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Could desalination solve Gaza's water woes?

The Gaza Strip is in dire need of a seawater desalination project, in light of a severe water shortage and the depletion of the only freshwater source.
A Palestinian boy squirts water from a tap in the street on March 20, 2014 as the construction of a major seawater desalination plant launched by the European Union (EU) and UNICEF began in Deir Al-Balah, in the central Gaza Strip. Only 5.8% of households in Gaza have a good water supply suitable for consumption according to a statement released by the Palestinian Central Beureau of statistics on the occasion of World water day.  AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED        (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Get

Freshwater from natural sources are depleted in Palestine, and the coastal aquifer is the only water source for more than 1.8 million people in the Gaza Strip who consume nearly 170 million cubic meters per year, of which 90 million cubic meters for human consumption and 80 million cubic meters for agricultural consumption.

A statistical report drafted by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics on March 22, 2014, and published by the Palestinian News and Information Agency indicated that demographic development in Palestinian society has led to a rise in the demand for water, and that it is crucial to achieve the goals of sustainable development. The report states, “Limited water resources affect the quantity of water available, which was 349.2 million cubic meters in 2012. Of these, 56.6 million cubic meters were purchased from the Israeli water company, Mekorot, constituting 28% of the water supplied to domestic consumers, in addition to iniquitous pumping from the coastal aquifer in the Gaza Strip that reached 130 million cubic meters.”

Al-Monitor met some citizens in Gaza who believe the seawater desalination project has become an essential need. They indicated that there is no implementation problem but rather the main problem lies in the economics and high costs of such projects, as well as the Israeli restrictions impeding their implementation in the Gaza Strip.

Mohammad Shtayyeh, the governor for Palestine at the Islamic Development Bank, told Al-Monitor, “There is an agreement between the donor countries and the Islamic Development Bank on the call for a conference to obtain new pledges for the water desalination project in the Gaza Strip. The completion of this project is scheduled for the end of 2020 at a cost of $500 million, of which $140 million are allocated for the transmission line and $35 million for the rehabilitation of existing networks.”

Shtayyeh said, “The project requires a power productivity increase to about $40 million to increase power generation by 35 megabytes to run the project." He pointed to other infrastructure requirements and said that the project's feasibility studies and relevant documents are ready but that donors are requesting Israel to undertake, not to destroy the project or attack it in the future.

Munther Shiblak, general director of the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU), told Al-Monitor, “The large population increase and increased water consumption accompanied by an over-pumping of groundwater consecrate the need for such a project.”

He added, “The project is not new but was developed within the National Development Plan — which [calls for] the government to develop the infrastructure sector in the Gaza Strip, including water — 15 years ago. The existing political situation in Gaza prevented donors from financing this project, which was postponed. This pushed the Palestinian Water Authority to find temporary alternatives by establishing three desalination plants in Gaza for the production of 13 million cubic meters of water annually, contributing to a limited extent to solving the water crisis in the Gaza Strip.”

Shiblak said that this project is a strategic choice that will supply the Gaza Strip with potable water in light of a deteriorated aquifer and a poor potential to improve the quality of this water.

He believes the CMWU’s contribution is inherent to this project, and it prepared its own studies. He said, “The CMWU has indeed started preparing for laying down internal transmission lines and constructing 12 water reservoirs in various areas of the Gaza Strip. This is stage I of the construction project of the desalination plant expected to be operational in 2020 [that will] produce 55 million cubic meters of desalinated water per year.”

He added, “The plant will be expanded during stage II to reach an annual production volume of 110 million cubic meters at a cost of $500 million. Half of this cost will be paid by the Islamic Development Bank, and the European Union will have an estimated contribution of 16 million euros [around $17 million] provided by France, and the remaining amount will be secured by a donors' conference. The donors [which he did not name] expressed their readiness to provide funds.”

It should be noted that the EU in partnership with UNICEF had completed in March the construction of stage I of the 10 million euro ($11 million) seawater desalination plant in the Gaza Strip.

Mazen al-Banna, vice president of the Palestinian Water Authority in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor, “The aquifer is the only water source in Gaza, which pumps about 200 million cubic meters each year. It is largely depleted in light of a consumption rate exceeding threefold the aquifer recharge rate.” He said, “There is a desperate need to find other sources of water such as a seawater desalination project, which partially contributes to solving water problems in the Gaza Strip since it improves water quality and increases its quantity.”

He added, “One glass of water produced by this project costs $1 and the Palestinian citizens cannot afford such high costs for water production. This requires large amounts that substantially burdens the citizen in the future.”

Mohammed Abu Saada, an international law expert, clarified during a workshop on Nov. 12, 2013, that no "yes" or "no" answer can be given on whether to go through with the seawater desalination plant project. However, he said that in case the construction of the plant would imply a waiver of water-related rights, then surely the project must be refused.

Samir Abu Mudallal, an economics professor at Al-Azhar University in the Gaza Strip, told Al-Monitor, “This project has an economic importance since it improves water quantity and quality. This will contribute to the partial resolution of the humanitarian and economic crisis in the Gaza Strip, create job opportunities for citizens, provide additional quantities of potable water for human and agricultural consumption in Gaza, preserve human health and supply safe drinking water instead of contaminated water withdrawn from the aquifer that causes numerous epidemics costing the Palestinian Authority millions of dollars for treatment abroad.”

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