Water for Gaza's people        15 March 08

 

David Halpin is a retired surgeon from Devon who comes to Gaza regularly. The points which follow are from a talk he was to give at a conference in Gaza. As the conference was delayed by Israel’s onslaught on Gaza in February, he could not be there and asked me to give the talk instead.

 

His interest in Gaza’s water started when he was told that the ordinary tap water is not fit to drink. He was worried to hear that very toxic and non-biodegradable chemicals, such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), are probably present in the groundwater as a result of the burning of plastics. These chemicals can cause cancers, genetic mutations and congenital abnormalities. The charity which he founded – the Dove and Dolphin – therefore decided to provide stainless steel tanks to distribute safe drinking water in schools.

 

Historically, Gaza provided a stopping point on the road from Egypt because there was sweet water in the wells and in the river. It was an oasis. In 1945 the population of Gaza was 70,000. The total population of Palestine was 1.85 million, of whom two thirds were Palestinian Arabs and one third were Jews, most from Europe. Now there are 11 million people living in former Palestine, including 6 million in the part which now forms Israel.

 

In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were driven by armed force and terror from their homes, their land, their wells, and their livelihood: El Nakba, the Catastrophe. Many fled to the Gaza Strip. There is a black and white film from this time on the excellent web site, “Palestine Remembered.”  The film is called "Sands of Sorrow." It shows terrible suffering caused by the Nakba. Children in the film look as if they have come from the Nazi death camps. Very many died. People displaced by the Jews, and the descendents of the displaced, make up three quarters of the 1.5 million people now living in the Gaza Strip. It is a ghetto with conditions resembling those in Warsaw and the other ghettos created by the Nazis.  

 

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At present 120 million cubic metres of water are being pumped annually from the aquifer under the Strip. This aquifer is fed by fresh water from the east and salty water from the west, where calcium chloride from the local rocks leaches into it. Hydrologists estimate that the aquifer is partly replenished by about 50 million cubic metres of rainwater a year. Because only a proportion is being replaced, the level of water in the aquafer has fallen, so that salty water from the sea is percolating into it. Because Israeli measures have deliberately prevented development and adequate maintenance of waste water treatment plants in the Strip, some of Gaza’s sewerage water runs down through the sandy soil into the aquifer. Consequently there is bacterial, protozoal and viral contamination of its water.

 

In addition, water used for irrigation, containing fertilizers and pesticides, runs into the aquifer. One of these pesticides is lindane which is banned in Europe because it causes congenital abnormalities. The instructions about how to use pesticides are often not understood by the farmers here because they are in Hebrew. Some of the agricultural chemicals contain heavy metals which add to the health risks.

 

Overflowing sewerage settlement tanks

 

Sabotage of water treatment

tower by Israeli gunfire

Water in the aquifer contains nitrates which can react with haemoglobin in the blood to causes methaemoglobinaemia. This is of particular risk in infants, leading to 'blue baby' syndrome. A UN report associates a high nitrate level in drinking water with the risk of miscariage. Chlorine has to be added to the water supply to kill infectious organisms. Unfortunately, nitrates and chlorine react with organic matter from sewerage to form carcinogens which cause intestinal and other cancers.

 

 

 

To summarize: salts, chemically contaminated water used for irrigation, and a large quantity of sewage water carrying infectious disease agents, are recycled through the aquifer, and are therefore present in the water which the people of Gaza use. The problems with Gaza ’s water are man-made, and are primarily due to overcrowding caused by the displacement of Palestinians into the Strip and their imprisonment here.

 

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One way of removing toxic chemicals from water is to use reverse osmosis. Three industrial companies are doing this in Gaza City on a small scale. Water is forced through a membrane with very fine pores. Considerable pressure is needed, requiring the expenditure of much energy, the environmental cost of which must be taken into account. USAID planned to provide a number of reverse osmosis plants, the first of which would produce 22 million cubic metres of purified water a year. Desalination is another possible, but also energy-demanding way of purifying water. If Gaza can use cheap gas from its offshore gas field, it may be justifiable, economically, to use reverse osmosis to purify water for Gaza . However, if fuel has to be imported from Israel to do this, there is the obvious danger that Gaza ’s untrustworthy neighbour may use control of the supply of this fuel as another way of threatening the lives of the people of Gaza .

 

Many people –  mainly the poorest –  have to rely entirely on untreated water. People who have enough money buy bottled drinking water, imported from Israel . Much of this comes from the Golan. It has been estimated that the energy used to supply water in plastic bottles in Britain is 600 times the energy needed to supply us with equally pure tap water. The environmental cost of bottling water in plastic bottles in this part of the world and then transporting it must be similar.

 

Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on earth. The population is increasing by 4% a year and is forecast to double in the next 20 years. Israelis use 5 times more water per person than Palestinians, who on average get rather less than the amount recommended by the WHO. Israel forces Palestinians to pay 4 times more per cubic metre of water than Israelis. The water in the three aquifers under the Palestinian West Bank is pure and plentiful but these aquifers are being strained because the Israel is taking too much water out of them. Since the Oslo Accords these aquifers have been under the control of Israel. Many places in the West Bank suffer severe water restriction in the heat of summer. A few days ago, someone living in Bethlehem told me that for a time last summer they were allowed water on only one day each fortnight. 

 

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What must be done to provide the people of Gaza with safe water? The rate at which water is pumped from the Gaza aquifer must be reduced by at least half to allow the water to become reasonably pure again. Health is threatened. Hypospadias, a malformation of the penis, is common here. Studies in other countries have shown that this condition is caused by feminising pesticides contaminating the water drunk by pregnant women. This is likely to be so in Gaza. The high prevalence of renal stones in Gaza may or may not be related to water composition. Pure water in sufficient quantity is a legal right. The first international laws stating this were the Hague Regulations drawn up more than 100 years ago.

 

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Can enough water of good quality be supplied for the needs of all the people crowded into the Gaza Strip?

 

At present: NO, it cannot. Sufficient drinking water could be produced for the expanding population by methods which use large amounts of fuel, but the problem of treating all the sewerage being produced in increasing amounts cannot be solved at present, especially in the chaos being fostered in Gaza by Israel.

 

Horticulture for export cannot be justified. All horticultural effort in the Strip needs to be directed towards feeding the people. To produce cherry tomatoes for Europeans in winter – at a low price, when the Israeli Occupation Forces allow, and when the tomatoes have to be transported 3000 miles – makes no sense with 80% of the population currently dependent on food aid.   

 

David Halpin insists that the only answer is implementation of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, passed in December 1948. The General Assembly resolved "that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return."

 

In justice, Palestine’s and Israel’s precious resources must be shared fairly by all who live here.

 

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