symmetry USPeace
Munich American Peace Committee (MAPC)

Visiting Gaza

Transcript of an interview on the water situation in Gaza with
Rebhy A. El Sheikh
Deputy Chairman of the Palestinian Water Authority
(video part 1part 2)

From the reports (you mentioned) - I assume you have read some of them - there is a problem of water quality and quantity. I have to elaborate about the reasons first.

We have one water resource in Gaza which is part of the so-called 'coastal aquifier'. As you know, Gaza is a small geographical area and falls downstream of the underground flow of this aquifier. Now, the quantities available as a yield capacity for this part of the aquifier under Gaza are limited to around 50 million cubic meters a year. If we add the leakage from the networks and from agriculture and the infiltration from the rain water and the underground flow, all of that comes to a maximum of 90 million cubic meters per year. Comparing this figure to the total abstraction of water from this aquifier, the part of the aquifier in Gaza, which amounts to 170 million cubic meters per year, makes an annual deficit of around 80 million cubic meters a year. This deficit accumulats all the time, year by year and is increasing. Five years ago we were talking about a deficit of 65 or 70 million cubic meters.

And this is because the population is increasing?

Many reasons, of course. The population is increasing and the needs are increasing. The standard of life, although there is the closure during the last two years, the standard of life as well is increasing, the demand is increasing. Now, this out of balance equation makes two things: First, due to lowering the water table, because we abstract more than what the aquifier is being fed, the lowering water table encourages the sea water intrusion and this of course increases the salinity all the time and trying to substitute for the demand of the consumers, the operators, the municipalities are withdrawing more water, are abstracting more water from the water wells, more than the yield capacity of the wells themselves, and this results in a phenomenon called upcalling, and as a result of that, overpumping. The salty water from the bottom is being pushed to the surface. So this is the reason for the salinity, seawater intrusion and the salty water from the bottom because of the over-abstraction.

On the other hand, many areas in Gaza suffer from the lack of waste water services, especially when you talk about the treatment of the waste water collection in many areas, in the middle area of Gaza, in the Khan Yunis area and in Rafah, and to some extent in the north of Gaza. This leads to the infiltration of the raw waste water from the towns to the aquifier. The result of this infiltration is an increase in the levels of nitrates in this water. In addition nitrate is increasing due to the uncontrolled use of the pesticides and fertilizers in the agriculture. The reasons of this increase in salinity and nitrates level can be summarized that today more than 95 % of the water in this part of the aquifier under Gaza either suffers from high levels of chlorides exceeding 1000 parts per million compared to 250 ppm according to the literature and in some cases can be 5000 or more. And the nitrates level can reach 350 parts per million compared to 50 ppm according to the literature. Of course some of the areas suffer from only high nitrates level and others suffer from high salinity. In combination both are affecting the public health, and the result is that 95 % of this water is far behind the international standards. It does not mean that the remaining 5 % is safe for the customers, because it is simply mixed in the distribution networks and there is no benefit of having 5 % of good water that is mixed with 95 % of  bad water. This is the background of  the water supply in Gaza.

Now, to overcome this problem we opened the door to the private sector to make their private desalination, small sized projects  And they distribute this water with tankers. Unfortunately this business is now out of control, first because of the internal political conflict and because of the way that this water is being distributed. The tanker fills this water from the desalination plant and starts to distribute this water either through the small tanks installed at the supermarkets or shops or at the small tanks inside the houses. We talk in this case about hundred of thousands of tanks that can never be controlled, but when taking samples out of those there is an indication that we have a real problem, because the quality in terms of salinity. Yes, there is low salinity, but this is not what we need actually, because removing this salinity completely from the water is not healthy and this gives a chance for microbiological contamination and when we are taking samples from some of the small tanks inside the houses or of the water shops or the supermarkets there are indications of biological contamination.

This became a culture unfortunately inside the Palestinian population in Gaza that they believe that as the salinity is lower and lower the water is more perfect, and we are trying to work in changing this culture. They don't understand that storing this water without salinity over long periods, maybe two weeks or more sometimes, is leading to contamination and damage to their health and when they go to the hospital they don't know the reason when they have problems in their stomachs. The price of this water is affordable for the consumers, because they use this water only für drinking purposes. They consume limited quantities only for drinking or cooking, as you indicated, around two or three liters per day. Comparing this cost to the municipal invoice that the customers should pay, it becomes very expensive although we talk about little money, because we talk about little water quantity, but when a family pays 50 Israeli shekels per month, which is the minimum for this water which we feel is unhealthy again compared to almost the same figure that they should pay to the municipal supplied water, they believe they are paying their money in the correct way, but they are not.

Now, one of the problems facing the operators in Gaza is the low efficiency of collecting. Should the consumers pay permanently the water invoices, this will enable the operators to be more active in the maintenance and operation, possibly in developing the water projects and improving the water quality. This is at the internal level. Of course the closure and the siege on Gaza is affecting the performance, because the availability of materials needed to repair the water works and the water pumps and even the equipment needed to build new projects that can create additional local resources are not available because of the siege.

There are difficulties in getting materials and there is reluctance among the donors to commit themselves to the investment grants that enable us to plan new water resources like desalination. All the time we talk about salt in Gaza problem, building the central seawater desalination plant. We have to stop abstraction from the aquifier, because to recover this aquifier it will take years, more than 30 – 50 years to recover the water quality in the aquifier. There should be additional or alternative water resources. For the case of Gaza the additional resource is from desalination as one track, and we have been looking to find funds for this project for a long time. This project is also committed to what we call the 'National Water Carrier'. Even if the additional water is available, we have to have the correct means to distribute this water to the different zones. This way we have to upgrade the distribution system which needs the so-called 'National Water Carrier'. The total cost for these two projects is around 400 million dollars.

When you see how much was promised for Gaza a year ago, billions and billions, of which I think nothing has arrived.

That's right. Nothing has arrived except for very small projects related to covering  urgent emergency needs: repairing such well pump or repairing such a small piece of water network.  When it comes to the real investment programs that can create a change in the water situation, nothing happens. And basically, yes, the commitment of the donors themselves and the Israeli closure, because if Gaza is not under this sharp siege, I think the donors may be more active to commit themselves.

As far as I understand, it all has to go through Ramallah, because they collect the money.

Yes that is correct. We don't have a problem with Ramallah in the water sector, actually, because my management is in Ramallah and they are trying to manage this business in Gaza. Ramallah is waiting as we are waiting in Gaza for the donors to be more committed. And if there are any agreements they just send an agreement and we follow later all the details.

You were talking of a need for 80 million cubic meters of additional water if you don't want the overdrawing of the aquifier. So if you want to replace this by desalination, that is a huge operation, isn't it?

It is a huge operation. This 80 million deficit, actually it is for both the domestic and the agriculture water uses. The total consumption which I mentioned is 170 million cubic meters a year. It is only divided 50-50 % among the agriculture sector and the domestic sector. But the priority for us is to solve the problem of the domestic sector. The people that are paying a lot of money for bad quality desalinated water from the private sector and they are not benefiting and it is affecting the public health. This is around 85 million – this year. It is increasing all the time because of the increasing population and increasing needs.

The agricultural sector: we have plans to solve this problem in another way, because in many of the agricultural activities there is a chance to use retreated effluent of the waste water. And we are working on another track of building the waste water treatment plants to have a proper effluent with acceptable characteristics that can be used for the agriculture. And we hope that within a couple of weeks we will sign the first contract for the North Gaza waste water treatment plant and this project will produce an effluent that can be used for agriculture. Now, the agricultural consumption is around 85 million and it should be more right away, because normally the ratio between agricultural consumption and domestic consumption should be around 70 % to 30 %.

Today we are 50-50 % agriculture and domestic because the agricultural activities are not as before. A lot of agricultural areas were demolished by the Israeli invasions and most of the agricultural areas are close to the Green Line which is threatening the people to resume their activities there. But the worst case that we need 85 million for agriculture and should we have the treating plants in Gaza, in Gaza City and in the Khan Yunis area, I think the majority of that water can be guaranteed from the treated effluent.

If you do this desalination yourself, then you would balance the water, put the minerals in?

Of course

It is not a basic problem?

It is not a basic problem, of course. We are looking for water quality that can protect the public health and the lives of the people.

You cannot force the private sector to do this kind of job?

We cannot force the private sector to do that big business especially not under this very deteriorating special economic situation. But as I told you we are opening the door for the private sector to cover the immediate needs, but still there is a need to monitor the performance of the private sector and the main point for us that private sector is working to desalinate the brackish water which is temporary for us. This is not the future option under the current conditions of the coastal aquifier.

With brackish water you mean... I thought they were using sea water.

No, no, the private sector is not using sea water. They are using the same water from the aquifier and we cannot work on that on a big scale, because this means that we are abstracting more water from the aquifier which is deteriorating more and more the water quality. The option for us is the sea water desalination.

I thought - the way I read it – that because it is desalination, they use sea water anyway. So you have not reached that point yet?

We have not reached it, except for one pilot project in a very limited area – it is a governmental desalination plant, not the private sector, and it is being run by the municipality there.

So I guess this is basically what describes the situation.

I hope so.