How Gaza's electricity crisis is becoming Israel's water catastrophe

Aug 11, 2016 12:00 AM

The electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip is no longer just the problem of the 1.8 million Palestinians who live there or of the Hamas regime. The chronic power deficit is creating environmental repercussions that threaten Israel’s water reservoirs, sewage system and environmental quality. In May, Gaza’s sewage system collapsed, and raw sewage reached the water reservoir of the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council. Gaza’s sewage plants have ceased functioning due to the lack of electricity, and left wastewater flows into Israel untreated.

“Without electricity, water cannot be produced and wastewater cannot be treated,” said Eilon Adar, a hydrologist and the former director of Ben-Gurion University’s Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research, Department of Environmental Hydrology and Microbiology in Beersheba. “An aquifer knows no borders. Water does not stop at a border. At the moment the damage is negligible, but Gaza is now dumping its untreated wastewater near the Beit Lahia wastewater treatment plant. This site, founded a number of years ago with Israel’s agreement, is only about 200 meters [660 feet] from Israel’s border and the [effluent] ‘lake’ seeps into the coastal aquifer.”

According to Adar, when Gaza's wastewater treatment plant does not function, Israel stands to suffer as well. The ramifications of this can already be seen.

“Gaza sends wastewater to the area of the nonfunctional treatment plant, causing the water level to rise. A virtual mountain of underground water has been created that will flow to the only place in Gaza that still has drinkable water. That water will become contaminated and then disaster will hit. Once [contaminated] water permeates potable water, it will be almost impossible to fix the situation.”

Tel Aviv University’s Porter School of Environmental Studies has been keeping tabs on Gaza’s electrical, water and sewage crises for years. The school has been issuing periodic warnings about the immediate risks and dangers involved, recognizing the need for wastewater to be treated and for a potable water supply made available to the residents of the Gaza Strip. Adar explained that currently, Israel infuses a significant amount of potable water from the Ashkelon desalination facility into pipes in the Khan Yunis area, but that is not enough. Even this supply cannot forestall the catastrophe-in-the-making involving everything connected to water and sewage treatment. Unless the problem is addressed immediately and comprehensively, disaster is inevitable.

The electricity crisis in Gaza began after former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert instructed the Israel Defense Forces to destroy the transformers in Gaza’s electrical station in retaliation for the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in June 2006. Although the station was partially restored, it never returned to its former level of performance.

“Today there is only one operating turbine, which supplies a bit of electricity to Gaza residents,” said one of Gaza’s largest fuel merchants, who requested anonymity. He told Al-Monitor that there is just enough fuel to partially operate one out of four small, reconstructed turbines. Before the station was destroyed it supplied some 125 megawatts. The station's capacity, together with electricity supplied through direct lines from Israel and Egypt, guaranteed a more or less reasonable level of electricity. Now, however, the station provides no more than 50 megawatts, and the direct electricity lines from Israel and Egypt often suffer temporary cuts.

A few months ago, Hamas authorities sent the merchant to Egypt to purchase industrial fuel to properly operate the transformer station, but he returned empty-handed. The Egyptians had demanded payment in cash.

“We have no cash to pay and are unable to commit ourselves to pay for diesel fuel from Israeli fuel companies,” he said. According to the merchant, the European Union (EU) had for years helped operate the transformer station, by transferring payment via the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah, but it ceased doing so more than five years ago. Since then, the plant has been operating at only a quarter of its capacity. The EU stopped financing the purchases of diesel fuel after it discovered that some of the funds received by the PA had disappeared. In recent years, Ramallah has continued to underwrite the purchase of industrial fuel from Israel, but as its economic situation worsens, so does its payments and fuel quotas for operating the Gaza transformer station.

Gaza residents currently suffer from an acute shortage of electricity. In recent months, every household has received six to seven hours of electricity intermittently.

“Every single day, we regret that a transformer station was ever built in Gaza,” the merchant said. “If not for that station, which was bombed by Israel and only partially reconstructed, the Israelis and the world would be obligated to supply us with electricity. Now we are living like in the Middle Ages and even made to feel that it’s ‘our problem.’”

As already mentioned, however, the electricity crisis is not only the problem of Gaza residents and Hamas. “It is impossible to operate an aquifer, which is the most important source of water in the Middle East, without cooperation from the neighbors,” said Adar. “We need to get used to the idea of buying sewage from Gaza, treating it, using it as wastewater for irrigation in the northern Negev and exchanging it for drinking water. It is in our interest that the mountain aquifer water remain drinkable.”

Adar also noted that European countries and others recognize the importance of preserving good water quality in the region. They support joint water enterprises and are concerned about water pollution. In July, US congressional representatives sent a letter to Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz in which they expressed deep concern about the state of Gaza's water supply and the lack of sewage treatment. They warned that the absence of immediate action to purify sewage water would lead to severe environmental and health hazards that will affect Palestinians as well as Israelis.

It is clear to everyone — the letter’s signatories, EU representatives and Israeli and Gaza residents — that there is only one path to averting disastrous repercussions — resolving the severe electricity shortage in Gaza before it is too late.

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