A Gaza Water Diary
Writer: Mohammed Shehada
It has taken me ages to write this article. Every time I get started, I read back over the first three lines and I feel depressed. I keep telling myself, “You don’t want to depress the reader too,” and so I start all over again. After a while I realized that what makes it difficult to write this article is that I am trying to reflect the everyday reality of life in Gaza, and our everyday reality is often depressing. But let me nevertheless tell you about water in Gaza.
Until three months ago, I was like most people in Gaza: I didn’t think much about water. In our family, my father is the one who makes sure we have running water in our home. Getting water in Gaza is not simply a question of turning the tap on: as we don’t have a regular water supply from the municipality because of the water shortages, we use a system of tanks that are stored on rooftops. They are filled up whenever the water supply is switched on, so that we have reserve supplies to last us for the rest of the week (if we’re careful). It’s simple enough once you know the system.
I knew that there were problems with our water. Sometimes the sewage running through the streets annoyed me, but I didn’t really think much about it. After a while I even got so used to the sewage that I would only notice if it wasn’t flowing down the street by my house.
But besides that, I didn’t have any understanding of the situation; I knew that it was “bad” but nothing else. Bad as in “the bad, awful smell of the sewage flooding the streets”, bad as in “bad to drink” though I didn’t know how bad or why and whether this was how water was in other countries.
Here in Palestine water is like medicine: you need it, but it has side effects. In the Gaza Strip, water affects your skin and hair when you have a shower, your eyes when you wash, and your kidneys when you drink it – and that’s just the effects I know about. It may sound hard to believe, but I only recently found out that it is not normal to have “side effects” when you have a shower: when a friend visited Gaza for a few days, she complained bitterly about the water and I was puzzled – I didn’t know it could be any different…
Salt and sewage
But all that was before I got involved in Thirsting for Justice, a campaign run by the Emergency Water and Sanitation Hygiene group (EWASH), an international body that coordinates the work of over 30 organizations working in the water and sanitation sector in Palestine. The campaign brings together a group of 40 young Gazans and teaches them how to advocate for their human right to clean, affordable water. It has been a life-changing experience for me: I’ve seen things I didn’t even know existed and learned that in Gaza, water is more often a cause of disease than a source of life.
In the first month of the campaign, our activities mainly focused on teaching locals how to save water and making them aware of the growing water scarcity in the Gaza Strip. It was not too challenging – a bit like teaching a language course to beginners, but instead I was informing fellow citizens about the threats posed by water scarcity and pollution.
Gazans use about 90 liters of water per day. At first, this seemed like a reasonable amount to me, but then I read that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a minimum of 100l-150l/person/day to make sure that all health needs are met. What shocked many people is that the average Israeli citizen consumes around 280l/day. How is that possible, I wondered? If we live in the same geographical area and share the same water resources, why is there such a difference? Isn’t there enough water for everybody?
The answer is complicated, because on the one hand there is not enough water in Gaza to meet the needs of the 1.6 million people living here, and, on the other hand, the scarce water we do have is heavily polluted with salt, sewage and chemicals. And of course, the political situation has made it impossible to resolve either of these issues, with the result that our water is getting dirtier every day.
In Gaza, the only source of water is the Coastal Aquifer, which has a sustainable yield of 55Mm3/year. Over the years, as the population has grown, we have started to over-pump the aquifer to the extent that we now extract around 170Mm3/year – more than three times the safe yield. As a result, seawater is seeping into the aquifer and our water is salty: a 2009 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study shows that salinity levels in most parts of the Gaza Strip are well above the WHO approved guideline of 250 mg/l. UNEP has also said that extraction should stop immediately in order to protect the Coastal Aquifer and the health of those depending on it. Unfortunately, at the moment we have no other choice than to keep using this water.
Saltwater is not the only thing seeping into the aquifer though; sewage is also filtering into the groundwater across the Gaza Strip. Every day up to 80 million liters of untreated or partially treated sewage is released into the environment and the Mediterranean Sea. Much of this untreated sewage trickles straight into the aquifer, along with agricultural chemicals such as fertilizer and other dangerous materials from waste dumps. As a result, nitrate levels in the aquifer are between two and eight times higher than they should be. It basically means we are drinking our own untreated sewage.
You know there is a problem when you find it normal to see sewage flowing down the street. The Gaza Strip only has three wastewater treatment plants, which cannot handle the amount of wastewater produced. This means most wastewater is simply left to flow untreated through the wadis to the sea. There are plans to build new wastewater treatment plants and expand existing ones, but the political situation has paralyzed all projects.
Monther Shublaq, the director general of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), the regional water utility, told us that Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2008 has made construction and rehabilitation work difficult. The CMWU can’t obtain the necessary equipment and materials for the construction of new sewage treatment plants, nor can they obtain material to fix damaged infrastructure – sometimes they can’t even obtain simple things like membranes and chlorine to filter and disinfect water.
So how does all this affect our drinking water and our health? In our campaign pack it says that if people don’t start saving water, we will run out within 10 years. But after a few months we realized that this is not correct: already today, around 95 percent of the water in Gaza is not fit for human consumption. In Gaza, we don’t drink the water from the tap – it could kill you in a few months if you did. Instead, we buy water from vendors, but this water is also extracted from the aquifer and therefore also very polluted. I’m no expert, but when I read that the water I drink on a daily basis contains not only excessive rates of nitrates, but also fluoride and four to eight times more chloride than the recommended WHO guideline, I freaked out!
According to the CMWU, 26 percent of disease in Gaza is water-related, ranging from chronic diseases such as liver problems and renal failure to water-borne diseases such as diarrhea and hepatitis. As you can see, the more you learn about water in Gaza, the more depressed you get.
Meanwhile our awareness-raising sessions started having an effect, and people we spoke to began to understand the situation better. But at the same time, I kept wondering how our work could change things. A young boy came up to me after I gave a lecture in Rafah City. “Basically, you’re saying that if nothing is done to improve the water situation we will die,” he said and gave me a blank look. “So what? It’s nothing new.” His comment left me speechless. Now, every time I see children playing in the street I think of what he said. At the time I responded with a hollow phrase: “Don’t worry,” I said, “the world will come to our aid.” But I’m not sure I believed that myself.
Gaza’s blue babies
After our first month of campaigning, we started working on a short film to show the severity of the water crisis in Gaza. The locations we chose to shoot our footage were just a few kilometers from my home, but it was like a different world – I had no idea that anyone in Gaza lived in such conditions.
We visited the central Gaza Strip, where 35 members of the At-Tattar family live in a two-storey house in an area known as Wadi Gaza or the Gaza Valley. While you may imagine a peaceful green valley with a small river flowing through it, this Gazan valley looks very different: it is flooded with untreated sewage from the hundreds of houses in the area. Only 60 percent of Gazan households are connected to the sewage network; the remainder use septic tanks and cesspits, or simply release the sewage straight into the environment. Many Gazans can’t afford to install proper septic tanks, and many of these tanks and pits collapse during our rainy winter season.
The whole At-Tattar family is affected by the sewage that runs by their house – not only by the terrible stench, but also by the bacteria and contaminants in the water. Nour, a 3-month-old baby was crying constantly while we were speaking to her parents. She was covered in a severe rash, for which the parents could find no cure even though they had visited several doctors.
Different studies by UN organizations say that the heavy pollution of Gaza’s water, and particularly the high rates of nitrate, can severely affect the health of infants. Nitrate poisoning leads to “blue baby syndrome”, which can affect a child’s development and even be mortal in severe cases.
I can’t even describe how I felt after we visited Nour and her parents in Wadi Gaza: I was so sad, but also angry, and I partially blamed myself for the life these people lead, which is the life that so many people live all over the Gaza Strip. “We have to do something,” I told my friend. But all she said was, “What do you want to do, when we can’t even get a pack of tissues into Gaza?”
Of course she’s right. But maybe this is where we can play a role after all: we can’t build the treatment plant that will stop the pollution, but we can keep telling people around the world about the sad state of our water resources and we can keep asking them to help us reclaim our human right to water.
Don’t say it’s not your business, because Palestinians are humans, and so are you.
Mohammed Shehada is a student at the Faculty of Economics and Business Administration at
Al Azhar University in Gaza and an ambassador for the Thirsting for Justice campaign.
Thirsting for Justice
The Thirsting for Justice Campaign was launched on 22 March 2011, World Water Day, by the Emergency Water Sanitation and Hygiene group (EWASH) in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which is a coalition of 30 leading humanitarian organizations working in the water and sanitation sector in the occupied Palestinian territory. The campaign calls on European governments to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights to water and sanitation, remove obstacles for the development of water and sanitation infrastructure, and end demolitions. Read more about water in Gaza and the EWASH campaign Thirsting for Justice (T4J) and follow T4J on Facebook and Twitter: #T4J.
This article appeared in the print version of Revolve’s Water Around the Mediterranean special report in association with the Union for the Mediterranean on pages 53-57.