The war in May damaged a third of the pipes. Sewage collects in puddles near residential areas and penetrates the groundwater, and some flows into the sea

Amira Hass Jul. 14, 2021

A crater full of water and sewage remains where a home was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, in Beit Hanoun, May.
A crater full of water and sewage remains where a home was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike, in Beit Hanoun, May.Credit: John Minchillo,AP

Due to the ban imposed about two months ago by Defense Minister Benny Gantz against bringing raw materials, construction materials and “non-humanitarian” items into the Gaza Strip, most of the damage to its water and sewage infrastructure caused by the war in May has not been repaired.

At present, it is also impossible to carry out crucial, regular maintenance activities in the enclave. The facilities for desalinating and purifying water operate only partially, and projects for development and expansion have been discontinued. This deterioration is happening after several years of major efforts by the Palestinian Water Authority, authorities in the Strip and donor countries to improve the infrastructure.

“Not only food is a humanitarian need,” says Maher al-Najjar, the deputy director of the Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility. “There is nothing more humanitarian that a regular supply of potable water, but we can’t guarantee that, due to the ban against bringing in basic raw materials and construction materials to the Strip.”

Najjar says that due to the damage to the infrastructure, the domestic consumption of water per person – for drinking, bathing and cleaning – has dropped from about 80 liters a day before the conflict to 50-60 liters a day. The minimum daily amount recommended by the World Health Organization is 100 liters daily. The quality of the water has also been damaged, with a significant increase in the level of chlorides. The WHO recommended level is 250 milligram per liter, and in the Strip the level is now 800-1,000 milligram per liter instead of 400-600 milligram before the May fighting. Residents report a rusty taste and say that their skin and hair have been affected.

About one third of the pipes were damaged in the most recent conflict, and are not yet properly repaired. About a third of sewage is not properly treated. Some of it collects in puddles near residential areas and penetrates the groundwater, and some flows into the sea. This danger affects both Palestinians, for many of whom bathing in the sea is their only escape from the summer heat, as well as Israelis, who also suffer from the polluted seawater, says Najjar.

On Monday, the Defense Ministry announced an “easing” of conditions for bringing products into the Strip. But even if this is done immediately, the process of submitting bids to purchase the required materials and receiving an Israeli permit is long, and means there will be no swift improvement in water and sewage infrastructure. Some of the permits have already expired and contractors will have to submit new requests. At best, the first necessary items will arrive in about a month.

The water and sewage system in Gaza presently lacks about 5,000 items necessary for repairing the serious damage as well as for regular maintenance, upgrading, and completing development and expansion projects. The most urgently needed items are valves and water and sewage pipes – all materials made of plastic and metal. Due to this shortage, bids that contractors won for doing the work were frozen and a new bidding process can’t begin. During the coronavirus period, more water was pumped so people could wash their hands more frequently. Now, due to the cutbacks in water, it’s harder to maintain the necessary hygiene protocols, says Najjar.

The water supply in the Strip – 100 million cubic meters a year – comes from three sources: most is from the Gaza aquifer, about 10 percent is purchased from Israel and about 5 percent is desalinated seawater in three different facilities, one financed by Europe, one by Kuwait and one by USAID. The quantities of desalinated water must urgently be increased because with the increase in population over the years, there is excess pumping from the aquifer, which leads seawater to penetrate into the groundwater and causes the inward collapse of soil.

A family walks next to a dark streak of untreated sewage flowing to the sea at the beach in Gaza City, late May.
A family walks next to a dark streak of untreated sewage flowing to the sea at the beach in Gaza City, late May.Credit: AP Photo/Felipe Dana

Before the war in May, expansion of one of the facilities began in order to increase the amount of desalinated water by about one third by the middle of next year. But the project was discontinued due to a shortage of building materials, and because Israel still hasn’t granted entry visas to seven engineers from Turkey who are supposed to oversee the project.

Najjar also fears that with the lack of materials and spare parts, the water utility won’t be able to make the repairs in time, which would lead to an increased danger of flooding and a risk of building collapse in the winter.

Despite the improvements in recent years, over 95 percent of the water in the Strip is not potable, so it is mixed with desalinated water and undergoes purification. Regular operation of all the facilities – the wells and the desalination and purification plants – was disrupted because the conflict-related damages could not be repaired, and also due to the shortage of spare parts, materials necessary for regular treatment of the pipes, pumps, monitoring boards and electricity.

Due to leaks in the pipes damaged during the fighting, even if Israel delivers the full amount of water for which the Palestinians pay, a significant percentage won’t reach consumers. The desalination plants produce only about half of their maximum capacity. “In addition, every day we discover damage we didn’t know about that were caused during the war,” says Najjar. “For example, the vibrating bombs dropped by Israel that penetrated the soil caused sand to enter the wells. We’re now pumping water with sand.”

The Gaza Coastal Municipalities Water Utility depends on payments from the municipalities. Due to the high rate of poverty, most of the residents don’t meet their payments. The process of impoverishment worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and was then exacerbated by the fighting. The water utility doesn’t just pay its employees half their salaries (and at times, even less). It also lacks the money needed to buy fuel for the generators that operate during hours when there is no electricity – about 8 to 12 hours a day. The sewage treatment facilities require round-the-clock operation, and their partial stoppage every day for lack of fuel explains the large quantities of untreated sewage that flow into the sea.

Najjar is afraid that the international organizations that donate to the Palestinians will hesitate continuing to finance projects that started before May and which were subsequently frozen. Even if the border crossings begin to operate today as they did before the war, he says, “The work on restoring the system to its relatively improved state from before the war, will take from four to six months.”