There is no simple narrative about water and sanitation in the State of Palestine. It’s one about Gaza, the West Bank, and multiple contexts within each. But for a child – or a family — it’s access to safe water and sanitation that ultimately matters.
That’s why, after three years working in the State of Palestine, I wanted to reflect on the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) story and what UNICEF and partners are doing within the complex challenges.
In Gaza, there is an acute water crisis. Over 90 percent of households have a tap where clean water once flowed, but today the water is no longer safe to drink.
In the last 15 years, the situation in Gaza has gone from bad to worse: only one in 10 households now has direct access to safe water.
Why is there so little safe water?
Gaza is home to 2 million people — half of them children.
Only five percent of Gaza’s water supply comes from Israel. Gaza’s coastal aquifer is the primary water source. But over-extraction is rapidly depleting it because people have no other choice.
Worse, pollution and an influx of seawater mean that only four percent of the aquifer water is fit to drink. The rest must be purified and desalinated to make it drinkable.
I came across many private wells in my travels around Gaza, most are unregulated. Private vendors desalinate the water, sell it and truck it to households. Two-thirds of this water is already contaminated when it is delivered.
The cost is exceptionally high at 30 shekels (about US$7) per cubic metre of water. On the municipal network, it costs only 1 to 2 shekels per cubic metre.
The WASH situation is also affected by restrictions on the movement of goods and people into and out of Gaza. Equipment to manage water and sanitation networks is often limited.
Violence also damages the network. The 2014 Gaza war caused about US$30 million of damage to water systems, including storage tanks, and piping and pumping stations. Repairing this infrastructure takes time and needs the right equipment.
What can be done?
The first response is to desalinate both the aquifer water and the seawater. This is not new, but there are innovative ways to make it more efficient and cost-effective.
UNICEF, with European Union funding, built the largest seawater desalination plant in Gaza, improving access to drinking water for some 75,000 people. However, with only 4-5 hours of electricity available daily in Gaza, it produces only a portion of its capacity. A new solar field is being built to help power the facility and provide 250,000 people with safe water.
With USAID funding, UNICEF also partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop a new desalination prototype based on electro-dialysis, which extracts salt particles from the water by running an electric current through it.
A potential game-changer for water in the Gaza Strip, the prototype reduces energy use by up to 60 percent and operates with solar power; it can transform up to 90 percent of the water from the aquifer into drinking water and lowers cost.
As a WASH professional, this is an inspiring and exciting development: these combined benefits mean the technology can work in other water-energy scarce contexts, too.
There are other important steps. Improving rainwater harvesting — collecting rainwater rather than letting it run off — can help recharge the aquifer, while recycling greywater, to use in farming, for instance, can make better use of what’s available.
People will rely on water trucking from the aquifer for a few more years. That’s why we need to regulate better for the health of those who drink it.
From lack of clean water to sanitation
Limited access to water also affects handwashing, showers, and cleaning food.
As hygiene suffers, the risk of disease rises, particularly for children, which is especially dangerous in densely populated areas.
While nearly all homes in Gaza have a toilet, the electricity crisis triggers a sewage crisis: sewage treatment plants can’t operate fully and the equivalent of 43 Olympic-sized swimming pools of raw or partly treated sewage is pumped into the sea every day.
Eventually, this sewerage comes back to the shore: about 70 percent of Gaza beaches are contaminated.
‘We can get this done’
UNICEF focuses on realizing children’s right to safe water and sanitation in the short and long term. Doing this in an efficient and cost-effective way will ensure sustainability.
Everyone I meet understands this is in their interest. That’s why I have hope. The Gaza Strip has engineering talent and dedication and I am inspired by the technicians who do what they can to improve the situation.
But Gaza needs to be normalized — no more outbreaks of violence, no children put in harm’s way — and more support from the international community.
People will then manage their own situation. There is a sense of, “We can get this done in Gaza”, to improve the health and well-being of children and families.
Gregor von Medeazza was Chief of Water and Sanitation, UNICEF, State of Palestine.