Israeli-Egyptian siege. Three major Israeli wars on Gaza since 2008 have only exacerbated the problem, with jets bombing every square kilometre of the strip, inflicting damage onto reservoirs above and pipelines below the ground.

According to Ghada al-Najjar – who is the water and sanitation coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), a nongovernmental organisation headed by Jan Egeland, one of the facilitators of the Oslo Accords – international humanitarian law (IHL) states that civilian infrastructure, especially infrastructure needed for basic survival, such as reservoirs, should be specially protected.
UpFront – Reality Check: Gaza is still occupied

Yet, this does not seem to be the case. An NRC report from this year says that in 2014, Israel’s war on Gaza resulted in $34m in damages to Gaza’s water infrastructure.

IN PICTURES: Gaza water crisis worsens

Although Israel no longer views itself as the occupying force in the Gaza Strip after it officially withdrew its settlers and military forces in 2005, many agencies, including the UN Human Rights Council, consider that, under IHL, Israel still retains obligations towards the whole occupied territory.

In March, Israel began delivering an extra five million cubic metres (mcm) of water to Gaza, thereby doubling the amount that was previously delivered and, hence, honouring Article 40 of the Oslo II Accords, an interim agreement signed in 1995 meant to impose a final status for Israel and Palestine.

However, the al-Muntar reservoir that was constructed to receive the increase was completely destroyed by Israel in 2014. In lieu of an acceptable reservoir, the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) began to receive the water through temporary measures.

After less than a month of increased Israeli water delivery, readings from Israeli and Palestinian water metres showed a disparity of 4,000cm – a huge shortfall between the amount the Israelis sent and the total delivered to Gaza, proving that Gaza’s water network was unprepared for even a minor increase.

“What is the plan to rebuild the water infrastructure there? Are the materials able to enter through the blockade, and are there funds coming in?” Ghada asked. While the five mcm is a positive step, “it should be stated that Gaza is paying for this water … and it’s a small amount” of Gaza’s total need of 200 mcm.

There is only one extractable water source for the 1.8 million Palestinians in the Strip, the Coastal Aquifer Basin. Only five percent of this water is potable, according to a July United Nations report.

Yunes Mogheir, associate professor of water and environmental engineering at the Islamic University of Gaza, told Al Jazeera that one of the main reasons for the water’s poor quality is the “huge increase in rates of chloride and nitrates”. These pollutants are used to measure how drinkable Gaza’s water is.

Mogheir says chloride levels, which indicate salinity, often quadruple the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended level of 250 milligrammes per litre: “In terms of nitrates, it’s the same picture. The WHO limit is 50 mg/L, and there are wells that produce water with 400 to 450 mg/L,” which can have serious effects on pregnant women, and even cause infant deaths.

Nitrates are a result of improper wastewater treatment, and the increased salinity is due to the overpumping of the Coastal Aquifer Basin, which is then replenished with water of varying salinity, both from the Israeli section of the Coastal Aquifer Basin and the hypersaline Mediterranean Sea.

“The solution is to increase the quantity of water coming to the aquifer and to reduce extraction” due to a dire need for groundwater, Mogheir said. “But then you need to replenish the aquifer with other means – improved wastewater treatment, increased water from the Israelis or Egyptians; these measures are easy on paper, but hard to implement in the real world.”

Gaza’s strained relations with Israel and Egypt underscore these issues, Mogheir said. “Now, the Egyptians are pumping sewage and seawater into Rafah,” which will further contaminate the groundwater.

According to Rebhy el-Sheikh, the Palestinian Water Authority’s deputy chairman, problems stem not only from the destruction that occurred during the war, but also from “the deteriorated infrastructure and the need to implement innovative programmes”, which have been stymied by the Israeli-Egyptian siege of the Strip.

Gaza is part of the State of Palestine and should not be dealt with as a region that needs to be self-sustainable in order to work around the Israeli policies in place.

Camilla Corradin, advocacy task force coordinator for EWASH

“In many cases, we have the funds needed to implement our strategic programmes, and either we wait long periods for the necessary equipment, or donors become hesitant because they want to fund projects that are plausible,” Sheikh told Al Jazeera, citing the plan for the central Gaza wastewater treatment plant, which was finalised in 2003, but the tender for the project is only now being issued – 12 years later.

Due to years of Israeli occupation, Gaza’s water infrastructure has been in a state of arrested development.

“There is a lack of monitoring, and huge amounts of water are being lost due to leaking pipes,” Sheikh said. Adding improvements to these areas would make a “huge difference”.

The cost of overhauling Gaza’s water system to better deal with water demands is estimated to be at $1bn, Sheikh said, and would require major improvements throughout the besieged enclave. “Even if we resume water production at the same levels as before the war, it wouldn’t solve the problem.”

A 2010 study by the Emergency Water and Sanitation-Hydration group (EWASH), a coalition of 28 nongovernmental and civil society organisations working on advocacy and action in the water and sanitation sector of the occupied Palestinian territories, says the water infrastructure in Gaza operated at only 56.6 percent efficiency before the 2012 and 2014 Israeli wars on Gaza, both of which caused further damage to water infrastructure.

Camilla Corradin, advocacy task force coordinator at EWASH, agreed that the siege must end and the water sector is in serious need of rehabilitation and development, but the most important step is a “comprehensive approach by all stakeholders involved: local, international, and the government of Israel, which does not look at Gaza as an independent entity”.

“Gaza is part of the State of Palestine and should not be dealt with as a region that needs to be self-sustainable in order to work around the Israeli policies in place,” Corradin said.

With the already dire water situation quickly deteriorating, and the Israeli siege leaving few possibilities for improvement, an overhaul of the water status quo is needed, she said.

“A fundamental structural rethinking of the water-sharing agreements with Israel should be a priority, as water rights cannot wait [for] other political solutions,” Corradin said.