Before it was derailed by an assassination attempt, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s visit to Gaza on Tuesday — his first in five months — was meant to focus on sewage, highlighting the territory’s dire water situation.
Hamdallah’s first stop in Gaza was meant to be an inauguration ceremony for the Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment (NGEST) facility, a $43 million wastewater treatment plant sponsored by the World Bank.
Gaza’s political instability and infighting delayed the opening of the facility for years — it was originally approved in 2004 — due to ongoing strife between Fatah and Hamas (the bomb that exploded next to Hamdallah’s convoy was a sore reminder that that conflict is far from over).
For lack of adequate means for treating Gaza’s sewage, and with incessant power outages having shut down even the existing and inadequate wastewater treatment plants, sewage is generally dumped directly into the Mediterranean Sea, and seeps into Gaza’s groundwater.
In the years the NGEST plant was delayed, the meager water naturally available in those aquifers has been over-pumped, and become increasingly polluted with seawater and sewage. Now, with the situation compounded by years of drought, Gaza is facing a severe water crisis, with 97 percent of its H²O deemed unsafe for human consumption.
Today, Gaza needs about 200 million cubic meters of water per year, but natural aquifers can only provide 50 million. A major part of last July’s landmark water deal, brokered by US envoy Jason Greenblatt, was Israel’s agreement to provide 10 million cubic meters of water to Gaza.
When Gazan water is mixed with Israeli water, the salinity levels drop enough to make it safe for human consumption, according to Gidon Bromberg, the Israeli co-director of EcoPeace Middle East, a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian environmental organization.
Israel is currently exceeding the agreement by providing 11.5 million cubic meters of water through the Nahal Oz crossing, the most Gaza’s infrastructure can handle, said Uri Schor, spokesman for the Israel Water Authority, noting that Israel could theoretically increase the amount it provides to 15 million cubic meters.
Schor said that, since Israels’ unilateral pullout from Gaza in 2005, the unsupervised drilling of wells has further decimated the underground water tables in the coastal enclave. “The whole area here has a very severe shortage of water, but the solutions are technological,” he said.
On Tuesday, at a conference Greenblatt led in Washington focused on the Gaza humanitarian crisis, he stressed the importance of infrastructure projects.
“The prime minister was in Gaza to inaugurate a wastewater treatment plant that some of you, international donors, financed to improve the health of the people of Gaza,” he told the gathering of international leaders. “Contaminated water is the single largest cause of illness and disease for infants in Gaza.”
The Palestinian Authority, still fuming over the Trump administration’s December 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, declined to attend the conference.
The Northern Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment Plant is a significant part of addressing Gaza’s water security issues because it will help protect the Strip’s endangered aquifers as well as provide recycled water that is safe for irrigation.
NGEST will recycle wastewater from approximately 350,000 people in northern Gaza into water that can be used to irrigate farmland, or pump it safely out to the Mediterranean sea, far from the coast.
Untreated sewage in Gaza has environmental effects beyond the borders of the Gaza Strip, including closing beaches in southern Israel due to concerns over high levels of fecal matter. Last August, a 10-year-old Gazan boy died after swimming in the polluted seawater after Gaza’s rolling electricity cuts shut down power in the Strip’s existing wastewater treatment plants.
“It is in Israel’s interests as much as the Palestinians’ interests to stop the flow of sewage into the Mediterranean or ground water,” said Bromberg of EcoPeace.
He said that Tuesday’s assassination attempt should not halt Israel’s plans to continue constructing infrastructure to bring additional water to Gaza, including adding pipes for southern Gaza and assisting the Palestinian Water Authority in building water reservoirs that can mix Gazan and Israeli water.
The problem is that water reservoir construction requires cement, a “dual use” substance that Israel prohibits from importation into the Gaza Strip because it can also be used to construct attack tunnels.
“We shouldn’t wait because [these projects] take so much time to build. Israel needs to move forward,” he said. “There is no question that this additional water is needed for both humanitarian issues in Gaza and for Israel’s own national security.
“All of us need to be concerned, because we never know what will trigger civil unrest related to further cuts to the very basic need of water, and this is in no one’s interest,” he said. “Our neighbor’s water insecurity must be part of our own national security concerns.”
Schor, the Israel Water Authority spokesman, echoed Bromberg’s sentiments, saying that the the authority wanted to provide the maximum amount of water possible to Gaza, despite Israel’s own water shortages and droughts.
“The majority of the population of Gaza do not want to go to war, they do not send the missiles, but they need water,” he said. “We are dealing with people, and they need water.”