Science

Why the Gaza water crisis is decades in the making

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Palestinians line up to fill water canisters in Gaza City, on 16 October

Dawood Nemer/AFP via Getty Images

More than 2 million people risk running out of water in Gaza. After attacks by Hamas militants, Israel has cut off water and electricity to the region for more than a week, exacerbating a water crisis years in the making. The result leaves Gaza’s population – half of whom are children – increasingly vulnerable to waterborne diseases, infections and dehydration. “It has become a matter of life and death,” said Philippe Lazzarini at UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees, in a statement on 14 October.

Gaza has struggled with a water crisis for decades. The region – one of the most densely populated in the world – has no reliable source of surface water. Its only main freshwater supply is a shallow aquifer. Over-pumping from Gaza and surrounding countries, including Israel, has severely depleted the aquifer in recent years, increasing its salinity. Seawater intrusion, wastewater and agricultural run-off have also contaminated it. The UN says that 97 per cent of the aquifer’s groundwater doesn’t meet WHO water quality standards. As a result, most of Gaza’s population relies on private water tankers and small-scale desalination plants to supply drinking water.

On 7 October, Hamas militants from Gaza invaded Israel, killing more than 1000 civilians and taking at least 150 hostages. In response, Israel has shut off Gaza’s electricity and water supply, prevented fuel and humanitarian aid from entering the region and bombed the territory, killing almost 3000 people, according to estimates from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Israel opened just one waterline in southern Gaza for 3 hours on Tuesday and the electricity blackout has forced all of Gaza’s desalination plants to shut down.“A crisis is imminent due to a lack of water and a desperate situation for civilians,” said Richard Peeperkorn at the WHO in a briefing.

Prior conflicts with Israel have also severely damaged Gaza’s water system. In recent years, Israel and Egypt have also restricted the import of equipment needed to maintain water infrastructure, including water pumps. This, along with a lack of investment, has prevented Gaza from making repairs meaning the region’s water system was outdated and incapable of meeting demand even before the current crisis. “The conflict is disrupting already unreliable water availability in Gaza for millions of people,” says Peter Gleick at the Pacific Institute, a water think tank in California.

Without safe drinking water, people in Gaza have started using dirty well water, which could lead to outbreaks of water-related diseases, including cholera and dysentery. The lack of electricity and fuel means Gaza also cannot run sanitation operations, like sewage treatment and disposal. “Without adequate sanitation, it’s almost impossible to maintain high-quality water for long periods of time,” says Kellogg Schwab at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.

This could lead to disease outbreaks in neighbouring regions, too. In 2016, for instance, a desalination plant in Israel had to periodically shut down due to pollution from Gaza. “We have a risk of the emergence of diseases that threaten public health, like cholera and polio, not just in Gaza, but in other parts of the world,” said Ahmed Al-Mandhari at the WHO during Tuesday’s briefing. “So, this situation is actually a threat to public health worldwide.”

“The failure to have safe water also, of course, affects the ability of hospitals to treat illnesses, injuries and wounds from the conflict,” says Gleick.

Even if Israel resumes water supplies to Gaza, the current crisis is far from over. Without electricity, water cannot be pushed through pipes, for instance. Plus, water has now been stagnant in pipes for days, meaning it is probably contaminated with groundwater and heavy metals, says Schwab. And transporting water through densely populated, war-torn areas will be difficult, he says.

Humanitarian aid from the WHO and UN has been held up at the Egyptian border with Gaza for days now, said Peeperkorn. But the border crossing remained closed as of Tuesday. The UN, which recognises access to water and sanitation as a human right, warned on Tuesday that the death rate in Gaza will soon rise if access to water isn’t resumed. The Israeli government didn’t respond to New Scientist’s request for comment.

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