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Water for Gaza's 1.5 million People

I will use a broad brush in this talk. I am no expert on water so I use my ordinary medical knowledge and environmental insight. It is a very technical subject and it is easy to lose sight of the wood for the trees. My interest was stimulated by knowing that the public water supply was undrinkable in the main and by my concern that the potently toxic and non-degradable dioxins, PCBs etc were probably present in the groundwater due to the burning of plastic etc at low temperatures. These can be teratogenic, carcinogenic and mutagenic. Also the charity I founded - the Dove and Dolphin, decided to provide stainless steel tanks for drinking water in schools. I wanted to be sure the bowser water used was pure.

A brief history. Settlements were recorded here in Gaza in 3000 BC. One writer said it was rich with trees. This stop on the Via Maris was a good one for a very good reason no doubt - there was sweet water in the wells and in the river to the south. It was truly an oasis. Dr Eyad Sarraj told me that as a boy just after WW2 he remembers running down to the beach with birds in the trees and fish to see in sparkling sea. At that time the population of Gaza was around 70,000 I am told. The population of Palestine was 1.85 million, one third being Jews - almost all of whom were of recent immigres from Europe, and two thirds Palestinian Arabs. Now there are 11 million people living in Palestine, 6 million being in that part which is named Israel. So the population has grown sixfold in sixty years.

750,000 Palestinians were driven by terror and force of arms from their homes, land and living - and of course their wells, between April and November 1948 - El Nakba, and I will be silent for a while in memory of those people, some of whom are present today................ Those who fled south by boat or on foot would have ended here in this strip of mostly arid land. They were under canvas for too long and later were generously given the materials to make concrete blocks for little dwellings. There is a black and white film on a remarkable web site called Palestine Remembered. Sands of Sorrow shows the terrible suffering; some children look as if they have come from the Nazi death camps. Very many died. And now we have 1.4 million people living in what can be fairly described as a Warsaw ghetto.

120 mcms of water are pumped up 3000 + boreholes per year. Most of these are unlicensed. The Gazan part of the coastal aquifer is the source. Fresh water feeds this from the west and salty water from the east where calcium chloride leaches out from rocks. The sweetest water is in the north and south-west. 

It is reckoned that the aquifer is recharged by about 50 mcms per year. By taking a quart from a pint pot the ingress of salty water from the east and from seawards, means the water is mostly undrinkable. The aquifer is also recharged of course from rainfall, from irrigation and from the foul water of sewage about 20% of which does not go out to sea, but into the sandy soil and down. About 5% of the water comes from the Israeli Mekorot

Thus the solutes, the salts in particular, are recycled with the irrigant and sewage water down into the aquifer. Bacterial, protozoal and viral contamination occurs to some degree. 400 tons of pesticides are used in horticulture. There is a long list of these and names crop up like lindane, which has been banned from use in Europe because it is teratogenic I believe. The instructions for use are often in Hebrew and some are adulterated with heavy metals which present their own risk to human health. That which is not taken up in the plant will mostly move downwards. Then there is the fertiliser used to drive the crops. The nitrate level is high and methaemoglobinaemia - Blue Baby, a risk. A UN report is referred to which associates a high nitrate level with risk of miscarriage. Certainly the risk of intestinal cancer is raised. And then there is the possibility of PCBs and dioxins but I can find no reference to their study.

The best way for dealing with this toxic solution is to use reverse osmosis to produce good water. I recall that about three firms are doing this in Gaza City. The aquifer water is pushed across a membrane with pores of 0.1 nanometres. I understand that only H2O gets through but I would like to be reassured. Between 2 to 17 atmospheres of pressure are applied depending on the saltiness of the water. I have been unable to find out what power is consumed at these various pressures but for sea water it must be great. USAID was planning a north-south water main and the building of several reverse osmosis plants, the first of which would produce 22 mcms pa. If there was cheap gas from your field offshore one could perhaps justify this tactic on economic grounds, but not on environmental ones. But if fuel has to be imported from Israel and at their whim, this would seem to be yet another mechanism for holding Gaza to ransom and in debt.

I can find no estimate of how many people, and no doubt the poorest among them, rely entirely on untreated water. The better off drink bottled water imported from the neighbour. In Britain it is estimated the carbon footprint of water in plastic bottles is 600 times that of the equally pure or purer tap water. I think the Israeli water comes from the Golan, ironically, so its footprint will be no less. Schools have tanks for good bowser water or filters for the little schools but there must be many children with no choice but to drink that which is pumped up from the bowels and then chlorinated. They are consuming a long list of chemicals, simple like nitrate and complex like the insecticides/fungicides/fumigants.

The population here in Gaza is increasing at 4% pa and set to double over 20 years. There are about 4000 humans per hectare and 365 hectares in all. The neighbours consume about 5 times more water than the average Palestinian who consumes a lot less than that recommended by the WHO. Most know that the Palestinian pays 4 times more per cubic metre. The water in the three aquifers of the ineptly named 'West Bank' is pure and plentiful but they are being strained by over-abstraction. Since the so called Oslo Accords, those aquifers are under the control of Israel. Many places like Bethlehem suffer draconian water cuts in rotation in the heat of summer. A nice piece of chutzpah is the plan for the water treatment plant near Haifa. It is said this water, which is derived expensively from sea water using Arab oil, is to be used to supply Palestinians living in the 'West Bank' ghettoes - those ghettoes which sit mostly on the aquifer! And I note that the Palestinian Negotiation Affairs Department seems to go along with this excerpt from Alice in Wonderland.

What are the imperatives in these circles of water, people, their health, population and economy?

  1. Abstraction from the aquifer must be halved at least to allow it to recover.

  2. Health is gravely threatened. One condition comes to mind which my skilled brother surgeon Jehad Abudaia treats - hypospadias. He says it is common here. Is that related to some feminising chemical in the water the mother drinks? And renal stone etc etc.

  3. Pure water in sufficient quantity is a right under international law. See

These laws start with the Hague Regulations 100 years ago!

Can the circle be squared? Can a quart of pure water be taken from a pint pot as Aladdin could his genie from the lamp?

NO, it cannot. Sufficient drinking water could be produced for a burgeoning population with the consumption of large amounts of fuel but the downside, the backside, the sewage, which we have not considered, cannot be solved especially in the chaos of the most aggressive occupation.

The only solution is UN General Assembly Resolution 194 passed on 11th of December 1948.

  1. Resolves 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 and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;

    Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations;

Horticulture for export cannot be justified. For those living in the Gaza strip, all horticultural effort should be directed towards feeding the people with their best nutrition the aim. (Cuba). To produce cherry tomatoes for Europeans in winter 1. at a low price 2. when the IOF allows 3. over 3000 sea and land miles - has no sense.

Palestine and its precious resources must be shared, just as our planet must be shared and cherished.

My tender mother used to say this to the four of us - I was the eldest and saw her suckling and caring for my brothers. Her love of babies passed to me. Money and food were short in the years after WW2.

She said this often - 'Share and share alike'. She was a different type of human from Chief Ashkenazy Rabbi Metzger who said a few weeks ago that he wants you to move to a city built for you in the Sinai desert. We thank him for his thoughts.

Thank you. I hope there is good time for discussion.

I thank Dr Zeitoun and his colleagues for earlier help, and these two papers below.

Amani and the Humanitarian Impact of the Water Crisis: OCHA

The Effect of Pesticide Residues and Heavy Metals on the Water Quality in the Gaza Strip and their Impacts on Health: Mazen Hamada and Amani Alfarra Al Azhar University (1840)