Israel-Hamas conflict is also a war over water

Israel-Hamas conflict is also a war over water

Kersten Knipp

March 21, 2024


In Gaza, Palestinians are suffering from a lack of food and water. Problems around water supply in Palestinian territories are hardly new in this conflict, but the current Israel-Hamas war is making the issues worse.

Aid agencies say the population in northern Gaza is at risk of famine by May and in southern Gaza, Rafah is projected to face famine by JulyImage: Khaled Omar/Xinhua/picture alliance


Experts are sounding the alarm: The threat of famine in the Gaza Strip is real. If nothing changes, famine would likely start in the northern end of the enclave by May. Half of the people still living in the area are already in dire straits, say experts from the multinational expert group that works on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) initiative.

The IPC is made up of representatives from 19 international organizations, including the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, Oxfam, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Bank, the World Food Programme, and Save the Children.

The IPC defines famine, the most serious level of its "food insecurity scale," as a situation where "at least 20% of the population is affected, with about one out of three children being acutely malnourished and two people dying per day for every 10,000 inhabitants due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease."

The report says the current situation in Gaza will likely result in that scenario in the near future. Access to medical care, water and sanitation will also be limited.

"Access to sufficient clean water is a matter of life and death, and children in Gaza have barely a drop to drink," the director of UNICEF, Catherine Russell, wrote on X (formerly Twitter) in December. "Without safe water, many more children will die."

The conflict in Gaza is worsening a water problem that was already of serious and ongoing concern.

The problem is partially due to Gaza's geographical location on the coast. Most of the water locals require comes from a natural groundwater reservoir, which tends to have a higher salinity level because it's so close to the sea. The groundwater reservoir is also polluted by untreated wastewater. Damage to water infrastructure from previous conflicts in Gaza also contributes to further contamination. Back in 2011, the UN had already determined that over 90% of the groundwater in the enclave was unsafe to drink without it being treated.

Water and fuel blocked

All this makes locals living in the Gaza Strip even more dependent on Israel for their drinking water. After the October 7 Hamas terror attacks, which resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people in Israel, the Israeli state cut off the water supply and stopped allowing deliveries of fuel into Gaza. The Israeli military campaign has since killed over 30,000 people. 

Aid agencies say dehydration, flu and skin diseases from lack of a safe water supply are spreading in GazaImage: Yasser Qudaih/Anadolu/picture alliance


Two out of three pipes bringing water into Gaza were reopened by Israel by the end of October. Israeli media outlet Times of Israel said that this meant that 28.5 million liters were being piped into the enclave daily. Before October 7, around 49 million liters had flowed into the enclave daily.

However, the lack of fuel also impacts water supplies. Diesel is used to power electricity generators and Gaza's only powerplant. That electricity is used to run the desalination and water treatment plants. This means that lack of fuel also equals lack of clean water.

Water problems in the Gaza Strip have not been addressed for years, said Tobias von Lossow, a researcher and expert on water security at the Clingendael Institute, based in the Netherlands. Among other things, larger water desalination plants were necessary.

"But these have not yet been built, even though, apart from water treatment and deliveries from Israel, there are virtually no other options for supplying the population with clean drinking water," von Lossow told DW.

Where water is political

The water situation in the occupied West Bank is slightly less problematic. But there are water shortages here too. According to information on the platform GlobalWaters.org, which is run by the American development agency USAID, water is often lost in the West Bank due to outdated infrastructure and damaged pipes.

Only 31% of Palestinians living in the West Bank have connections to a sewage network, and only between 5% and 10% of wastewater there is ever cleaned. Experts say this only further pollutes and depletes available groundwater.

Recently solar power has been used to access water from wells in Gaza, amid the ongoing water shortageImage: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu/picture alliance

The interim agreement signed by Israeli and Palestinian officials in 1995 — often referred to as Oslo II — was supposed to help regulate water supplies. The agreement, which was only supposed to last for five years until there was movement towards a two-state solution, gave Israel control of 80% of the West Bank's water reserves.

'Artificial shortage'

Palestinians say that Israel restricts water to their areas but sends plenty of water to Israeli settlers in the area — the settlements here are considered illegal by most of the world. Israel, which operates a world-beating desalination and water recycling system, insists that it's supplying plenty of water to the Palestinians in these areas.

A May 2023 report by the Israeli rights organization B'Tselem said that Israelis in the West Bank use three times as much water as Palestinians living there do. The West Bank's water shortage "cannot be attributed to fate, a natural disaster or a regional water crisis," the group wrote. "It is the outcome of Israel's discriminatory policy to intentionally create a constant, artificial shortage among this population." 

Water is very clearly a political issue in this area, and supplies in the West Bank have been reduced over the past few years.

"The drop in the water levels in the Dead Sea by an average of 1 meter per year shows how much pressure on water resources has increased," von Lossow said. "The political circumstances here also make it difficult to provide better water supplies."

The dispute over water is part of long-running Palestinian-Israeli disputes, he continued. "But it is only one of several major components that shape this conflict, alongside questions about territory, identity, religion and military issues."

This story was originally published in German. 


Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East



Source : https://www.dw.com/en/israel-hamas-conflict-is-also-a-war-over-water/a-68626036

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