Gaza’s infrastructure on the verge of collapse, report warns
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Gaza’s infrastructure on the verge of collapse, report warns

Israeli group finds PA, Hamas partly responsible for crisis, but puts lion's share of blame on Israel

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Palestinians chant slogans during a protest against the ongoing electricity crisis in Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on January 12, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Palestinians chant slogans during a protest against the ongoing electricity crisis in Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip on January 12, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Gaza’s energy, water and sewage systems are on the verge of collapse, a new report by an Israeli group said, placing the lion’s share of the blame on Israel.

The Gisha organization, which released its report, “Hand on the Switch: Who’s Responsible for Gaza’s Infrastructure Crisis?” on Tuesday, said the 1.8 million inhabitants of the Strip are plagued by frequent blackouts, undrinkable water and an outdated cellular network.

Israel says its blockade is essential to prevent terrorists from obtaining materials to fortify military positions, dig tunnels and build rockets to fire at the Jewish state. Gaza’s Hamas rulers seek the elimination of Israel.

The office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli agency that regulates the Israeli border with Gaza, did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

The grim state of the Palestinian enclave’s infrastructure led earlier this month to the largest demonstrations in years by Gaza residents against the Palestinian leadership. The protests were sparked by a fuel shortage that left Gaza’s single power station able to provide electricity for only a handful of hours each day.

But Gaza’s electricity troubles go deeper than the latest shortage, which was caused by a dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority over fuel tax payments, Gisha charged.

“Electricity blackouts last at least 12 hours daily, and can reach 20 hours,” the report said.

Palestinians chant slogans during a protest against the ongoing electricity crisis in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, January 12, 2017. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)
Palestinians chant slogans during a protest against the ongoing electricity crisis in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, January 12, 2017. (AFP/MOHAMMED ABED)

“Cooking gas and fuel for industry and vehicles are continually in short supply. These shortages disrupt daily life, impede education, health services, transportation, sanitation, farming and industry, and, consequently, impact the economy and human security,” the report charged.

According to Gisha, Israel sells Gaza 120 megawatts of electricity, Egypt sells 28 MW, and Gaza’s power plant produces 60-80 MW on average. Combined, the total wattage is still only about half of what is needed to meet daily demand, the report argues.

Gisha also said that the amount of cooking gas Israel sells to Gaza — 160 tons daily in 2016 — meets a little more than half of the 300-ton daily demand.

While the most recent electricity shortage brought Gazans into the streets, they may soon contend with an even more dire crisis of water quality that could threaten the habitability of the Strip.

Some 90 percent of Gaza’s water is taken from an underground aquifer. But, according to the report, the aquifer is being depleted far faster than it can be restored, and overuse has harmed water quality. As much as 96% of the water in the coastal aquifer is already unfit for use for drinking or irrigation, the report said, noting a a UN projection that the damage to the aquifer will have become irreversible by 2020.

The report warned that “Gaza’s dilapidated pipe system is contaminated, cannot be used for most needs and may constitute a health hazard.”

Because water running through the pipes in undrinkable, families must buy trucked or bottled water, the report said.

In 2015, Gaza consumed 95 million cubic meters of water for domestic use, with consumption per capita averaging 86 liters a day. According to the World Health Organization, 100 liters per person per day is the minimum required to maintain good health, the report said.

The water crisis is exacerbated both by the electricity crisis — power is needed to pump the water — and by the sewage crisis, which leads to further contamination.

A Palestinian employee works at a desalination plant during the inauguration of the first phase of the project on January 19, 2017, in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)
A Palestinian employee works at a desalination plant during the inauguration of the first phase of the project on January 19, 2017, in Deir el-Balah in central Gaza. (AFP/SAID KHATIB)

Gaza has five sewage treatment plants, which, according to the report, are only partially operational — “which makes it impossible to complete the treatment.”

Some 28% of Gazans are said to live in areas without sewage infrastructure.

The result is that most of Gaza’s sewage, tens of thousands of liters per day, is let untreated into the sea. This endangers the groundwater, public health and the fishing industry, the report said.

“Israel blames Palestinians for the situation, but, at the same time, restricts and severely delays the entry of materials and equipment necessary for progress on projects, including those meant to repair damage from the latest military operation in 2014,” the report said.

“The risk of future conflict deters foreign donors from initiating new projects,” the report added.

Israel has fought three wars with Hamas since the terror group took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.

In the short term, Gisha recommended “waiving the excise tax for diesel, improving collection on energy bills, repairing existing infrastructure and adapting it to demand, reaching agreements with Israel on rates, and increasing the amount of electricity supplied to Gaza by connecting the supply line already agreed to by Israel.”

The group recommended Egypt become a supplier of Gaza’s electricity.

The report also criticized Israel for denying Gazans access to 3G cellular networks, especially given the Strip’s isolation from the rest of the world.

Under its “dual-use” policy, which restricts objects that have a possible military use, Israel, the report states, restricts essential communications equipment, including optical fibers, routers, recording devices and even fax machines and printers.

In the report, Gisha details what role each player in the Strip has in each crisis, including the PA in Ramallah, Hamas in Gaza and Israel.

Ultimately, however, the report places the lion’s share of the blame on Israel.

“One actor…stands out above all the others with its 50 years of consistent control over Gaza and its major influence, both past and present, over so many aspects of life there – the State of Israel,” the report said.

The report added: “Decades of Israel’s physical presence inside Gaza created a near complete dependency on it for the supply of energy, water and communications. Gaza’s infrastructure was not developed according to the needs of a growing population in a rapidly changing world, and as a result, Gaza was left behind.”

In an important step toward easing the enclave’s water crisis, last week international aid workers opened a new desalination plant.

The plant will initially produce 6,000 cubic meters of water a day, a small fraction of Gaza’s needs.

The European Union said it invested 10 million euros, or $10.6 million, in building the plant with UNICEF. It has pledged a similar amount for a second phase meant to double capacity by 2019.

AP contributed to this report.

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