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Water Under Siege - Gaza's Looming Catastrophe

In the shadow of the hostilities that are ravaging the country and ruining lives, a hidden crisis is arriving in Gaza—a crisis of water, the source of life itself. The severe and continuous water crisis is a tragic reminder of the disastrous impact of violence and conflict on human necessities. The combination of military action, environmental degradation, and political siege has resulted in a severe humanitarian crisis that threatens the lives of Gazans.


An Illustration on Gaza's Water Crisis

Illustration by The Geostrata


With the death toll already over 31,000 and a devastating humanitarian crisis gripping the strip, one of the most pressing issues confronting its citizens is access to water. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also expressed grave concern that “[t]he death toll will increase exponentially… if children continue to drink unsafe water and have no access to medicine when they get sick.”


The 2.2 million Palestinians living in Gaza receive 1-3 litres of drinking water per day and often go to the sea or other poor drinking water sources leading to Dehydration, flu, and skin diseases caused by lack of safe and sufficient water are common.

At the heart of Gaza's water crisis is the coastal aquifer, the region's main source of fresh water, which is on the verge of collapse. Decades of overuse, combined with pollution from sewage and agriculture, have left the water in a dangerous state. Recent military operations have further damaged these scarce resources. 


CAUSES OF THE WATER CRISIS


The water crisis in Gaza is a complex problem caused by a mix of environmental, political, and economic causes. Gaza's fresh water supply is nearly completely derived from coastal aquifers, with 97 percent of it being wastewater.

The demand for water considerably exceeds the aquifer's natural recharge rate, resulting in excessive water use. As water levels fall, seawater from the surrounding Mediterranean Sea infiltrates, raising the salinity of the groundwater to levels unfit for human consumption, consumption, or agriculture. Gaza enhances its groundwater resources by acquiring the majority of its drinking water from Israel and developing desalination plants. 


However, due to water constraints in Gaza, Israel has restricted access to the materials required to create water infrastructure. The control measures implemented by the Israeli military have the potential to delay or halt all necessary services, such as water pipes and construction equipment. This poses significant hurdles for the construction and operation of water infrastructure, particularly desalination plants, limiting Gaza's ability to offer basic services.


Years of conflict between Hamas and Israel have caused significant damage to Gaza's water and sewage infrastructure. The fight in 2014 cost these machines USD 34 million. During the May 2021 update, 290 water supply "items" were damaged, resulting in USD 1-15 million in damages. 

Fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture combine with groundwater, causing the spread of nitrates and other toxic substances, further polluting the water, also this raises unemployment and places further strain on existing economies, resulting in a vicious cycle of poverty and water scarcity.


Furthermore, the ongoing Israeli military occupation and other land restrictions have reduced physical space for agriculture in Gaza, affecting livelihoods and disrupting agricultural development while also exacerbating desertification and making Gaza more vulnerable to climate change. 


Climate change is exacerbating the dilemma; changing rainfall patterns endanger future water supplies, and water insecurity raises the prospect of investment in climate change while creating a sense of unsustainableness. People are already having difficulty accessing basic water due to this predicament. 


CURRENT CONDITIONS


Gaza faces the fundamental challenge of scarcity of natural water resources. Seawater intrusion due to overexploitation and wastewater pollution has rendered coastal aquifers (the only natural water source) 97 percent unfit for human consumption.


Before the war that continues today, Gazans had access to only one-fifth of the safe drinking water recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO); On average, he was getting only 21 litres of clean water per day, compared to the recommended 100 litres.

This huge difference results in drinking water in Gaza being available to less than 10 percent of the Israeli population, who drink an average of 280 litres of water per day. The toll of the Gaza crises is tremendous. With infrastructure devastated, access to safe drinking water has become a luxury few people can afford. This circumstance prompted many people to purchase expensive bottled water, putting additional strain on their limited finances, or to risk drinking water that they know is unsafe.


In June 2023, UNICEF reported that 96 percent of Gaza's water was unsafe for human consumption. Aside from the poor quality of the water, there were significant challenges in maintaining a consistent supply of water to houses and facilities due to a lack of electricity and fuel. 


More recently, the UN chief Antonio Guterres also stated in a new report warning that famine is now imminent in northern Gaza is an “appalling indictment” of the situation on the ground, which will apparently make the situation worse in the coming future if proper workable solution is not executed. 


POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS


Solving the water crisis in Gaza requires a multifaceted approach that combines emergency aid with long-term sustainability measures. Solutions must address competing challenges such as water scarcity and poor quality, as well as management practices that worsen the crisis.


First of all, the international community needs to take the necessary political measures to encourage conflict and long-term conflict, problem-solving. The immediate following interventions were identified by WASH and the Gaza Health Humanitarian Team as critical to addressing this critical water crisis:


  • Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM): Use IWRM principles for sustainable water management A way of managing water, land and other resources use in a sustainable and balanced way. 

  • Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding: Addressing political and conflict-related water challenges, including water scarcity closures and easing movement restrictions

  • Transboundary water cooperation: Agreements, sharing of water or transfer of water from neighbouring countries Regions agree that purchasing additional water resources can help solve current water shortages. 

  • Collaboration with Research Centres: Collaborate with universities and research centres to develop new solutions and deepen understanding of private water tendering for Gaza's problems. 


The water crisis in Gaza creates serious problems as well as opportunities for new solutions and international cooperation. Successful reduction of violence will require the efforts and determination of local authorities, the international community, and the people of Gaza themselves. While technological and infrastructural solutions are important, the need for political solutions to address the root causes of the crisis, including conflicts and gridlock, is equally important. It is hoped that with cooperation and support, water shortages in Gaza will no longer threaten the health, well-being and peace of its residents.


CONCLUSION


Gaza's water crisis, exacerbated by conflict and destruction of infrastructure, underscores an impending disaster that transcends immediate geopolitical tensions. The critical situation, as reported by organisations such as CSIS, UNICEF, and the WHO, highlights the profound impact of infrastructure damage in conflict zones on public health and social stability.


Long-term water security require significant changes in the challenges posed by Gaza's water supply, beyond immediate needs. This requires removing restrictions on access to information so that water managers can improve and manage their systems.

Construction of desalination plants to produce other materials could reduce Gaza's dependence on Israeli water. Increasing desalination capacity will also allow water service providers to reduce groundwater withdrawals and restore coastal waters essential for long-term sustainability. While immediate and adequate humanitarian aid is vital, long-term solutions require a broader perspective.


In a broader context, the Gaza crisis is a stark reminder of the devastating effects of conflict, including the destruction of infrastructure that lead to health problems long after the war has ended. As the world monitors the situation in Gaza, the need for peace, stability and reconstruction, as well as water security, recovery and human health in the heart of the region will re-emerge.


 

BY NEERAJ SINGH MANHAS


Neeraj Singh Manhas is the Special Advisor for South Asia at the Parley Policy Initiative, Republic of Korea. He has previously worked as the Director of Research in the Indo-Pacific Consortium at Raisina House, New Delhi. He has authored and edited six books and has various research interests covering Sino-Indian border issues; Transboundary Rivers; Water security; Defence, and Indo-Pacific studies. He has published his writings for renowned institutions such as the Institute for Security & Development Policy, (ISDP) in Sweden, Pacific Forum in Hawaii, Lowy Institute in Australia, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, The Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Centre for the Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), and other online platforms.


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