By Abeer Abu Shawish and Catherine Weibel
GAZA, State of Palestine, 1 September 2017 – Eight-year-old Sawsan and her family live in a tin-roofed shack made from metal sheets. In summer, she cannot stay inside as it becomes unbearably hot. In winter, the place is flooded with rainwater mixed with sewage from the street.
“My father is jobless, so we cannot afford to buy water which is safe for drinking,” says Sawsan. “Often we have no choice but to drink salty water from the tap.”
“Sometimes my brothers go to water filling stations run by charities in our neighbourhood, where they can fill some jars and bottles with clean water. It does not last long,” she says.
Sawsan’s family of 11 is trapped in poverty, like countless others in the Gaza Strip. Seventy per cent of people depend on humanitarian aid, and the unemployment rate has reached a staggering 42 per cent – 60 per cent among youth. Most of the two million residents – half of them children under the age of 18 – face mounting challenges to access essential services, including safe drinking water and sanitation.
Deteriorating infrastructure, irreversible damage
The Gaza Strip has long suffered severe water problems, and the situation is now beyond dire. As a result of over-pumping and seawater seepage, less than five per cent of the water drawn from the aquifer is estimated to be fit for human consumption. The aquifer is expected to become unusable by the end of the year, with the damage becoming irreversible by 2020 if no action is taken.
Many families rely on drinking water bought from private vendors at a high price, often without quality control, jeopardizing children’s health.
Families face further challenges on the sanitation front, as nearly one quarter of the population is not connected to a sewage network. Such is the case of So’ad, a mother living in Al Saftawi, a disadvantaged area near Gaza City.
“Everyone here relies on cesspits which they empty in the area. There is now a large, deep sewage pool next to our home. This is dangerous for children, and the smell is terrible,” she says.
“In winter, sewage floods the street, entering our house. In summer we cannot sleep because of mosquito bites at night. My children suffer from skin diseases, colic and diarrhoea.”
The incidence of diarrhoea in children under three years old has doubled. All children in the Gaza Strip are at risk of waterborne diseases.
Rehabilitating the deteriorating sanitation infrastructure has been complicated by restrictions placed on the entry of construction materials, spare parts and equipment into the Gaza Strip. As many as 23 essential water and sanitation items such as pumps, drilling equipment and disinfectant chemicals are on the ‘dual use’ list, meaning that they are only allowed into Gaza selectively.
Electricity shortages worsen sanitation crisis
The situation is further compounded by the electricity crisis. In April, the Gaza Power Plant completely shut down after it exhausted all fuel reserves. This has left families with less than six hours of daily power supply, decreasing access to water by one third in the past four months. Vital services for children, including hospitals, now depend on back-up generators that are kept running by humanitarian fuel provision.
Energy shortages also affect more than 450 water and wastewater facilities. The five wastewater treatment plants were forced to shorten their treatment cycles. As a result, more than 108,000 m3 of raw and poorly treated sewage, equivalent to the volume 43 standard-sized Olympic pools, are now discharged every day into the Mediterranean Sea.
The potential shut down of 55 sewage pumping stations exacerbates the risk of back-flow and flooding of raw sewage onto streets, affecting 700,000 inhabitants.
It is also increasingly difficult to pump water to the upper floors of buildings.
“I live on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Gaza City. The elevator rarely works because of electricity cuts – we only get electricity three hours a day,” says 14-year-old Ahmad.
“We spend days without water at home. I go and buy water to fill bottles on the street, which I carry up the stairs.”
In response to Gaza’s water crisis, UNICEF has built a seawater desalination plant that provides safe drinking water to 75,000 people. Work is underway to extend its service to another 75,000 people, and to make it more reliable on renewable energy.
UNICEF is also rehabilitating water and wastewater networks, supplying safe drinking water to students and vulnerable families, and providing water storage and hygiene supplies to vulnerable communities.
With support from the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), UNICEF is equipping four schools with safe drinking water and sanitation facilities so they can be used as designated emergency shelters by families, should there be another conflict in the Gaza Strip.
As the infrastructure continues to deteriorate, donor support is essential to further improve water and sanitation infrastructures, and to allow children and their families to access safe drinking water and adequate sanitation at home and in school.