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Gaza’s Other War

• November 20, 2012 • 10:24 AM

Israel and Gaza have been torn apart by missile strikes this week, but Gaza’s rapidly depleting aquifer is about to make things even more precarious.

Of all the things the governments of Israel and Gaza have against each other, the fate of a water treatment plant would seem like the least of the problem. A little-noted UN report released in August argued the opposite: that the rockets flying between the two sides may be less destructive than long-standing wrangles over water.

Gaza in 2020 is sober reading even as government resource reports go. Being a desert, sources of water are few, straining an aquifer that feeds the tiny strip as well as parts of Israel and Egypt. According to the U.N. Environment Program, only ten percent of the aquifer’s water remains potable, and it will become entirely useless in as little as three years, beyond which point it will take centuries to replenish itself. From the UN study:

With no perennial  streams and low rainfall, Gaza relies almost  completely on the underlying coastal aquifer, which is partly replenished by rainfall and runoff from the Hebron hills to the east, with the recharge estimated at 50 to 60 million cubic metres (MCM) annually.

Current abstraction of water from the aquifer, at an estimated 160 MCM per year to meet current overall demand, is well beyond that.

As groundwater levels subsequently decline, sea water infiltrates from the nearby Mediterranean Sea. Salinity levels have thus risen well beyond guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO) for safe drinking water. This pollution is compounded by contamination of the aquifer by nitrates from uncontrolled sewage, and fertilizers from irrigation of farmlands.

Today 90% of water from the aquifer is not safe for drinking without treatment. Availability of clean water is thus limited for most Gazans with average consumption of 70 to 90 litres per person per day (depending on the season), below the global WHO standard of 100 litres per person per day. The aquifer could become unusable as early as 2016, with the damage irreversible by 2020.

Various attempts to solve the problem have met with middling results. A passel of NGO and UN-led initiatives have sought to develop desalinization capacity and water treatment plants. Typically, the projects have run into import issues—parts for water treatment facilities are hard to get into Gaza without running afoul of security rules that ban import of many industrial materials.

If the U.N. estimate is accurate, that gives leaders in Gaza and Israel three years to hammer out the details of their coexistence before it becomes impossible for the strip, which is smaller than Los Angeles, to provide potable water to its 1.6 million people. Last summer, the British charity Oxfam claimed that Gaza residents were spending as much as a third of their monthly family income buying water on a fierce private market, and reports including this useful one from the Jerusalem Post noted that Gaza’s water authority had faced price increases from the territory’s chief provider of clean water—Israel.

Marc Herman

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