Political Water Scarcity in Gaza and Nongovernmental Solutions

Post by Nadia Arid
Stanford University ’12
International Relations

Nations in the Middle East and North Africa currently lack access to freshwater resources.

Much of the Middle East is in a water crisis. The region’s population continues to grow at a rapid rate while water resources continue to diminish. Since the 1970s, the Middle East and North African have experienced dramatic increases in population, with the total number of inhabitants rising from 127 million in 1970 to 305 million in 2005. At the same time, most global projections for climate change indicate a drop in rainfall precipitation by 20 to 40 percent, accompanied by an increase in temperature due to global climate change.

Countries that lack access to clean and plentiful access to water are classified into two categories of water scarcity: physical and economic. Physical water scarcity is when there is not enough water in the area to meet the demands of the population, while economic scarcity is when the lack of water is a direct result of an inability to invest in water resources or a lack of human capacity to provide clean water. The entire Middle East, including the once-Fertile Crescent, is warming and its water resources are being stressed. Conventional water-scarcity maps show the region overall as devoting 70 percent of river flow to agriculture, industry, or domestic purposes, indicating physically water scarcity.

A more detailed examination of the situation in the Gaza Strip, however, may cause one to doubt the placement of this region under the category of “physical water scarcity.” As it turns out, the situation here is much more complicated. Economic issues, including an inability to invest in water treatment technology and a lack of human capital in the water sector, plague the region and have significantly contributed to the ensuing water crisis. This line between physical and economic water scarcity has become even more complicated by the political tensions between Israeli and Palestinian officials as a result of the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict, creating a new category of water insecurity: political water scarcity.

Water Scarcity in the Gaza Strip

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, hundreds of gallons of wastewater are dumped into local waterways in the Gaza Strip every day. Researchers from the University of Heidelberg and the Center for Environmental Research found that 90 percent of the available drinking water in Gaza contained two to eight times the amount of nitrate concentration recommended as safe by the World Health Organization. The coastal aquifer in the region, which has been heavily exploited and polluted with nitrate, is the sole source of freshwater for Gaza and only about 5 to 10% of the water extracted has the quality level high enough for safe drinking water.

Israeli laws have also generated barriers to building water management plants within the Gaza Strip. The Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip of 1995, more commonly referred to as Oslo II, is the last written agreement pertaining to water rights in the region. Unfortunately, the agreed-upon resolution in Oslo II did not offer a viable water regime for the Palestinian people. The Oslo II accords proposed a water-buying deal between Israel and Palestine that Palestinian officials claimed to be too costly and did not grant the Palestinian people the property rights necessary to build waste management facilities. The Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) was created in 1995 in order to deal with issues pertaining to access to water in the Gaza Strip. Yet, the PWA has been largely ineffective in achieving its aim to “ensure the equitable utilization and sustainable management and development of Palestinian water resources.” The group has faced significant challenges in investing in programs that will develop the water sector and in creating the coordination that is necessary to carry out its proposed projects.

In addition to lacking the ability to own the land on which to build water management facilities, Palestinians are also barred from importing construction materials into the region. Even running water is not taken for granted in the Gaza Strip. In 2008, 40 percent of homes had their water supplies cut off for more than a day due to a lack of electricity run the pumps. Oxfam International reported that Israel’s restriction of industrial diesel oil supply to the Gaza Strip could also result in a shortage of drinking water, the collapse of crucial sewage systems, and the halting of some hospital functions. While poverty has affected the region’s ability to access clean water on a regular basis, Israeli policies towards Palestinians have played a much greater role in limiting water availability in the Gaza Strip.

The Role of NGOs in the Water Crisis

Due to the highly politicized nature of this water crisis, non-governmental organizations may offer the most promising solutions, at least in the short term. In 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Committee deemed the Israeli government’s denial of access to water and sanitation in Gaza as a violation of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. This was the first time that the agency considered the denial of access to water to be a violation of international law, which provides an avenue of recourse for any community in which water resources are withheld. More importantly, it created an impetus among NGOs to get involved in addressing global issues of water scarcity.

The International Red Cross has funded a water treatment plant in the southern end of the Gaza Strip to help bring freshwater to the Palestinian people. Built earlier this year, the treatment plant provides freshwater for 17,000 residents in the nearby area and is one of the greatest treatment plants in the Palestinian territories. These treatment plants are vital in providing sustainable access to water because they use existing water resources and turn them into water resources that can be used for drinking or for agricultural purposes.

The denial of water to Palestinian children has also been a considerable source of alarm to human rights organizations. The Middle East Children’s Alliance launched a program in 2009 called the Maia Project (“maia” is the Arabic word for water) in order to provide Palestinian children with clean and regular access to water. MECA has provided the funds to build water and desalination units in schools throughout the Gaza Strip. They have built 14 large purification units in United Nations schools in refugee camps and have built 13 small purification units in kindergartens throughout the region. Large purification units provide enough drinking water for 1500 to 2000 individuals while small purification units serve 150 to 450. By working through the UN, this organization has been able to avoid the Israeli government’s legal restrictions on building water plants.

USAid has also gotten involved in funding a large-scale seawater desalination plant and a water carrier to transport quality water to different areas of the Gaza Strip. This proposed desalination plant hopes to reach a capacity of 60,000 mgal of clean drinking water a day. The project will work through the Palestinian Authority in hopes of setting up a sustainable water sector in the region. The projects of these NGOs in the region are relatively new and have not yet stood strongly against the test of time, but because of the apolitical nature of some of organizations that have gotten involved, they may provide the most salient solution to this problem of political water scarcity in the Gaza Strip.

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