In Gaza, Israeli bombardment makes already dire water crisis worse

Palestinians gather to collect water, amid shortages of drinking water, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Palestinians gather to collect water, amid shortages of drinking water, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

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Gaza's already poor water supply has been hit hard by the war as fuel shortages cut pumping from wells, desalination and purification

  • Gaza's water supply already bad before Hamas-Israel war
  • Lack of fuel hampers water pumping and purification

BEIRUT – Israel cut off food, water and fuel to Gaza shortly after the deadly Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants, leading to desperate humanitarian conditions among more than 2 million Palestinians living in one the world's most densely populated areas.

But even before the latest fighting began, Israel supplied only around 10% of Gaza's water, so why is the territory severely short of water?

Aquifer running low, polluted

Some 80% of Gaza's water is pumped from an underground aquifer, a large formation of water-bearing rock that stretches along the Mediterranean coast underneath Gaza and Israel.

The amount of water in the aquifer has been depleted by extraction quicker than it can be replenished by rain.

But even before the war, 96% of water from the aquifer in Gaza was deemed unfit for human consumption, according to a 2021 Palestinian Water Authority report quoted by UNICEF in June this year.

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This was because of raw sewage and agricultural run-off seeping into the water, and high levels of salt from contamination by seawater.

Israel says this is because of mismanagement by Hamas authorities, while Palestinians say Israel's long-running blockade of the territory has hampered efforts to import the materials necessary to maintain the water network.

Damage to pipelines from Israeli bombardment is likely to have worsened the pollution of the aquifer.

There are six water treatment plants in Gaza, relying on electricity from the grid. Around 50% of that electricity used to come from Israel, which cut the supply on Oct. 11.

The plants also have back-up diesel generators, but Israel also cut fuel supplies.

Some 25% of Gaza's electricity comes from solar panels and the rest from diesel generators. So Israel's cuts of electricity and fuel supplies have severely hampered Gaza's capacity to pump water from the aquifer and treat it for human consumption.

The U.N. says Gaza desperately needs fuel to pump water and operate treatment plants, but Israel says it is not responsible for supplying energy to an enemy territory. The Israel army says Hamas has stockpiled more than 500,000 litres of fuel for its military that it is not releasing for civilian or humanitarian uses.

Israel turns off the taps

Until Israel cut off its water supplies to Gaza on Oct. 8, three pipelines from the Israeli water utility, Mekorot, brought in some 10 percent of Gaza's supply - 18 billion litres a year.

The pipelines supply northern, central and southern Gaza.

Israel resumed pumping water to the south on Oct. 15, but cut it again on Monday.

The U.N. said the supply to central Gaza had restarted on Tuesday.

But the pipeline supplying the north of Gaza and Gaza City has not been operational since Oct. 8.


The rest of Gaza's water comes from the energy-intensive desalination of seawater, mostly from three major plants.

Two plants are operating in southern and central Gaza at about 40% capacity, kept going by small deliveries of fuel by U.N. agencies, the U.N. said. The southern desalination plant is also fuelled by solar panels, paid for by the European Union.

Houses still connected to the mains have been receiving water for a few hours a day, the U.N. said.

There are also a number of small-scale private desalination and purification facilities. Mostly run by solar energy, they have become the main suppliers of clean drinking water in the territory, the U.N. said.


As of Tuesday, 217 trucks carrying water, food, and medicine had entered Gaza after aid delivery to the strip resumed on Oct. 21, "at least 18 carried drinking water (jerry cans and bottles), water tanks, water purification equipment, and hygiene kits," the U.N. said.

In all, the U.N. said it had trucked 1,950 cubic metres of drinking water and 175 cubic metres of bottled water into Gaza since Oct. 7.


U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said on Tuesday that the "level of humanitarian assistance that has been allowed into Gaza up to this point is completely inadequate and not commensurate with the needs of people in Gaza, compounding the humanitarian tragedy."

The U.N. estimates Gazans are consuming three litres of water per person, per day, a small fraction of the minimum of 50 litres a day recommended by the World Health Organisation.

The U.N. said that some people are drinking brackish water sourced from agricultural wells. Others are digging wells in areas adjacent to the sea, or were relying on salty tap water.

"Gaza is facing an unprecedented health crisis that risks an outbreak of deadly infectious diseases, like cholera, because water and sanitation services have completely broken down," Oxfam said in the statement.

(Reporting by Nazih Osseiran ; Editing by Jon Hemming.)

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