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As Gaza heads for water crisis, desalination seen key

By Nidal al-Mughrabi | 26 June 2013

GAZA (Reuters) – A tiny wedge of land jammed between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean sea, the Gaza Strip is heading inexorably into a water crisis that the United Nations says could make the Palestinian enclave unliveable in just a few years.

With 90-95 percent of the territory’s only aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater, neighbourhood desalination facilities and their public taps are a lifesaver for some of Gaza’s 1.6 million residents.

But these small-scale projects provide water for only about 20 percent of the population, forcing many more residents in the impoverished Gaza Strip to buy bottled water at a premium.

“There is a crisis. There is a serious deficit in the water resources in Gaza and there is a serious deterioration in the water quality,” said Rebhi El Sheikh, deputy chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA).

The Gaza Strip, governed by the Islamist group Hamas and in a permanent state of tension with Israel, is not the only place in the Middle East facing water woes.

A NASA study of satellite data released this year showed that between 2003 and 2009 the region lost 144 cubic km of stored freshwater – equivalent to the amount of water held in the Dead Sea – making an already bad situation much worse.

But the situation in Gaza is particularly acute, with the United Nations warning that its sole aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with the damage potentially irreversible by 2020.

Only five to 10 percent of the aquifer’s water is presently deemed safe to drink, but even this can mix with poor quality water during distribution, making it good only for washing.

“The tap water from the municipality is not fit to drink, and my husband is a kidney patient,” said Sahar Moussa, a mother of three, who lives in a cramped, ramshackle house in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, near the Egyptian border.

She spends 45 shekels ($12.50) each month – a large sum for most Palestinians in the area – to buy filtered water that she stores in a 500-litre plastic tank.

Further complicating the issue is Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, which activists say has prevented the import of materials needed for repairs on water and waste facilities. Israel says the blockade is needed to prevent arms from reaching Hamas, which is opposed to the existence of the Jewish state.

The United Nations estimates that more than 80 percent of Gazans buy their drinking water.

“Families are paying as much as a third of their household income on water,” said June Kunugi, a special representative of the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF.

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