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Last update - 10:00 07/11/2007
A moment before the lights go out
By Amira Hass
Alan Johnston, the BBC corresponded kidnapped in Gaza, related in an interview that at a relatively early stage, he started suffering from all kinds of aches because of the water he drank. This was the same water that the kidnappers drank, but Johnston's unaccustomed body sent warning signals: This is not water that is fit for drinking. And this is the water that reaches most of the taps in the Gaza Strip. Salty, in a few places brackish to contaminated, with an oily consistency. That is clearly felt when bathing.
The reason is an ancient one: overpumping because Gaza must make do with the waters from its aquifer alone. It is as if we were to say to the residents of Be'er Sheva: make do with the water that flows nearby. The water sources in the rest of the country are not for you.
Over the last few years, there have been some improvised private and public solutions. Private water purification plants in homes and commercial companies that sell purified water.
The municipalities, for their part, set up large brackish water desalination facilities and several central taps. Thousands of people go there daily to fill up jerry-cans with water that will not taste like it came from a puddle and will not cause diarrhea, infections, kidney problems and who knows what else.
The electricity and fuel supply to Gaza has already been reduced to below the level of basic human needs. An additional reduction will affect the above solutions to the water problem, and beyond. "To darken Gaza," as some of the security experts among us have recently proposed, does not end merely with darkened homes at night. You don't have to be an expert in public health to realize that it would create an endless chain reaction of public health problems and environmental blights.
Today, around a year and a half after Israel bombed the transformer station in Gaza, only 193 megawatts out of the 240 or so it needs is supplied to the Strip.
The water network is the biggest energy consumer in the Gaza Strip: it requires approximately 25 megawatts of the 240 megawatts the Gaza Strip needs.
The 135 wells across the Gaza Strip that supply water, poor quality as it may be, cannot function if the electricity and diesel fuel supply is cut further. The same is true of sewage treatment plants.
Already now, each day, no water is supplied to around 15 percent of the Strip's residents. Each area receives water only every other day. The water is pumped electrically and stored in home reservoirs on every rooftop. Power outages are frequent.
When a power outage in a given area occurs on a day when the municipalities channel water to it, the houses are denied water for three, and sometimes even four, days.
The water network also needs around 150,000 liters of diesel fuel per month. The sewage system needs around 100,000 liters.
The Coastal Municipalities Water Utility, the supplier of sewage and water services in the Gaza Strip obtained only 60,000 liters of diesel fuel in October, because the quantity of fuels sold from Israel to the Gaza Strip was reduced. And this is before "the darkening" proposed by Ehud Barak and Matan Vilnai.
The water company must choose to favor the sewage system over the water system. As the deputy CEO of the company, Maher Najjar, explains: The collapse of the sewage system entails a bigger humanitarian threat.
Just imagine a huge flood of sewage. Hence, for example, the seven wells in the northern Gaza Strip that are diesel operated were allocated only 2,000 liters of diesel in early November, instead of the 10,500 liters needed to operate them.
Even before the lights go out, Israel is prohibiting the entry of raw materials into the Gaza Strip.
No one is talking any more about dozens of development projects that have consequently been frozen, such as the one to desalinate well water that serves the residents of the El Bureij refugee camp. Let them continue drinking the water that endangers their health.
Raw material is not the only thing Israel is barring entry of: Vital spare parts are also being barred entry. In the Gaza City sewage treatment facility there are several minor malfunctions.
However, Israel is barring the entry of the spare parts needed to repair them. Sewage undergoes only minimal treatment before it flows into the sea. And the sea, of course, doesn't stop at the Erez or Rafiah checkpoints.
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