We all need water to live. The United Nations recognizes a human right to water and sanitation, and further recognizes that access to water is a precondition of other rights like health. Water must never be a weapon, and it must not be withheld. According to a recent UN report, “Access to safe drinking water in Gaza through the public water network plummeted from 98.3% in 2000 to a mere 10.5% in 2014, comapred to almost 97% in the West Bank.” (Gaza Ten Years Later). This should be an urgent aim of every person and organization to remove water from the politics of this conflict.
Many Gazan homes receive piped water for only a few hours, every third or fourth day. Unless the electricity is working at the same time, they have no way to pump the water into a holding tank. And if they do capture it, it’s still not drinkable. Mothers who can afford to do so, bathe their babies in purified water because the public water is so abrasive to the skin. You can smell the water in Gaza, feel its salt on your skin, and watch your domestic pipes sprout nodules in colours that are not found in nature. Chloride and nitrates in most of Gaza’s water are as much as eight times the World Health Organization’s acceptable standards.
Gaza’s water crisis includes people’s access to potable water and water for household use; the denial of permits to import water-related technologies and the parts to maintain essential water infrastructure; the withholding of electricity for desalination, sewage treatment, and domestic water pumps; and the near-total damage to the coastal aquifer that is Gaza’s only source of clean water. Several of these factors contribute to health issues including waterborne disease.
The environmental damage is massive and wholly preventable: 120,000,000 litres of untreated sewage are pumped in the Mediterranean Sea each day because the lack of electricity and permits prevents Gazan engineers from keeping the sewage treatment systems working. The affected Mediterranean coast, is, of course, shared with Israel. Perhaps the residents of Ashkelon will one day require this situation to change.
What causes all this?
Remember, people used to think that hunger was caused by a scarcity of food. Amartya Sen and others transformed our understanding: famine is generally caused by the absence of an entitlement, an effective claim, on the food that is available. If you are not considered to have a right to food, it won’t matter how much food is around you. Ask an Afghan woman how that works. Famine is a political event, far more often than it is a natural one.
[Similarly, people frequently ask how Gazans claim to be hungry when there are pictures of food on supermarket shelves. They might as well ask how anyone can be hungry in New Zealand or America, while there is food in our supermarkets. Food insecurity in Gaza is not caused by an absence of food in the territory. It is caused by a severe shortage of livelihoods; of ways to earn income to purchase the food from supermarkets. It is caused by the blockade that has eliminated the livelihoods.]
What about water? It’s a desert, right? Water is scarce?
Yes, it’s a desert as well as a seashore and yes, fresh water is limited. But no, that’s not the critical cause. In Gaza and, differently, in the West Bank, water is less scarce than political. Palestinians lack access to the water that exists. An excellent chapter in the book Decolonizing Palestinian Political Economy: De-development and Beyond (Mandy Turner editor) documents the controls that prevent West Bankers from accessing or controlling their own water resources. Gazans, as fellow Palestinians, are also excluded. Israelis control more than 90% of Palestine’s water resources, and Israelis consume more than four times the daily water that Palestinians consume (statistics from the Alliance for Water Justice in Palestine).
Even the notion of desalination is political (as Sara Roy points out in the introduction to the third edition of The Gaza Strip: The Political Economy Of De-Development). Gaza’s desalination programme would be unnecessary if the people and parts of Palestine were not separated and denied access to their water resources. Donor desalination projects relieve the obligation of the Occupying Power, and avoid the issue of water justice.
The Palestinian water problem only looks like scarcity. Why is it important to understand the difference? We respond to scarce water with conservation activities. However, when a system denies access to water, conservation is not an appropriate reponse. The solution to avoidable deprivation is to restore the equitable right of access to the water that exists. It’s not a favour, it’s a right. Then, of course, manage the resource wisely.
In Gaza, too, equitable access to water is a human right and an obligation of the Occupying Power.
Therefore, the solution won’t be an additional truckload of bottled water coming through the blockade. A delivery of water just replicates the structure which systematically denies Gazans’ rights. Solutions will separate water from politics and restore Palestinians’ right to their resource.