About two weeks ago, I was asked to write a blog about the ongoing climate change meeting that was taking place at the time in Poland (COP 19). I was born in Poland and speak the language, and my blog focuses on climate change; one would think I might have something to add. At the time, I was busy with the series of blogs on water stress. I explained how the problem is in part, a result of climate change, and speaks to the pressing need for energy transitions and other mitigation efforts. I thought that I might as well finish the water series, wait until the meeting concluded, and then use the meeting as a re-starting point to talk about what is actually taking place on the ground in terms of the energy transition to a more sustainable energy mix. Well, as often happens, I changed my mind.
A few days ago an Op-Ed article showed up in the New York Times that was a game changer for me.The article was only available in the digital version of the Times and didn’t enjoy any readers comments that I could see (this might be caused by editorial decisions of the Times) – hardly a focal point for readers. The article touched on three areas that I care deeply about:
- The attempt to prevent the future genocides that will result from collisions between humans and the physical systems as the environment changes in response to human neglect (This is the process I refer to as “Self-Inflicted Genocide” in my first blog post). This passion has emerged from my experiences as a Holocaust survivor.
- The future of the State of Israel – it was where I grew up, as well as fought wars, and I am still a citizen there (in addition to my American citizenship).
- My concern about the water stress issue and the broader implications of the United States’ recent restriction of direct ocean intake for water desalination (as I detailed in the last blog).
For all of these reasons, I am departing from my previous habit of not posting full articles on this blog except as pre-approved guest posts. I see no reason that Prof. Tal or Mr. Abu-Mayla, the authors of the Op-Ed, or the New York Times, should object. In this case I didn’t seek prior permission for the posting mainly because I consider the timing to be critical in order to achieve the broadest possible exposure to the arguments in the article.
Gaza Need Not Be a Sewer
By ALON TAL and YOUSEF ABU-MAYLA
Published: December 2, 2013
For two decades, Palestinian and Israeli environmentalists set aside their differences to call for urgent measures to address the impending water crisis in the Gaza Strip. These calls went unheeded. The price of inaction, protracted conflict and unsustainable policies is being paid today by the 1.7 million residents of Gaza, who face catastrophic conditions thanks to the collapse of Gaza’s sewage system.
Since the Israeli and Egyptian blockade, Gaza has not had sufficient fuel to sustain its electricity supply and keep its 290 water and sewage facilities running. The Hamas government refuses to buy alternative fuels, because taxes on these would go to the rival Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. As a result, pumping stations ceased operation in November, and many streets in southern Gaza City are now inundated with human excrement.
Residents must sandbag their homes so they won’t be flooded by raw sewage. The stench is intolerable. With the pumping stations out of action, fresh water will soon cease to reach taps at all.
The health impact is already apparent. According to a recent Unicef survey, 20 percent of Gazan children suffer from waterborne diseases. Without remedial action, the situation will only get worse.
Aside from humanitarian decency, there are ample pragmatic reasons for Israel to be concerned. Every day, 3.5 million cubic feet of sewage pours into the Mediterranean. Israel’s own drinking water supply is increasingly dependent on seawater desalination. One of its largest facilities, in Ashkelon, is just a few miles north along the coast from Gaza. Erecting a fence can prevent terrorist infiltration, but it can’t stop the flow of feces.
This sewage crisis is only the most acute manifestation of Gaza’s hydrological nightmare. Pressure on water resources long since became unsustainable. Historically, Gaza obtained its water from a shallow aquifer below its sandy soils. This aquifer was already overexploited before 1967, when Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, and extensive contamination by seawater occurred. Its annual recharge from rainfall is no more than 1.8 to 1.9 billion cubic feet, but Gaza’s rapidly growing population uses more than 6 billion cubic feet of water a year. This mounting deficit exacerbates the problem: Last year, the United Nations reported that 95 percent of the aquifer’s water was unfit for human consumption because of pollution from seawater intrusion, fertilizers and sewage. Demand is expected to increase by 60 percent by 2020.
Well aware that the water in their taps makes them sick, many Gaza residents purchase bottled and filtered water at considerable cost. Others take matters into their own hands. After the 2005 Israeli withdrawal, thousands of unregistered wells were drilled in Gaza — causing water tables and water quality to decline still further.
Gaza’s water crisis can be tackled, but fundamental change is necessary to begin the slow process of aquifer restoration. Water demand needs to be controlled effectively. A reduction can be achieved by better conservation in domestic supply and in agriculture, while new infrastructure will save on loss through leaks in the municipal system. But technical fixes alone won’t reduce demand as long as Gaza’s population continues to grow at a steep annual rate of 3.2 percent.
A complete moratorium on groundwater extraction is imperative. Gaza’s water should come from alternative sources, such as comprehensive programs to collect roof rainwater and catch runoff from streets. Sewage treatment should be upgraded so that wastewater can be reused in agriculture (as is done in water-stressed states like Texas and Arizona).
Finally, most of Gaza’s water should come from the sea. Desalination has been done since Roman times. Today, economies of scale and improvements in reverse-osmosis technology have reduced the price of desalinated water significantly. Israel’s water authority reports that, on average, each of Israel’s five major facilities can produce 1,000 liters of water for roughly 60 cents.
For over 20 years, a major desalination plant for Gaza has been discussed, but nothing has been done. Large desalination facilities could easily provide Gazans with affordable potable water. There are several small pilot plants already operating, most sponsored by international agencies, but they can meet only a fraction of present demand.
The Palestinian water authority has approved a large-scale $500 million facility, which Israel supports. And Israel has quietly begun to offer Palestinians desalination training. With funding doubtful, though, construction delays continue.
The other obstacle is that desalination plants require large amounts of electricity, which is in short supply in Gaza, where much of the power is still provided by Israel’s utility company. The festering conflict between Israel and Gaza’s government does not help the situation, even though Israel remains committed to selling power to the Palestinian territories, including Gaza. Israel continues to sell water to Gaza, and both parties have agreed on a pipeline that will double the amount of water supplied to the Gaza Strip.
Of course, just this sort of good will might smooth a path to progress in the vexed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. But with no sign of any meaningful advance in the negotiations, it is time to think about decoupling the water conflict from other, more intractable issues. The interim water accord signed in 1995 needs to reflect Gaza’s new realities, but there is no reason its people should lack basic water resources.
The United Nations Environmental Program warns that if present trends continue, the Gaza aquifer may be irreversibly damaged by 2020. This is one area where the international community could get involved to bring a meaningful improvement to Palestinians’ quality of life. That, at least, would decontaminate a perilously toxic environment.
Alon Tal of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev is a visiting professor at the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University. Yousef Abu Mayla is a water expert at Al Azhar University in Gaza.
For the 1.7 million citizens of Gaza, this is a genocide in the making. As is clear from the article, this situation is partially of their own creation. The political conflicts with the Fatah in the West Bank and with Israel basically freeze any potential preventative action on the part of the Hamas government that rules Gaza. The recent deteriorating relationship with Egypt only adds to the government’s inability to act. As I have mentioned before (September 17), the “self” in “self-inflicted genocide” doesn’t mean that everybody is both a victim and a perpetrator. Most Gazans today are helpless victims. Following in the same pattern, Israelis and the people around the Mediterranean basin are set to join that demographic. The important thing to remember is this: there is still plenty of opportunity to mitigate the disaster.
Dumping of 350,000 m3 of raw, untreated, sewage into the Mediterranean converts the already grim situation from a local genocide into an issue of continued global existence. The Ashkelon desalination facility, which is only a few miles up the coast in Israel, makes California’s objections to the direct intake desalination approach (as discussed in a previous blog) seem almost laughable in comparison. The sewage doesn’t stay localized to the Gaza or Israeli coasts.
The Mediterranean is a cradle of civilization that is at the root of what makes up so much of global history. Presently, there are about 500 million people residing along its coasts. Wikipedia summarizes the pollution threats to the area:
Pollution in this region has been extremely high in recent years.[when?] The United Nations Environment Programme has estimated that 650,000,000 t (720,000,000 short tons) of sewage, 129,000 t (142,000 short tons) of mineral oil, 60,000 t (66,000 short tons) of mercury, 3,800 t (4,200 short tons) of lead and 36,000 t (40,000 short tons) of phosphates are dumped into the Mediterranean each year. The Barcelona Convention aims to ‘reduce pollution in the Mediterranean Sea and protect and improve the marine environment in the area, thereby contributing to its sustainable development.’ Many marine species have been almost wiped out because of the sea’s pollution. One of them is the Mediterranean Monk Seal which is considered to be among the world’s most endangered marine mammals.
The Mediterranean is also plagued by marine debris. A 1994 study of the seabed using trawl nets around the coasts of Spain, France and Italy reported a particularly high mean concentration of debris; an average of 1,935 items per km². Plastic debris accounted for 76%, of which 94% was plastic bags.
The water residence time in the Mediterranean is 80 – 100 years. Meanwhile, the direct discharge from Gaza constitutes about 2% of total discharge on a yearly basis and it is rising (the population ratio is about 0.4%). This type of contamination is unsustainable – if nothing is done, the cradle of civilization will eventually be converted into a sewer.