Israel Above the Law: War for Water

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The Gaza Strip's water infrastructure has shuddered under the burden of an almost decade-long Israeli siege. Three major Israeli wars on Gaza since 2008 have only exacerbated the problem, with jets bombing every square kilometer of the strip, inflicting damage onto reservoirs above and pipelines below the ground. This tiny strip of land is the world’s most populated region and considered as the world’s largest open air prison. According to the UN, Gaza is facing a water and sanitation crisis with 96 per cent of the fresh water available from the underground aquifer unsafe for human consumption. Over-extraction from Gaza’s only freshwater aquifer and the intrusion of seawater, coupled with the seepage of agricultural fertilizers and untreated sewage has resulted in levels of chloride and nitrates up to three times the World Health Organization’s recommended standards. A UN report this year has warned that as Gaza’s population increases from 1.6 million to 2.1 million by 2020, the damage to the aquifer will be irreversible and the territory will be uninhabitable. This is while the water from the aquifer and wells in Gaza is already highly saline, with a high concentration of sodium nitrate. These problems have made life extremely difficult for the residence of Gaza. And the health risks are serious. This documentary provides a comprehensive investigation into the Gaza Strip’s water crisis.

TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00

Narration: Water is dwindling inthe Gaza Strip. No question about it. And it’s getting less potable. According to UN reports, water in the Gaza Strip will not be safe to drink by the year 2016. It means about two million lives are at stake in this part of the world.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Yousef Abu Mayla, Water Expert at Al Azhar University: “The report shows some elements in the water; salt, chloride as well as nitrates. This is also a biochemical indication that the water is polluted here. About 97% of the wells in the Strip contain very high amounts of these items; it’s five to six times higher than other places. According to this report, by 2016, all the wells in the Gaza Strip will be heavily polluted to an extent that the water will be unfit for drinking.”

Narration: The per capita consumption of water in the Gaza Strip is about 70 liters. It is much below the rates set by the World Health Organization for minimum consumption per capita. That’s while, the consumption in the Israeli-occupied territories is times more.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Yousef Abu Mayla, Water Expert at Al Azhar University: “In the occupied territories, every person consumes about 350 liters of water each day, on average while in the Gaza Strip the number is between 70 and 80 liters regardless of the quality of the water. In the US, Germany and France, I think the number varies but in comparison with Israel, it’s much less and up to about 170 liters per capita per day.”

Narration: The coastal aquifer is an important source of water for the residents of the Strip, where they consume about 170 million cubic meters of water annually. Rainwater is the only source to replenish the underground reservoir of drinking water with an estimated average annual rainfall of 125 million cubic meters. Of this amount, only 55 million cubic meters reach the subsurface reservoir.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Khaldoun abu Alhin, Department of Geology at AL Azhar University: “Geology says that the Gaza Strip is fed with water flowing from the East to the West. The direction of the groundwater in the Gaza Strip, or in the coastal aquifers throughout Palestine is from the East towards the West. Therefore, the water goes from the East to the West. The area here is considered as a semi-arid region. The rainfall is between 250 ml and 300 ml and up to 400 ml per year in Beit Hanoun. This amount has not changed for a long time. The only variable is the number of the people.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Yousef Abu Mayla, Water Expert at Al Azhar University: “We consume three to four times more than the amount required to reach the subsurface reservoir annually. In other word, we have an annual water deficit in this situation; that's more than about 110 million cubic meters.”

Narration: Valleys are other water sources that provide the people of the Strip with water. One of them is Beit Hanoun Valley in the north of the Gaza Strip, which has been in the hands of Israeli occupying forces for years. The same goes for the Gaza Valley, one of the largest pools in Palestine, providing Gaza with about 25 million cubic meters of water. This valley is also under the control of the Israeli regime.

TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Yousef Abu Mayla, Water Expert at Al Azhar University: “The Gaza valley begins from the Hebron area; it stretches over a long distance. It has several tributaries, but the drillings to extract more water have negatively impacted the amount of water carried up to the Gaza Strip. That amount depends on the rainfall and varies from year to year but generally speaking, it used to be good and useful for the subsurface reservoir, but now, the reality is that the sewage from all over the Gaza middle zone pours into the Gaza Valley which has detrimental effects on both human and the environment.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Khaldoun abu Alhin, Department of Geology at AL Azhar University: “The valleys of Alselkah, Beit Hanoun and Gaza are seasonal valleys, not permanent ones. These valleys were closed by the Israeli regime in the year 2000 so as to create huge catchment areas. There are about seven catchment areas for collecting surface water. They are used by the Israeli regime to irrigate the areas it occupies; therefore, nothing has reached from these surface water to the Gaza Strip since 2000.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mahir Salim, Water Directorate Director, Gaza Municipality: “As we know since the 1970s, that is about 40 or 45 years ago, the Israeli regime has drilled many wells alongside the groundwater streams that flow into the Gaza Strip. This is for sure; if we go to areas in Deir al-Balah, Eastern Gaza, and areas in the North, we will see that there are many water wells that absorb the underground water coming into the Gaza Strip and return them again inside the occupied territories.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Ayman Soboh, Farmer at Beit Lahia: “The Israeli regime has drilled a number of water well here on the border so as to loot the groundwater reservoir located in Beit Lahiya and redirect it via the green line into the occupied territories. You can guess that the remaining clean water is only in 20% of Beit Lahiya whereas in 80% of the area, the water is saline like seawater.”

Narration: In a water and environment laboratory at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University, groundwater is tested on a regular basis. The last test was to assess the water well of the university, the main source of water in this educational center.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mohammed Abu Jabal, Water Expert, Al Azhar University: “The test we conduct is to examine the amount of chloride in the groundwater wells; the process of assessment of water uses silver nitrates, reagent factor for detecting color which is potassium dichromate. Now we'll take a sample of water from a well at Al-Azhar University, 10 ml to be exact and put it in the decanter. We can take any amount but we take 10 ml; we'll take a small amount due to the high rates of chloride and of course add some drops of the detector, which is potassium chromate, a substance that gives us a yellow color. Then we start calibrating. Now we add silver nitrates which starts to interact with chloride in the water. That's the red color. That's when silver nitrates interacts with chloride; now silver nitrates has interacted with chloride; this means the amount of nitrate depleted equals the amount of chloride.

After completing the process of measuring the chloride, which represents the salinity in the sample groundwater at Al-Azhar University and after the necessary chemical calculations, we found out that the chlorine concentration in the groundwater is 1200 mm/g to l liter. This indicates that the water is very salty and unfit for human consumption, or even for agricultural use, except in some very rare cases. This phenomenon of high salinity can be seen in all the wells in the Gaza Strip. According to the World Health Organization, the allowed rate of chloride in drinking water must be within the limits of 250 mg per liter.”

TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00

Narration: The high proportion of salt in the underground water used by the residents of the Strip is mainly due to the mixture of seawater and groundwater that feeds the underground water reservoir. If the reservoir is filled with rainwater alone, the underground water should not be that salty.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mohammed Abu Jabal, Water Expert, Al Azhar University: “This Electrical Conductivity Meter device measures the salt in water, and of course the salt dissolved in water, in case of ionization. There are two poles of electron within the device. The electrical conduction takes place between the poles of electrons when placed in water. Whenever the rate of salt is too high, the current is too high. We found in the sample, which represents the groundwater of Al-Azhar University, that the total rate of salt was 4,048 million grams per liter. As set by the World Health Organization, the normal rate for drinking water is around 1,500 mg per liter.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mahmoud Bakr, Gaza Strip Resident: “The tap water here is very brackish as if it was brought right from the sea. As you can see, we have no water now. I suffer, as you can see; I have no water now; have a look; there you go; this is the tap without water; the other one has no water too; barely dripping; I'm suffering from the situation. When I want to shower, there is no water. I fill the seawater in this pail. I shower using the kittle like that due to the lack of water.

I go to the sea taking one pail or two with me and fill them with the seawater. As you know, the sea is polluted nowadays and the water is not clean. What can I do to get rid of this situation? I go home and take a shower in the middle of my home.

Sometimes I don't want to bathe but my wife wants to wash the dishes and the utensils after we have eaten. When she finds no water, my wife asks me to get one or two pails of water from the sea.

Come, get out dad, walk, walk, come on Amir, walk darling, come, come.

I suffer a lot when I go to get water. I walk around 100 meters, then I go down around 30 meters to get the water and come back from the same route. What kind of life do we lead? This is not a life, as you can see.

I’ve brought you the water for washing the dishes and for domestic use. I’ve brought it from the sea; use as little water as you can so that we can have it for a longer time. I don't want to keep coming and going carrying water pails. Wash those dirty cups; take them; never mind we want to finish; take out the cups; give me that; easy on the water so that it will suffice; I’ve brought it for you from the sea; we have no tap water.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mahir Salim, Water Directorate Director at Gaza University: “The volume of depleting aquifer is much more than the quantity returned. Today, through studies we did on the existing wells in the West of Gaza City over the past 15 years, we note a sharp and not a gradual transition from light to severe salinity. The existing wells in the west of the city must be closed and the reliance must be on new wells in the east of the city to reduce the very dangerous leak of the seawater into the dry land, especially in the northwest of Gaza Strip.”

Narration: The groundwater contamination and the high proportion of salt in it are not only due to the intrusion of the sea-water in the groundwater. They are also the effect of an untreated sewage flow towards the sea which runs along the beach of Beit Lahia and Rafah from the south to the north. It adversely affects the seawater and groundwater sanitation, making it polluted and as a result unfit for human consumption.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Um Adham Bakr, Gaza Strip Resident: “Saline water is harmful to children. They become sick. The last time I stayed about 6 days at hospital with my elder son, the doctors told me that he had something more dangerous than meningitis. He was taken to the intensive care unit; blisters had appeared on his body. The blisters were mainly caused by salt water. As you can see, the water is salty; their hair has been damaged; the boys have undergone several surgeries; the rashes are all over their bodies. There is nothing to do; we are tired.”

TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Yousef Abu Mayla, Water Expert at Al Azhar University: “We have a large number of diseases widespread in Gaza now. Diseases like cancers, kidney problems and renal failure, heart and vascular problems as well as other diseases such as diarrhea that affect children. There are also about 5 to 6 other common diseases in the Gaza Strip. We studied the causes of these diseases; environmental factors are directly responsible. Water is a chemical compound made up of a set of elements. We found out that the quality of water plays a major role in these diseases and their spread in the Gaza Strip.”

Narration: The combination of raw sewage and seawater threatens the safety of recreation areas as well as the health of those who take refuge from the unseasonable heat of the area and its constant power outages in the seaside. The seawater pollution caused by the sewage has become a threat to the health of those who swim in the sea.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Khaldoun abu Alhin, Department of Geology at AL Azhar University: “Some studies have demonstrated the existence bacterial and fungal contamination in the wastewater. Studies prove such contamination in the beach deposits. They are responsible for digestive diseases, skin diseases, in addition to the diseases that result from industrial waste water. They contain chemical substances which are also in the water of the beaches here.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Um Adham Bakr, Gaza Strip Resident: “We escape the heat. They go to the sea due to the lack of water here. I am forced to go to the sea to shower them. Then as you can see, I as an old woman use the seawater to wash my body. I endure a great deal of suffering; blisters are all over my body. I should go to the sea. My husband says that it's polluted with sewage. Where shall I go, then? We have no water to take a bath with.”

Narration: If the sewage was treated, it could replenish the aquifer without causing any problem. However, these huge awkward pits are not good enough to keep such amount of sewage properly and as a result, part of it leaks into the groundwater reservoir.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Salom Abu Dahil, Gaza Strip Resident: “They drilled a well for us when we came to reside in this area. It is still here. They irrigate the area using the well. We used to drink its water. We asked the municipality staff if the water was contaminated. They said they had examined it and it was fine. We were surprised to see worms in the water after leaving it in a bottle for two or three days. The water was soaking with a soap-like foam once we shook the bottle. We told them we couldn’t drink that contaminated water.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Jamal Al Madani, Gaza Strip Resident: “They drilled us a well in the al-Owda towers area. We drank from there. . If the basins stay like that, all the residential towers will face the same situation like that in al-Owda towers.”

Narration: The groundwater contamination has an adverse effect on the agricultural sector. Once the agricultural products used to be exported overseas from the Gaza Strip but now the locals have hardly enough for their domestic use.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Khaldoun abu Alhin, Department of Geology at AL Azhar University: “As soon as you enter Beit Hanon, you begin to smell lemon and orange up to Rafah. Water salinity is the major problem here. Everybody knows that citrus trees need fresh water with low rate of salinity. Citrus trees no longer grow well here because the water is salty and contains a very high degree of chloride.”

TIME CODE: 20:00_25:00

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Ayman Soboh, Farmer at Beit Lahia: “Citruses used to be exported from the Gaza Strip to all over the world, with the exception of some states that were not importers. The growth and export of citruses are diminishing just because of salty water, sewage and Israeli suction of water. For these reasons, we import citrus fruits from the occupied territories today. The agricultural land in Beit Lahiya was once over 10,000 dunams. Now due to water salinity and contamination from the East to the West and the South, the agricultural land do not exceed 4,000 dunums in Beit Lahiya.”

Narration: Before the water crisis in the Gaza Strip, the citizens used to buy water from the desalination plants at prices not affordable for all.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Um Adham Bakr, Gaza Strip Resident: “I have no money to buy fresh water, or to bathe my children with fresh water, or to cook food with fresh water. I use the tap water all the time.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mahmoud Bakr, Gaza Strip Resident: “Today is a great day for me because I can fill the tank with fresh water. I have not had filled the tank with fresh for maybe two months. I collected the money from my brothers. We are three brothers living in the same house. Each of us paid 10 to 15 shekels in order to fill a tank like this so as my kids, brothers, nephews and nieces will be able to shower with fresh water.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mahir Salim, Water Directorate Director At Gaza University: “The cost of safe drinking water is high. Not all citizens can afford it for their children and others. The living situation is very difficult for the majority of the population in the Gaza Strip. In economic terms, the level of poverty is very high in the Strip. Such sources are not affordable for many citizens.”

Narration: Desalination plants are a temporary solution to the crisis. The aquifers are over pumped. On the other hand, the amount of waste water from the desalination process is huge as it often goes to the sewers.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Montasir JadAllah, Water Vendor, Gaza Strip: “We have to do so as people are suffering for the lack of fresh water. How can they buy fresh water if there is no desalination station? Shall they die trying to secure water for their children, or for washing? They have to use fresh water if they want to live.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Mahir Salim, Water Directorate Director at Gaza University: “Desalination plants are scattered throughout the Gaza Strip. Large amounts of water are extracted daily, half of which goes to sewers or into the ground once again. The water is salty, so they benefit from half of it. So they have to overpump water reservoirs which leads to the depletion of the aquifer.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Odai Al Daghmah, Expert at Desalination Plant: “There is waste water but it can be controlled. About 25% of water can be possibly waste water and 75% of it desalinated water. Waste water depends on the quality of groundwater. It is difficult to take advantage of the waste water if the groundwater is too salty.”

Narration: In the Gaza Strip, as the population increases the need for drinking water intensifies and the challenge to find solutions for this purpose gets more serious.

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Yousef Abu Mayla, Water Expert at Al Azhar University: “Solution to the water crisis in the Gaza Strip lies in three points that we summarize as follows: first: to set up large-scale desalination plants, and a to treat sewage water as much as possible to reuse in agriculture; second, to stop or decrease the proportion of wells allocated to the agricultural sector, and third: to import water from outside.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Khaldoun abu Alhin, Department of Geology at AL Azhar University: “We have an international right; we can have recourse to the International Court for our rights and our share in the waters of underground reservoir in the West and in the waters of the Jordan River.”

SOUNDBITE [Arabic] Odai Al Daghmah, Expert at Desalination Plant: “Desalination plants must be built over the next five years, because by 2020 the Gaza Strip will not be habitable given the current circumstances. Therefore, we must start right now and build large desalination plants in the area.”

Narration: One of the most important solutions to the water crisis is to put an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. It’s now an open secret that the Israeli regime steals and keeps both underground and surface water that flow into the Gaza Strip. 


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