GAZA CITY, July 15 (JMCC) – The Gaza Strip
’s 1.5 million people are living on the edge of a health disaster, their main source of drinking water too saline for human consumption, say experts.
According to the internationally-recognized standards of the World Health Organization (WHO), just ten percent of the water in Gaza’s underground aquifer is suitable for human use, says Monzer Shoblak, head of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility in Gaza.
The WHO standards say that the presence of chloride should not exceed 250 milligrams per liter but in Gaza it is between 1200 and 1500 milligrams, he says. Regarding nitrate, it should not exceed 70 milligrams per liter, but the percentage of nitrate in Gaza is between 100 and 150.
Gaza’s poor water quality has serious health consequences.
Ali Mohammed al-Shami, 65, must receive dialysis treatment three times a week ever since doctors diagnosed him with chronic renal failure seven years ago.
I live in Gaza city
, in al-Sabra neighborhood,” he says. “The water in our quarter is very saline -- we actually only realized the problem a decade ago, simply because we are used to drinking it.
Once he was diagnosed, the family purchased a water purification machine and began buying mineral water. “Then we realized the difference,” the father of 10 said, pressing a button on a dialysis machine in Gaza’s Shifa hospital.
The damage done to Gaza’s infrastructure, however, along with the closure of Gaza’s borders to most imports, has made it nearly impossible to resolve the water crisis.
In early 2009, Israel
carried out a 22-day war on Gaza
, killing approximately 1,500 people and leaving in its wake wide-scale destruction of buildings and infrastructure.
Nine months later, the United Nations Environment Programme issued a report warning of environmental collapse.
The UNEP said that underground water supplies that Gaza’s residents depend upon for drinking and agricultural use were in danger of complete salt-water intrusion and pollution.
It said that the war had produced 600,000 metric tons of debris, some of which was contaminated with asbestos.
If Gaza does not find an alternative water source by 2015, not a single drop of fresh drinking water will be found in the Gaza Strip, says engineer Shoblak.
Leading the options for alternative sources of water is the construction of a sea water desalinization plant. But Shoblak says that such a massive project demands the kind of security and economic stability that is absent in Gaza.
The UNEP report also recommended that a desalination plants could take pressure off underground water supplies.
Shoblak criticizes the donor community, however, for not being serious about solving Gaza’s water problems.
We appreciate the efforts of the donors in supporting us,” he says, “but their projects are just urgent projects for temporary recovery. They do not reach the level of sustainable solutions and continuity of life in Gaza. We are in need of something resembling a surgical operation.
Many sewage projects are paralyzed because of a lack of equipment, says Shoblak. Israel has prevented the entry into the Gaza Strip of equipment that it says can be used to build weapons or to support Gaza’s Hamas authorities. But Shoblak says the rules are arbitrary and stunting.
Israel restricts the development or rehabilitation of our projects,” says Shoblak, “but sometimes they allow very rare spare parts which do not fit our needs.
He says that the donors must seriously pressure Israel to allow access to equipment demanded by water projects.
Otherwise, Gaza’s residents face serious health risks. Physician Abdullah al-Kishawi heads the department of kidney diseases at Shifa hospital. He says that the high salinity of Gaza drinking water causes weakness in kidney function.
Chloride and nitrates are the two main elements that cause [kidney] stones, inflammation and possible kidney failure.
He says that of the 180 patients with kidney failure officially registered with the Gaza ministry of health, 15 percent became sick because of high water salinity.
Pollution levels are so high, said the UNEP, that infants in the Gaza Strip are at risk of nitrate poisoning, which can cause a form of anemia in infants known as “blue baby” syndrome.
Other less serious problems caused by poor water quality include disturbances in osmotic pressure and fragile bones or teeth, says al-Kishawi.
The blockade on Gaza means that medications or equipment for treating these conditions are lacking, he goes on.
Finally, ongoing power cuts have resulted in sewage spills that pollute Gaza’s underground aquifers
I cannot drink the “ordinary water supplied by the municipality,” says Mohammed al-Razaina, 40, a citizen living north of Gaza.
I buy drinking water twice a week to fill a barrel for my family, which is an extra running cost for my house, he explains.
Trucks claiming to sell clean drinking water are now ubiquitous in the streets and refugee camps of the Gaza Strip. But in a community where four in five Gazans are dependent upon humanitarian aid, not everyone can afford to buy clean drinking water.
Residents of the Gaza Strip consume 180 million cubic meters of water a year. Water consumption per capita for Palestinians in the West Bank
and Gaza is about 70 liters (about 18 gallons) per day, while Israeli per capita use is 300 liters (79 gallons) per day.