On the eve of the evacuation of settlements from the Gaza Strip, two assumptions relating to water sources took wing among Palestinians. The first: behind Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to leave the Strip lies the fact that the supply of potable water, which was consumed almost exclusively by the settlers, has dwindled. The second: once the settlers leave, the Palestinians’ water problems have been solved.
These assumptions have been circulating from one neighborhood to the next and from one conversation to the next, acquiring credibility, and finally turning into solid truths in the eyes of many. And it is hard to argue, especially against the second, “positive” assumption.
The serious shortage of water in the Gaza Strip is apparently fertile ground for the creation of legends – a kind of refuge from the harsh reality. Ninety percent of the water that comes from the coastal aquifer to the faucets of people in the Strip – about 1,300,000 people – is nonpotable. Never mind its brackish taste, which becomes more disgusting by the year. It can be covered by putting a lot of sugar in your tea. Never mind its murky color, which can be camouflaged by cooking. The problem, first and foremost, is that it is polluted and dangerous to the health.
The explanation is simple: The portion of the coastal aquifer that supplies water to the Strip has the potential to produce about 60 million-65 million cubic meters (CBM) annually. That is more or less the amount of water consumed by the 600,000 Gazan Palestinians in 1970, for home use and agriculture (and a little bit for industry). But with the constant growth in the population and the change in water consumption habits that is taking place everywhere, for 20 years and more there has been overpumping of the the aquifer.
At present, Palestinians pump 150 million CBM from the aquifer every year, and settlers have been pumping 4.1 million CBM annually, says hydro-geologist Ahmed al-Yaqubi, director for water sources in the Palestinian Authority Water Authority. In other words, there is a deficit of about 90 million CBM annually. The overpumping has a direct effect on the quality of the water. “And the Israelis are well aware of this,” he adds.
In certain places, where the aquifer’s water is located nine meters below sea level, the hydrostatic balance is disturbed, and sea water infiltrates into the aquifer. This is found within about two kilometers of the coast. As the Gaza Strip is around 10 km wide, about 20 percent of it is affected by the infiltration of seawater.
Another problem comes from sewage: About 40 percent of homes are not connected to the sewage network, and they make do with cesspools, which leak into the aquifer. Untreated sewage also infiltrates the underground water from places that are linked up to the sewage system, despite international assistance in building purification facilities. The pollution is reflected in pipes that are frequently blocked and in the pollution that accumulates in the bottom of water tanks.
More and more homes and institutions are installing private purification and filtering facilities, but it is mainly the upper middle class who can afford this. Others make a distinction: for cleaning and bathing, they use tap water. This somewhat oily water doesn’t leaves one feeling refreshed after a shower, but in any case, the only ones who can tell the difference are people from Tel Aviv or Ramallah. Most of the people in Gaza haven’t left it for years, and so have difficulty comparing their experience with the feeling of fresh, clear, non-salty water on the skin.
They buy their drinking water from private companies, which at an investment of $10,000 have installed small plants for purifying water. There are 36 such plants distributed throughout the Strip. The smallest purify 10-20 CBM of water a day, the larger ones purify 50 CBM. Each CBM, or 1,000 liters, sells for NIS 50 – compared to an average NIS 1 that is paid to the municipalities for tap water. Just as natural gas canisters are brought to the customer’s home, the same is true for purified water – which is used only for drinking and cooking. The Health Ministry makes sure that this water actually is potable.
But there are many families – in a society where more than 60 percent of families live in poverty – who cannot afford this either. They rely on charitable organizations, all of them Islamic, which have built their own purification facilities, and distribute water to the needy. Free distribution is also carried out by various municipalities, which have built their own purification facilities. They have installed faucets from which people fill their jerricans.
That is one of the household chores carried out by boys, and judging by their cries of joy next to the gushing water at a Khan Yunis public faucet, they don’t find the chore burdensome. And then there are local entrepreneurs who fill gallons of water, load them on wagons harnessed to donkeys or horses, and distribute them to homes in exchange for delivery fees. It is difficult to estimate the number of poor people who, due to lack of awareness or difficulty of access, use nonpotable water for drinking.
All these limitations, including water stoppages initiated by municipalities, have set the maximum home consumption at 60-70 liters per person per day. Less than the 100 liters that have been determined as an essential minimum by professionals, less than the average of about 220 liters per day consumed in Israel. The Palestinian Water Authority says the settlers in the Gaza Strip had an even higher rate of consumption.
New sources needed
Khaled of Khan Yunis, who worked in the hothouses of Gush Katif, had the opportunity there to understand the meaning of unlimited water and was able to compare the water in his house with clear, clean water. “My greatest pleasure when I worked in the settlement,” he recalled last week when the settlers of Gush Katif were being evacuated, “was to wash my face with the water there. What a refreshing feeling. And how good the water tasted.”
Will the evacuation bring about a great change in the water situation in the Strip? Al-Yaqubi wants to nip the illusions in the bud. According to statistics provided to the Palestinian Water Authority by Mekorot, the Israeli national water company, the 8,000 settlers in the Gaza Strip consumed about eight million CBM of water annually. Of those, about 4.1 million were pumped from the aquifer at 26 wells drilled since 1967, most in the area that was Gush Katif. Another 3.8 million CBM came from within Israel.
In other words, settlers consumed an average of about 1,000 CBM of fresh, clean water annually – compared to the 123 CBM of brackish and polluted water used by each Palestinian. In contrast to those who assume that Sharon evacuated the settlers because the water in the part of the aquifer that served the settlements had dwindled, Al-Yaqubi says that to the best of his knowledge the condition of the aquifer there was good, it did not suffer from overpumping and it has a renewal potential of between six and eight million CBM annually.
“We hear that there is a plan to expand agricultural activity in the region, to open it to tourism, to various factories,” says Al Yaqubi. His words contain a warning by a professional to politicians who are making dangerous promises: “All that requires huge quantities of water. If we depend on the existing underground water, in the belief that there is a great deal of water, we will quickly destroy the aquifer. Faster than anyone can imagine. You have to remember that the aquifer has a limited capacity, that its renewal potential is limited, and that we cannot raise the quantity of water pumped from it beyond the amount of water that is renewed,” he says.
“We have to deal with two statistics,” continues Al-Yaqubi. “There is no way of reducing the population in Gaza, and there is no way of expanding the capacity of the aquifer.” One solution, he says – again emphasizing that he is not speaking as a politician – is “to throw half the population of Gaza to a place where there is water.” To the West Bank, for example. He doesn’t mention other places where there is water. Israel, for example. Or Canada.
But the realistic solution, of course, is to add water from other sources. Israel adamantly refuses Palestinian requests to transport water to the Strip from the West Bank. According to the Oslo Accords, Israel is required to sell the Strip 10 million CBM annually. For years, five million CBM have been sold. The other five million that were promised have not been bought, because the existing infrastructure did not make this possible, and because the PA cannot meet the cost: NIS 3 per CBM.
Another possible source is desalination of seawater. A program adopted by the United States Agency for International Development to build a desalination plant – which in the beginning would produce about 22 million CBM annually at a cost of $70 million – was put off at the beginning of the intifada. Another desalination facility, which was built in the north of the Strip with French funding, became inoperable because of all the shooting, and because Palestinians were not allowed access to the area.
Even if desalination plants are built, warns Al-Yaqubi, they would require an improvement in the economic situation in order to operate. The problem is not the the cost of construction, but the operating costs. Desalinated seawater is expensive, and it isn’t worthwhile to operate such plants in the Strip for the few who would be able to pay NIS 10 per CBM of water. “The surprise is that we are still alive,” he says, summing up the severity of the situation.