Gaza’s Contaminated Water

“Water is our soul, it is life,” says Meryam Abu Ryalah, speaking to MAP at her house overlooking the sea in Beach Refugee Camp, northern Gaza. “Now it is summer and we need to wash our clothes, clean our house and wash our windows and doors to prepare for Eid al Fitr.”

 “There is a severe daily water shortage,” says Meryam. “When there is electricity, there is no water, and when there is no electricity, there is water.”

Much of Gaza’s water supply infrastructure was damaged during the 2014 attacks on Gaza. Two years on, 40 percent of the equipment needed for operating water and waste-water facilities has still not been able to get into Gaza. Twenty percent of the water and sewage networks have not been fully restored, leaving entire neighbourhoods cut off.

When there is electricity, there is no water, and when there is no electricity, there is water.

“We pay ten shekels to fill a big tank for drinking water and two other small containers, which is enough for five days,” she continues. “The water here is very salty. The other day, when the water was disconnected for four days, we had to bring water direct from the sea to wash our bathrooms.”

“We sometimes have to wash our clothes using drinking water because there’s no water during the day. We shower with salty water and we can’t provide fresh water to the 20 people who live in the house.”

Water-borne disease

Sami Lubbad, Director of Public Health Department and Laboratories in the Gaza Ministry of Health, says that there are currently two major challenges to water quality in Gaza: “The first problem is the high concentration of chemical impurities, including salt. This has a variety of causes, including over-consumption, the high population, and the disorganised and illegal digging of water wells across Gaza. Seawater also contaminates fresh water sources, meaning that in less than 10 years all the water in Gaza will be salinated.”

Just last year, the UN estimated that contamination and over-extraction from Gaza’s only aquifer could make it unusable by this year and the effects irreversible in five years. This was one of the factors contributing to their warning that Gaza may be ‘unliveable’ by 2020 if current trends continue.

“Another problem is the high concentration of nitrates in the water due to the over-use of fertilisers in agriculture,” says Sami. “With the area of land available for agriculture decreasing in Gaza, farmers plant crops more than once per year and have to use more fertilisers and pesticides to ensure their crops grow. These in turn enter the soil and leak into aquifers. We also see contamination from sewage pipes.”

The result of this is predictable: People get sick. “Symptoms of water-borne illnesses, like diarrhea, stomach ache and vomiting, are quite common” says Sami. “Unfortunately, when patients go to hospitals or clinics, doctors often can’t help due to the challenges they face in diagnosing water-borne diseases.”

Water testing

Gaza’s public health department runs laboratories which check the safety of public water sources such as wells, imported water bottles, desalination plants and water tankers. Employees collect samples, which are tested for microbiological and chemical contamination.

With a great deal of sewage being pumped into the sea in Gaza, they also test sea water to make sure it’s clear of diseases like cholera and salmonella. “Before every summer season we tell the people which areas they can and cannot swim in,” says Sami. “There are improvements happening, like the building of a new desalination plant for the sea water, but these are partial solutions, which won’t resolve the problems caused by the destruction in Gaza.”

A durable solution to Gaza’s water woes will only come with an end to the blockade and closure of Gaza, which has now entered its tenth year. Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) is calling for international action to end the blockade of Gaza and the fifty-year occupation of Palestinian territory.

You can add your voice to this call by signing our petition today.

Featured image: (Photo credit: Lara Aburamadan)

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