By Catherine Weibel and Sajy Elmughanni
Limited water supply in Gaza has long meant high prices and poor water quality for many residents, but the introduction of new desalination plants has brought a dramatic improvement.
GAZA, State of Palestine, 14 January 2014 – Every other day, Ramadan, a resident of Nuseirat refugee camp, used to carry empty bottles and jerry cans through the tiny alleyways of the camp until he reached a private water vendor. Only able to carry so many bottles, the father of five would bring along four of his young children to help carry more bottles. He would spend the equivalent of US$10 a month on water, a large sum for cash-strapped families living in the coastal enclave.
“The water that comes through the tap is saline and undrinkable,” says Mr. Al-Essawi. “It is not fair.” His family uses tapwater only for washing and bathing.
“I am unemployed, and I need to save as much as I can in order to survive and put food on the table for my children,” he says. “Until recently, I could only afford the strict minimum amount of water, not even knowing what my children were really drinking.”
A heavy burden
The water situation in Gaza is particularly desperate: More than 90 per cent of the water extracted from the territory's sole aquifer has been found unsafe for human consumption. And an estimated four-fifths of the water sold by private vendors is contaminated. More than four out of five Gazans buy their drinking water from unregulated, private vendors, a heavy burden on already impoverished families.
"Some families are paying as much as a third of their household income on water," says June Kunugi, UNICEF Special Representative for the State of Palestine.
With no streams or rivers, Gaza has historically relied on its coastal aquifer for its water supply. But as water has been drawn at a higher rate than natural replenishment, seawater from the Mediterranean has infilitrated the groundwater, increasing salinity to unsafe levels. Added to this is contamination by untreated sewage, with 90,000 cubic meters of raw and partially treated sewage flowing every day from Gaza into the shallow coastal waters. Overabstraction of groundwater could render the aquifer unusable by 2016, according to one recent United Nations report.
A perfect solution
For the poorest of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents, there may be a solution: neighbourhood desalination plants and free public taps that provide clean water . The territory already hosts 18 small plants, most of them supplied by UNICEF. With support from the Government of Japan, UNICEF has installed three brackish water (mixed fresh- and saltwater) desalination units with the capacity to treat 50 cubic metres per hour, and 10 units with the capacity to treat 50 cubic metres per day, which altogether provide safe drinking water to 95,000 people.
With support from the European Union, UNICEF is now installing a seawater desalination plant to treat 6,000 cubic metres per day, which will benefit 75,000 people.
“The desalination units were installed where there is maximum water pollution,” says Bilas Dongol, Head of the UNICEF WASH programme in the State of Palestine. “It’s a perfect solution for Gaza, provided there is enough electricity and fuel available to power the plants.” Gaza is currently affected by one of the most serious energy crises since the 2007 closure restricting movement of goods and people into and out of the territory.
For Mr. Al-Essawi and his family, the water situation has improved dramatically since UNICEF installed a brackish water desalination plant that serves 15,000 refugees living in Nuseirat refugee camp.
“Residents receive access to drinking water once per week, which allows them to fill up their storage tanks at home with water that lasts until the next refill,” says Sabri Al-Faleet, from Al-Nuseirat municipality.
Ahmad Al-Essawi, Ramadan’s 7-year-old son, is happy to be spared the task of carrying heavy water bottles through the camp every other day. “It used to be a long walk with my sisters in the cold winter and the summer heat,” he says. “Now we can all focus on our studies or play with our friends.”