Israel and Egypt keep Gaza under a tight economic blockade to weaken the Islamist movement Hamas, which it and the US consider a terrorist organization. But the blockade also keeps out key construction materials and spare parts used for developing and repairing local infrastructure.
“The pollution, the poor wastewater treatment, the lack of pipes and cement for repairs – all of this is more a result of the blockade than anything else,” says Muralee Thummurkady, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) coordinator in Gaza. “There are environmental and geographic concerns, but there also political problems.”
In large part due to the closure, the UN says, nearly half of Gaza’s population relies on septic tanks or cesspools to dispose of its raw sewage, with only three wastewater treatment plants for the entire territory.
The sewage in the cesspools, one of them larger than 100 acres, seep back into the coastal aquifer, the sole source of freshwater for Gaza’s 1.5 million people.
Once a vehicle for Gaza’s historical position as a major agricultural export hub for neighboring empires, the aquifer is now at the crux of its twin problems of water scarcity and pollution.
The more the aquifer is used, the more salty and contaminated it becomes, says Mr. Thummarukudy. At least 90 percent of the water sampled from the aquifer is unsuitable for drinking as a result.
“More water is currently extracted from the aquifer than is flowing back into it,” Thummarukudy says. “The contaminated saltwater from the sea then fills that gap – and the people are left with no choice but to drink it.”
Gaza’s drinking water, according to rights group Amnesty International, contains dangerously high levels of both saline, or salt, and nitrate, an organic compound often used in fertilizer and particularly harmful to infants.