A strip of land where 97% of the water has been deemed unpotable. Where citizens must pay exorbitant market prices for bottled water in order to fulfil their basic needs. Where those who cannot afford it, being the majority due to skyrocketing unemployment rates, have to resort to contaminated water. Where the quality and quantity of the water has led to a variety of severe health issues, from anaemia to stunted growth in children, becoming endemic.
This is how media coverage has reported the humanitarian catastrophe that is the water crisis in the Gaza Strip. Experts have further sustained the severity of these claims, with the UN stating that, if the current situation is not resolved, Gaza will become uninhabitable by 2020. Wracked by a sense of urgency, both regional and international actors seek to ensure that access to safe drinking water will once again become a reality for the citizens of Gaza. However, the enormity of the issue poses serious questions about the ways in which it can be confronted.
Directly causing the water scarcity in Gaza is the irreparable damage done to the Coastal Aquifer, the main source of water for the local population. Aquifers are strata of permeable rocks below ground level, through which water can be drawn out. Due to the rapid increase of inhabitants within Gaza, the levels of extraction from the Coastal Aquifer have surpassed that of natural replenishment, leading to the decrease of groundwater levels in the area. The impact this has had on the quality of the extracted water is twofold: salt levels have dramatically increased due to infiltration via bodies of water, such as the Mediterranean Sea. Additionally, raw sewage and untreated wastewater have been able to contaminate the aquifer. The salinization and pollution of the principle water resource in Gaza seems to be the crux to resolving the crisis in its entirety.
By focusing on the disintegrating Coastal Aquifer, a specific framing of the Gazan water crisis takes shape, which directly implicates the solutions that can be enacted locally. This framing is one that is largely removed from the social and political context. The humanitarian issue becomes viewed principally through a geographic lens and environmental degradation appears as the primary concern. Historic considerations behind the degradation are taken into account, notably that the overpopulation which led to the aquifer’s strain directly resulted from the mass migration of Palestinian refugees towards Gaza following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Nonetheless, this still creates a temporal dissociation from the present political climate within the region. Upon this perspective, the international community have attempted to build immediate solutions to the Gazan water crisis. One of the most significant examples is the European Union, whose half-billion dollars project will include the construction of a desalinization facility and maintenance of local pipelines and water storage units.
Although projects relying on technical expertise are a definitive step towards alleviating the daily difficulties of Gazan citizens, removing politics from the discussion of the water crisis only results in stopgap solutions – schemes that address surface issues, without considering that the catastrophe has far deeper roots than a faulty aquifer. The 2005 election of Hamas in the Gaza Strip effectively separated this territory from the Palestinian Authority-governed West Bank and commenced the formal disengagement of Israel. However, the blockade imposed by Israel and sustained by Egypt, on the grounds of Hamas acting as a threat, effectively initiated the controls of goods and people entering and exiting Gaza’s borders. This has led to agencies such as the UN claiming that Israel still enforces ‘indirect occupation’ over Gaza. Insufficient basic supplies allowed into the territory have escalated the severity of the water crisis; from the lack of building materials resulting in water delivery and sewage treatment plants remaining unbuilt after the bombings of the 2014 war, to the lack of medical supplies resulting in the deteriorating social conditions surrounding the water scarcity.
In a broader context, Israel’s occupation over all Palestinian territories has resulted in the creation of laws that severely restrict Palestinian access to water resources. Israel’s control over water sources, such as the Mountain Aquifer in the West Bank or the Jordan River, are delineated in Military Order 158; this states that Palestinian extraction of water must be controlled, such as through hard to obtain permits to develop new water infrastructure and the limits of allowed rainfall collection. These political considerations prove Gaza’s water crisis to be a product of their forced dependency on Israel
The water scarcity in Gaza highlights a human rights violation that cannot be solved in the long-term if it is removed from its political context. Although harder to come by and less immediate, sustained efforts to develop political solutions in resolving the crisis must be encouraged. The focus of these solutions is Israel’s informal occupation of Gaza, as well as its occupation of Palestine as a whole. Whether this is counteracted through supporting the reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, or demanding a comprehensive Israeli peace deal with the Palestinians, including a newly drafted water sharing scheme, remains to be seen. As Adrian Abu Hasan, spokesperson for the UNRWA branch dedicated to Gaza, states, ‘If you really want to change the lives of people, you have to solve the water issue first.’ The lack of water is crucial to the wider humanitarian impact facing the whole population of Gaza. If change is to be seen within the Gaza Strip, we must go beyond technical solutions and instil political ones.