95 per cent of the water extracted from the aquifer is unfit for human consumption
Eight months after the August 2014 ceasefire, it is estimated that approximately 120,000 people across the Gaza Strip remain without a municipal water supply due to unrepaired damage sustained by the infrastructure during the summer hostilities. The affected households have become entirely dependent on water tankers. Those households with an operational connection to the network are supplied only two to three days a week, for a few hours each time. According to the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), based on rolling power outages of up to 12 hours per day, the average water consumption in Gaza is 60-70 litres per capita per day.
Apart from the municipal water supply, which has high salinity levels, the majority of Gaza households rely on the purchase of desalinated water from unregulated private vendors for drinking and cooking purposes. Longstanding over-extraction from Gaza’s underground aquifer – the sole water source for the 1.8 million inhabitants – has led to the intrusion of brackish water and sea water from deeper layers of the aquifer. Together with additional pollution sources (e.g. infiltration of untreated sewage), this has rendered nearly three-quarters of the wells in Gaza, which provide 95 per cent of the extracted water, unfit for human consumption due to the high levels of nitrates and chlorides.
Large-scale damage to water and wastewater systems during the hostilities affected 20 to 30 per cent of Gaza’s population. The CMWU, the Palestinian Water Authority and Gaza municipalities managed to address approximately 80 per cent of the basic repairs, particularly in the most densely-populated communities affected. However, most of these interventions were temporary and the water and wastewater infrastructure still requires major permanent repairs.
According to the CMWU, some of the post-hostilities projects designed for the recovery and further development of Gaza’s water infrastructure have been delayed due to funding gaps and the slow pace of entry of the materials required. Additionally, part of the damage to water and wastewater infrastructure in areas that were particularly devastated during the hostilities is yet to be assessed as rubble removal is still ongoing.
The functioning of water and sanitation facilities has been further undermined since the hostilities by the increasing shortages and unreliability of the electricity supply. This is due to damage sustained by the Gaza Power Plant (GPP), which has only been partially repaired, and funding shortfalls related to some extent to internal Palestinian disputes. Chronic fuel shortages force the GPP to reduce production and shut down intermittently. The situation in Rafah governorate, which is partially dependent on the supply of electricity from Egypt, has been further compounded by the recurrent malfunctioning of the relevant feeding line. The scheduled power cuts severely impact public services, including the water supply and wastewater treatment process.
Due to the limited electricity power supply, water and sanitation facilities are dependent on back-up generators running on fuel. To maintain a minimum level of services, UNRWA, in coordination with OCHA and with the generous support of the International Development Bank, secured the provision of 130,000 litres of emergency fuel per month for critical WASH facilities for the rest of 2015.
While this addresses some of the most immediate energy gaps, Gaza requires a long-term energy solution. With power outages of up to 12 hours a day, the supply of emergency fuel by donors to keep hospitals, municipal services and water, sanitation and hygiene services running is unsustainable.
* This piece originally appeared in OCHA’s April 2015 Humanitarian Bulletin.