Water crisis in Gaza as supplies run critically low

12 Oct 2023 by The Water Diplomat

Through a report shared with the Global Observatory on Water and Peace, The Water Diplomat has been made aware of the daily struggle for water that the citizens of Gaza experience   Ahmad used to be based in the north of Gaza but had to move south due to bombardments which led to the halting of water supplies in his neighborhood. It was assumed by his family that moving to the south would mean increased safety, but this has not been the case. In the beginning, obtaining water for his family in the south was relatively easy. However, after the displacement of 1.1 million people from the north, obtaining water has become more and more difficult. The supplies which existed in the south were already insufficient before the region had to cope with the influx of internally displaced populations. Long queues have formed close to sources such as water tanks which have been supplied by UN agencies, the Red Cross, and non-governmental organisations. Ahmad spends hours out on the streets to obtain water for his family, and he takes turns with his brother to fetch water to share the security risk of being out on the streets where he could be exposed to attack.

On the 12th of October, the Israeli Minister of Energy, Israel Katz, made the weaponization of electricity, water and fuel official government policy, announcing that neither electricity, water nor fuel would be supplied to the Gaza strip until the hostages taken by Hamas were returned. In addition, the Israeli government stated that there would be no humanitarian breaks to its siege of Gaza until the freeing of the hostages was realized.

Before the outbreak of violence in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank in early October, an average Israeli could look forward to accessing between 240 and 300 litres of water per day while an average inhabitant of the Gaza strip could look forward to 83 litres per day. After the 11th of October, the average quantity of water available daily in Gaza dropped to 7 litres per person.   

On the 17th of October the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) had reported that water supplies were running critically low in Gaza and had dropped to 3 litres per person per day. Although the Israeli authorities restored the flow of one supply line providing some 600 m³ of water per hour to Khan Younis, this supplies only 14% of the population of the region. Furthermore, UNRWA reported that fuel supplies used to pump water (requiring 600 m³ of fuel per day)  also dropped to critically low levels following the blockade of essential services. On the 16th of October, Gaza's last functioning seawater desalination plant ceased to function.

On 6 November, Reliefweb announced that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency UNRWA together with UNICEF distributed restricted quantities of fuel which had been stored in Gaza before the hostilities to restore the functioning of 120 municipal water wells across the Gaza Strip, including in northern regions. This groundwater is brackish and not healthy for personal consumption. In northern Gaza, the two main sources of drinking water - a desalination plant and a water connection from Israel - have been shut down for several weeks. In the south, one of the two desalination plants is operational, alongside two pipelines supplying water from Israel. 

According to Principle 5 of the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure during armed conflicts, States must refrain from “limiting access to, or destroying, water services and infrastructure as a punitive measure” in violation of international humanitarian law. 

In terms of international humanitarian law, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is an ongoing armed conflict and thus governed by the principles of humanitarian law. A key principle of this body of law is that the parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between combatants and civilians. Civilians may not be the target of attack, and nor is hostage taking permitted.  

An Israeli airstike in early November directly targeted a public water tank that supplies several neighbourhoods east of Rafah. Also, a larger reservoir in Maghazi which supplies 60% of the water needs of the Jabaliya was dstroyed. In terms of Principle 6 of the Geneva Principles, water infrastructure and water-related infrastructure are presumed to be civilian objects and, in such case, must not be attacked. 

The Gaza strip has limited water resources available for development. Its main water sources consist of only one source of surface water – the Wadi Gaza - and one groundwater source, i.e., the Gaza Coastal Aquifer. The main source of water in Gaza is the Gaza Coastal Aquifer which provides the water for a population of 2.3 million people. The safe yield of this shallow aquifer is estimated to be 50 million m³/ annum, but groundwater extraction is taking place at about 194 m³. As a result of the over pumping of the aquifer, there is currently saltwater intrusion from the coast. Some 96% of the household water from the aquifer is not potable as a result of the salt content.  According to American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA), only 3.8% of the Palestinian Water Authority’s 288 authorized wells tested within WHO health standards due to salinity, sewage, and chemical runoff into the aquifer.

Although Gaza used to have natural surface water, both the quantity and the quality of the water have diminished over time.  Wadi Gaza rises in the Negev hills in southern Israel and extends for some 100 km northwards and used to flow through Gaza, feeding coastal wetlands in Gaza before flowing into the Mediterranean Sea. However, upstream diversions of the water source by Israel in the 1970’s decreased the flow of the Wadi, and inside Gaza the valley underwent significant urbanization without adequate infrastructure for the treatment of sewage. Therefore, over time the Wadi was subjected to accumulation of solid waste and increasingly the release of untreated wastewater and sewage. Between 70% and 80% of the wastewater of Gaza is released into the environment without treatment.