How bombings, blockades and import bans caused Gaza’s water system to crumble
"Gaza’s already rudimentary water network has been obliterated, with 2.2 million residents trying to get by on three litres a day
On the day Israel’s energy minister announced a total blockade of Gaza’s water and power, Matanel Laiany, an Israeli actor, took to Instagram.
He posted a reel of water gushing from his luxury mixer tap, cool drinking water pouring from his refrigerator into a beaker until it overflowed, Israel’s television news glimmering from his vast flatscreen television, and his lights turning on and off, over and over, as he repeatedly flicked the switch with a grin.
Shortly after he posted his reel, Laiany’s Instagram account was reportedly deactivated. At the time of writing, it had been reinstated; Gaza’s water and power supplies have not.
In 2020, the average Israeli citizen consumed 150 litres of water a day for domestic use, according to official figures. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2.2 million people in Gaza are now trying to subsist on just three litres a day for all purposes – drinking, cooking and washing.
On Monday Scotland’s first minister, Humza Yousaf, said his in-laws, who are trapped on the strip, were sharing six bottles of water between 100 people. The UN reported that it was providing about one litre of water a day to people at emergency shelters. Residents have reported urinating once a day or less.
Israel’s allies have called for action to alleviate Gaza’s water crisis. Rishi Sunak, the UK prime minister, and Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, have called for a resumption of water supplies to Gaza. But, experts say, simply turning on the taps from Israel, or trucking water in from Egypt, is not sufficient to satisfy Gaza’s needs.
Even before Israel’s latest campaign of bombing began two and a half weeks ago, Gaza was facing a multilayered water crisis. The territory had suffered decades of underdevelopment of water infrastructure.
Gaza has never been integrated with Israel’s mains water system. Instead, in times of relative calm, 80% of Gaza’s water came from a part of the coastal aquifer, a massive geological formation that stretches along the eastern Mediterranean coast from northern Egypt through Gaza and into Israel. A further 7% was provided by desalination plants, and 13% was bought from Israel’s state water company, Mekorot, according to Shaddad Attili, a former head of the Palestinian WaterAuthority.
Until the 1990s the aquifer provided the Gaza Strip’s inhabitants with drinkable water. But decades of over-abstraction have led to its contamination with sea water, and it is also contaminated with wastewater and agricultural runoff. Now 97% of this water no longer meets World Health Organization (WHO) standards, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
The repeated devastation caused by Israeli bombing and embargos on the materials needed to rebuild have left Gaza with a barely functioning piped water network. The solution for most people was a network of about 100 privately operated water desalination plants, according to a 2022 report by the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. These would pump water from wells throughout the strip, treat it and sell it, at a price of about $7 per 1,000 litres, to customers who would store it in water tanks in their homes.
But even this water could pose a hazard. Only about half of these private desalination plants operated with a licence, Al Mezan reported. Chemical analysis by Gaza’s ministry of health in 2021 found eight out of 38 samples did not reach Palestinian standards. Microbiological tests found samples contaminated with coliform bacteria, including faecal coliform bacteria. In 2020, the UN Development Programme reported that 26% of all childhood diseases in Gaza were water-related.
Many of these problems are a result of Israel’s longstanding occupation and blockade of Gaza. Crucial components for the repair and maintenance of Gaza’s fresh and wastewater networks, as well as for its desalination facilities, have been banned.
Since Israel’s latest intensification of attacks on Gaza, which followed the 7 October assault by Hamas on Israeli communities close to the fence around the territory, even the rudimentary water provision has been obliterated. All three of Gaza’s main municipal desalination facilities are out of action, as are all the pumping stations on its water network. “All sewage treatment plants are also out of service and raw sewage is a huge threat [to the] people, aquifer and sea,” Attili said, adding that an estimated 130,000 cubic metres of wastewater was currently being siphoned straight into the eastern Mediterranean.
Monther Shoblaq, chief executive of Gaza’s water utility, said that before the current bombardment, the supplied water on average was 300,000 m3/day from all sources. “Under the current severe and spontaneous shelling and bombardment, it’s impossible to assess the damages on infrastructure,” Shoblaq said. “But many facilities were reported to have damages and some are out of service. Moreover a lot of household connections were damaged.”
Since Saturday, some aid has been provided to Palestinians via the Rafah crossing from Egypt, including limited amounts of bottled water. UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, said about 11,000 cubic metres of water was being pumped from nine water wells daily. Some water is being piped in by Israel to the south of Gaza, but without pumping stations these meagre supplies cannot reach far beyond a few districts close to the border.
What Gaza’s water system needs most of all is fuel. Without fuel, of which Israel is blocking imports, water can no longer be pumped from wells and desalination plants can no longer be operated. Without fuel, UNRWA has said it will have to end its operations in the strip by Wednesday night.
With water production in Gaza at 5% of normal levels, according to the WHO, lack of water on the strip is precipitating an humanitarian crisis that goes beyond thirst. The OCHA said over the weekend: “Health partners have detected cases of chickenpox, scabies and diarrhoea, attributable to the poor sanitation conditions and consumption of water from unsafe sources.
“The incidence of such diseases is expected to rise unless water and sanitation facilities are provided with electricity or fuel to resume operations.”