View of a reservoir to collect seawater for a desalination plant in southern Gaza, 8 September 2023. EFE/ Joan Mas Autonell

Gaza turns to desalination amid increasingly scarce water access

Gaza, Sep 8 (EFE).- The Gaza Strip has turned to desalination after grappling with scarce access to water for years amid a stiff Israeli blockade and a flailing economy.

“Desalination is the only way to obtain drinking water, we have no other option,” Ahmed Robae, the director at Gaza’s largest desalination plant, tells EFE as he checks several pipes.

Perched on the Mediterranean, the desalination plant has several tanks on the beach that collect seawater, deliver it to the plant and turn it into freshwater, a process that Robae says still needs improvement to meet the needs of the enclave’s 2.3 million residents.

Gaza has one of the highest population densities in the world and has been under a tough Israeli blockade since 2007 when the Islamist Hamas movement seized power.

In the past, drinking tap water was the norm but “no one does it now” because the risk of infection and disease is too high, Sami Abu Omar, a 58-year-old resident of the southern city of Khan Younis, tells EFE.

Omar’s family stopped using tap water two decades ago when it became clear that the tap water was no longer drinkable because of its high salinity and the presence of nitrates and dirty residues.

Gaza’s coastal aquifer, which runs through the enclave from north to south, is the strip’s main source of water, but over-pumping means extraction of water is three times greater than its capacity to naturally regenerate with rainfall, Monther Shoblaq, director general at Gaza’s Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), tells EFE.

Gaza’s soaring population, which by 2030 could reach three million doubling the 1.8 million residents recorded in 1998, has driven excess pumping which in turn “has caused seawater to seep more and more into the aquifer,” Shoblaq explains.

Overexploitation of Gaza’s only water resource has also led to a rise in nitrates, substances derived from agricultural activity such as fertilizers and wastewater means 97% of Gaza’s groundwater is unfit for consumption.

Experts have warned it will take three decades for the aquifer to recover and now Gazans can only use water from the aquifer to wash clothes or take showers.

In the northern Jabalia refugee camp, 27-year-old Asmaa Tayeh’s family has a large tank that a company refills every month, an outlet used by many Gazans for drinking water.

Shoblaq warns, however, that the private companies that provide water cannot fully guarantee its safety.

The climate crisis, with soaring temperatures and depleted rainfall in the Middle East, a region that is warming twice as fast as the global average, has led to even more water scarcity in Gaza, “where having highs of 40 degrees is now normal, but was not common before,” says Shoblaq.

A United Nations report published in 2018 found that Israel’s blockade was making it impossible for Gazans to develop their economy.

The report determined that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020.

Three years after the UN’s fateful deadline, the enclave is searching for ways to survive and desalination has become instrumental to survival in Gaza.

The Coastal Municipality Water Utility undertook this task in 2012 when it began building its desalination plants with European Union and Unicef funding.

Gaza now has three desalination plants (in its northern, central and southern areas) with the capacity to generate some 36,000 cubic meters of water per day using the pipes a state-funded Israeli company used before the blockade to send water to Palestine.

“With this, 40% of Gaza’s population receives quality water,” says Shoblaq, although he points out that there are pending problems such as the enclave’s energy crisis, which means residents only have access to a few hours of electricity a day and also affects operations at the desalination plants.

In the future, he adds, the goal is to expand and build more plants to produce some 100,000 cubic meters of water per day, “an amount that would cover the entire population.”

“We are adapting,” says Shoblaq, who, despite the difficulties, believes that desalination is taking Gaza in the right direction. EFE