by Austin Bodetti
The persistent humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip rarely fails to make headlines, but the political violence at the heart of the territory’s problems often obscures an evolving environmental issue with just as many implications: water scarcity. Only a tenth of Gazans have access to safe drinking water, and just 3 percent of the territory’s shrinking water supply remains safe for humans to consume. Meanwhile, climate change and the ongoing Israeli blockade have hindered the international community’s response to what could turn into an ecological crisis. As Gaza’s droughts worsen, the risk of conflict grows.
“The Israeli blockade has affected every aspect of life in Gaza, but the biggest problem is water,” says Munther Shablaq, an engineer who directs a water supply network on the Gazan coast. “There are several projects to address this issue, including the collection of rainwater, desalination, and the import of water, but, because of Gaza’s isolation and the Israeli siege, these projects are delayed.”
Recurring conflicts between Hamas and Israel have contributed to the destruction of water supply networks, sewerage, and other infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of Gaza’s ever-expanding water footprint. All the while, underemployed farmers in Gaza often overtax the arid territory’s already-limited aquifers, and global warming has led to heat waves that evaporate much of the water from rainfall, which comes at an average of six inches a year. The natural environment in Gaza is facing pressure on several fronts. Isolated from the rest of the Middle East, Gazans feel ill equipped to deal with droughts.
“Israel controls the largest sources of water around us, negatively affecting our own reservoirs,” says Saeed Kamal, a Gazan activist. “The Israeli blockade has had a particularly significant impact on the availability of equipment used to extract water from wells in Gaza.”
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development has assessed that water scarcity could render Gaza uninhabitable by 2020, a startling possibility for a territory of two million people. The longer the territory’s drought persists, the greater the likelihood that Gaza’s environmental issues could come to impact Israel and the Sinai Peninsula, one of Egypt’s least stable regions. The United Nations has cited a study from the RAND Corporation that a Gazan health crisis caused by water pollution, a side effect of the territory’s drought, could spread to Egypt and Israel. Both countries are also struggling with climate change.
“The basis of the problem is the consumption of groundwater at a significantly higher rate than rainfall can replenish it,” says Hasan al-Madhoun, an official in a labor union of Gazan engineers. “Increased temperatures and delayed rainfall due to climate change have led to the need for more water and electricity. The Israeli blockade prevents this, exacerbating the environmental impact.”
While Gazan farmers have expressed interest in sustainable agriculture, their over-reliance on the Coastal Aquifer, a water supply also used by Egypt and Israel, has depleted much of their groundwater. Additional water from Israel only goes so far as climate change increases the frequency of droughts.
“Though Israelis and Palestinians live in the same geographical area, Palestinians suffer more from climate change because of the occupation,” says Ahmed Abu Abdo, a former employee of the aid agency Islamic Relief’s Palestinian branch office. “The Israeli occupation prevents Palestinian access to resources and measures that would support Palestinians’ adaption to climate change.”
Several factors stop Gazans from achieving sustainable development. The Israeli blockade prevents Gazans from seeking alternatives, and global warming decreases the speed at which groundwater replenishes the Coastal Aquifer. Climate change is aggravating the damage to Gaza caused by the Israeli embargo and the wider cold war between Hamas and Israel, integrating environmental degradation into the decade-long conflict.
“Climate change has compounded the effects of the Israeli blockade by exacerbating flooding and water contamination in Gaza, even affecting Israel’s own water quality,” observes Jeannie Sowers, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “That said, the blockade enforced by Egypt and Israel presents a much bigger issue. The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has degraded Gaza’s infrastructure, and Gaza can’t benefit from any normal investment or foreign financial assistance because the European Union and the United States aren’t exerting pressure on Israel.”
Though the Israeli blockade on Gaza as well as recurring wars between Hamas and Israel restrict the means by which the international community can send Gazans humanitarian aid, both parties to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict have an obvious stake in fighting global warming. Water scarcity undermines Gaza’s economic and political stability, encouraging Hamas to start a conflict that could net concessions from war-weary Israelis. Resolving environmental issues can play a small role in establishing peace.
“In light of the current political and economic situation in Gaza, it is not possible to find and implement solutions to this problem, for issues pertaining to the environment and water usually require the united efforts of local and international organizations,” Shablaq tells LobeLog. “The countries of the world must finance programs to meet Gaza’s needs in the field of the environment and water.”
Many analysts suggest that global warming amplifies levels of political violence and terrorism. In Gaza, a territory plagued by both, the international community must move to prevent water scarcity from launching Hamas and Israel into another conflict. The U.S. and other Western world powers need to compel Israel to offer Gazans access to alternatives to the Coastal Aquifer and resources for adapting to climate change. For its part, Israel can allow more aid agencies into Gaza and expand the pipelines that Israeli officials use to deliver water there. Ensuring Gaza’s sustainable development falls with Israel’s national interests.
Loosening the Israeli embargo on Gaza may provide a short-term solution to the territory’s many troubles with water scarcity. Nonetheless, only a political settlement to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict can guarantee Gazans the long-term relief that they require to realize sustainable development.
“If Gaza had a normal flow of trade and investment, the region would have a much stronger water supply and sanitation system,” Sowers tells LobeLog. “Thinking of Gaza as an enclave is a mistake. The region could easily be linked to Egypt or Israel economically as well as in terms of infrastructure. The question ultimately becomes how to resolve the political conflict.”
Austin Bodetti studies the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia. He has conducted fieldwork in Bosnia, Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Oman, South Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda, and his research has appeared in The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, and Wired.