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Gaza Water Crisis Has Caused Irreversible Damage, World Bank Warns

In interview with Haaretz, bank's local specialist warns that without more water from Israel, Gaza will continue to move toward being uninhabitable by 2020.

by Amira Hass     17 December 2016   Haaretz
Palestinians paddle a boat during sunset at the beach in Gaza City
Palestinians paddle a boat during sunset at the beach in Gaza City August 23, 2013. Reuters
Irreversible damage has already been done to parts of the Coastal Aquifer in the Gaza Strip as a result of overpumping and seawater seepage, according to a senior water-sanitation specialist at the World Bank.
The financial institution is one of many local and international organizations that have been warning against, and trying to prevent, such an occurrence over the past 20 years.
“Ecologically speaking, the damage to the aquifer is getting worse, and studies have been showing a steady increase in water salinity,” said Adnan Ghosheh. This brings the Gaza Strip closer to the situation the United Nations predicted in 2014: that it will be unfit for human habitation by 2020.
As a way of expressing once again the urgency needed to rectify the situation, the World Bank issued a press release earlier this month, following which Haaretz interviewed Ghosheh.
Most of the information in the press release is not new. It notes that while 90 percent of the inhabitants of the West Bank and 85 percent of the inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa have access to a faucet for drinking water, only 10 percent of the 2 million or so inhabitants of Gaza can safely drink the water piped into their homes. The other 90 percent do not even associate drinking water with the simple act of turning on a tap: Their water is too saline because of seawater seepage, and too dangerous because of raw sewage or gray-water seeping into the aquifer.
Palestinian children filling their containers with water from a public tap in Jabalya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, September 2016.Mohammed Salem/Reuters
“The people in Gaza are not able to use the water coming into their houses for drinking; they use it for household ends, but for drinking they have to rely on trucks,” Ghosheh said in the press release. “There are some 150 operators who provide some kind of desalinated water that has been filtered to make it acceptable for drinking and for cooking. It’s more expensive” than tap water, he added, and from a hygiene perspective is neither safe nor up to the standards of water suitable for drinking.
Problems related to the polluted water and abstention include intestinal diseases, stomach bugs, a high disease rate among children, rashes and other ailments. A few Gazans can afford to assemble a water-treatment facility in their home, while others buy purified water to at least wash their children – but there aren’t many who can afford that in the impoverished Gaza Strip.
The World Bank says the reason for the drop in the aquifer’s water level is due to overpumping because of population growth. The press release does not address the basic fact that Israel controls the water both in its sovereign territory and in the occupied territories, and does not recognize the principle of equitable distribution of water between the two peoples.
The water arrangements imposed on the Palestinians in the Oslo Accords treat the Gaza Strip as an autarkic water economy. That is, the 2 million inhabitants of Gaza have to suffice with the identical portion of the Coastal Aquifer that had the same capacity of water for approximately 270,000 people in 1949 (200,000 refugees and the rest original inhabitants).
The annual amount of water yielded by the part of the aquifer in the Gaza Strip is about 57 million cubic meters. The Oslo Accords didn’t consider the possibility that large quantities of water would be piped to Gaza from other places, just like they’re piped to the more arid areas within Israel proper. Instead, there has been overpumping for many years, which amounts to about 100 million cubic meters annually.
Palestinian children collect water in Khan Yunis
Palestinians collect water during a five-day truce in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, August 14, 2014. Reuters
According to an annual Palestinian Water Authority report regarding the situation in Gaza, in 2015 the groundwater level ranged from 12 meters above sea level in the southeastern part of the Strip, to 19 meters below sea level in the Rafah area – which is considered the maximum rate of decline.
Ghosheh told Haaretz that, in his opinion, the fastest and safest interim solution is to bring more water into Gaza from Israel – although he also said this is only a temporary fix.
“I don’t understand why the two sides aren’t moving ahead toward this solution. Today, Israel provides” – that is, sells – “about 7.5 million cubic meters of water to Gaza annually. They are talking about increasing this amount to about 20 million cubic meters but we aren’t yet seeing any concrete steps in that direction – and even 20 million cubic meters isn’t enough. There has to be a discussion over much larger amounts” that Israel will sell to Gaza, he said.
But the World Bank – along with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the Islamic Development Bank – is working mainly on a solution that the Palestinian Authority has adopted as part of its strategy: a large desalination plant, which, according to the plan, will provide about 55 million cubic meters annually; its estimated cost of construction is about $500 million. Three smaller desalination facilities are already operating and providing about 4 million cubic meters annually – in addition to dozens of smaller purification companies.
There are differences of opinion among Palestinian water specialists regarding the desalination solution. Supporters are convinced that it will decrease Gaza’s dependence on Israel. Opponents, though, are concerned about the environmental damage; argue that the dependence will always exist with regard to the entry of building materials and replacement parts; and warn that, from a practical perspective, the inhabitants of Gaza will not be able to bear the costs by themselves (desalinated water is more expensive). In addition, the fact is that a facility of this sort requires a steady supply of about 25 megawatts of electricity – the source of which remains unclear.
A Palestinian boy holding water bottles as other children wait to fill their containers from a public tap in Jabalya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, September 2016.
A Palestinian girl holding water bottles as other children wait to fill their containers from a public tap in Jabalya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, September 2016.Mohammed Salem/Reuters
There are also those who say the Palestinians mustn’t waive in their demand for an equitable allocation of the country’s water resources and, therefore, calling on Israel to compensate for the quantities of water it pumps from the West Bank for use by Israeli citizens and the settlers – by providing masses of water to the Gaza Strip.
Back in 2009, the World Bank published a report called “Assessment of Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development,” which described in detail the unequal distribution of water resources in the West Bank. In response to a question about whether the latest press release is proof that the 2009 report failed to apply pressure on Israel to change its policy, Ghosheh laughed. “You ask hard questions,” he said, adding, “When you go to Gaza and see the situation, talk to the people and see how they are suffering, and then you go to a meeting at the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, or the donor countries or the Palestinian Authority, and try to explain, you understand that there is no correlation between the talk and the gravity of the situation.”
Now, says Ghosheh, the World Bank is preparing a new report that will focus on the possibility of repair options and greater efficiency within the Palestinian water economy. According to him, “There are things the PA can do – like, for example, efficiency. Before Israel started to desalinate water, it tackled reducing the loss of water in pipelines. About 38 percent of the water in Gaza gets lost.”
He agreed that Gaza has to negotiate for many long months with the Israeli security establishment over every bit of raw material or spare part brought into the Strip, but explained: “The study is done to provide recommendations not only to the donor countries, but also to the implementers,” referring to the Palestinian Water Authority and Palestinian local councils. “If we want to talk about water security, we need to talk about the Palestinian context as well,” he added.
Asked whether the focus on the Palestinian Authority could be seen as aiming for the easy target after the pressure on Israel failed to yield results, Ghosheh replied: “Indeed, the Palestinians are the weaker side in the equation and it is easier to achieve change with them. We are an institution for implementing development, not a political institution. They can make internal improvements. They understand this and are already making the changes.”
Has the World Bank given up on applying pressure on Israel to change its discriminatory policy?
“Our aim was never to be a mediator, but rather to support the Palestinian people. Our client is the Palestinian Authority, and we are giving it advice as to what is possible and what is impossible.”
In other words, your conclusion is that it’s impossible to change the Israeli policy with regard to the unjust and unequal distribution of water?
“You’re talking about politics, and that’s not my area.”
Amira Hass
Haaretz Correspondent