15 March 08
Halpin is a retired surgeon from
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
February, he could not be there and asked me to give the talk instead.
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.
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
70,000. The total population of Palestine
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
the other ghettos created by the Nazis.
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
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.
sewerage settlement tanks
of water treatment
by Israeli gunfire
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
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
water are man-made, and are primarily due to overcrowding caused by the
displacement of Palestinians into the Strip and their imprisonment here.
way of removing toxic chemicals from water is to use reverse osmosis.
Three industrial companies are doing this in
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
use cheap gas from its offshore gas field, it may be justifiable,
economically, to use reverse osmosis to purify water for
However, if fuel has to be imported from
this, there is the obvious danger that
untrustworthy neighbour may use control of the supply of this fuel as
another way of threatening the lives of the people of
people – mainly the poorest
– have to rely entirely on
untreated water. People who have enough money buy bottled drinking water,
of this comes from the Golan. It has been estimated that the energy used
to supply water in plastic bottles in
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.
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.
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
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
suffer severe water restriction in the heat of summer. A few days ago,
someone living in Bethlehem
me that for a time last summer they were allowed water on only one day
must be done to provide the people of Gaza
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.
enough water of good quality be supplied for the needs of all the people
crowded into the Gaza Strip?
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
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.
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.