Project on Environment, Population & Security, June 1995
by Thomas Homer-Dixon
The achievement of limited autonomy for Palestinians in Gaza and Jericho in 1993 engendered hope for peace in the Middle East, yet violence persists. The links between environmental scarcity and conflict are complex, but in Gaza, water scarcity has clearly aggravated socioeconomic conditions. These conditions, in turn, have contributed to the grievances behind ongoing violence against Israel and emerging tensions among Palestinians in Gaza.
As the first source of freshwater north of the Sinai Desert, the area currently known as the Gaza Strip was once considered to have great strategic value. However, a massive influx of refugees to the area in 1948 placed tremendous stress on its fragile resources. By the time of Israeli occupation in 1967, Gaza hovered on the verge of a water supply crisis. Today, sapped by further years of strain on limited resources, Gaza has become “the most horrifying case of all” in the notoriously water-scarce Middle East region. Rapid decline in both the quality and the quantity of water supplies, frequent outbreaks of waterborne disease, increased alkalinity and salinity of the soil, and the almost total absence of proper sewage disposal or reasonable domestic hygiene have made Gaza “an area which even the most fervent Zionists recognize as a drain on the state that should be off-loaded [to] any Arab country willing to accept it.”
In August of 1993, Israel did indeed “off-load” Gaza, ceding partial power to a Palestinian administration. Amid much ceremony on the White House lawn, Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) chairman Yasir Arafat shared a reluctant handshake as U.S. president Bill Clinton bid them “shalom, salaam, peace.” However, the transition to Palestinian self-government in Gaza has proved anything but peaceful. As of mid-1995, Israeli security forces continued to clash with Palestinians on the edges of the autonomous areas; within Gaza, confrontations between the new Palestinian administration and its Islamic opposition have sometimes turned violent; and Islamic militants have launched suicide bomb attacks against Israeli targets in an attempt to derail the peace talks. In the two years since the “Gaza-Jericho first” accord, hundreds have been killed in continuing violence.
The Western media usually explain this conflict as a result of the spread of fanatical Islamic fundamentalism in the Territories. Yet this focus often distorts rather than clarifies the roots of violence, by giving insufficient consideration to underlying political, economic, and ecological conditions.
In the case of Gaza, years of occupation and resistance have interacted with severe resource scarcities to produce a dismal socioeconomic environment, which has raised the probability of seemingly “irrational” violence. Where opportunities for peaceful expression of deep grievances appear inadequate and living conditions are desperately poor, violent self-sacrifice may take on its own peculiar logic. As Mustafa al-Masri, a psychiatrist at Gaza’s only community mental health program, says: “In the hopelessness and helplessness of this world, there is the bright promise of the next life.”
While the links between environmental scarcity and conflict in Gaza are complex, it is clear that over the years water scarcity has worsened socioeconomic conditions. These conditions, in turn, have contributed to the grievances behind ongoing violence against Israel and tensions among Palestinians in Gaza. To describe this relationship, we provide an overview of Gaza’s recent political history and then analyze the current state of water scarcity and its impact on economic and political stability.
We must note, however, that our analysis has been hindered by a critical shortage of good data.5 Any information on water is politically sensitive. No figure on population, water supply, or consumption stands uncontested. The situation is further complicated by the fact that resources and population in Gaza are administered by several authorities, including the UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), the Israeli military government, and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA took over the administration of Gaza’s agricultural water supply in May 1994. The Gaza Agricultural Department, while staffed with experienced Palestinian water professionals, had been deprived of resources, staff, equipment, and training throughout the occupation.6 The lack of sufficient institutions for water management under the PA further limits the availability of accurate data. Despite data problems, however, few deny that the water situation in Gaza is now desperate.
Autonomy: Too Little, Too Late?
From 1917 to 1948, Gaza was a part of Palestine under the British mandate. The current boundaries of the Gaza Strip are a product of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, which incorporated two-thirds of mandate Gaza into Israel. An armistice between Israel and Egypt brought the remaining one-third of Gaza’s most marginal land – the 365 square kilometers now referred to as the Gaza Strip – under Egyptian military administration. The 1948 war displaced approximately 900,000 Palestinians; 250,000 of these refugees fled to the Gaza Strip, increasing the population of the area by more than 300 percent. The huge influx, combined with the loss of resources and disruption of domestic trade, created a unstable economic situation. The Egyptian administration did little to promote economic self sufficiency in Gaza or to increase ties with its own economy, assuming instead that Gaza’s future would rest on an economic relationship with Israel. By the time of the Israeli occupation of 1967, Gaza’s economy remained “fragile and underdeveloped,” dominated by its service sector, and heavily dependent on citrus agriculture.7
The Six-Day War in June 1967 brought both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under Israeli occupation. Israel fostered economic dependence in order to keep a hostile Palestinian state from being established on its vulnerable borders. Israeli policy exhibited two overriding priorities: absolute control over land and water resources in the Occupied Territories and suppression of any form of independent political or economic organization.8 In Gaza, these aims were embodied in a range of discriminatory policies, including the expropriation of land and water resources, restrictions on research and training, low levels of investment in infrastructure, the absence of financial support or credit facilities for Palestinians, the prohibition of land- and water-use planning, severe restrictions on travel, and restrictions on exports.9 A large percentage of the Gaza workforce became incorporated into the lower echelons of Israel’s economy, especially in construction and as unskilled labor. The net effects of these policies have been the economic and political isolation of the Palestinian population in Gaza and the further weakening of already fragile local economic structures.10
From the outset, the occupation was resisted within both the Occupied Territories and throughout the Palestinian diaspora. Internationally, it brought the PLO to prominence. Formed in 1964 by a summit of Arab leaders, the PLO served as an umbrella organization for various groups supporting the cause of disenfranchised and displaced Palestinians. In the early years of the occupation, the PLO became notorious for airplane hijackings and attacks on Israeli civilians. Although these activities did much to undermine the international legitimacy of the PLO, they did not extinguish concern for Palestinian rights. In 1974, the United Nations (UN) granted the PLO observer status as “the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” The PLO has undeniably served as a locus of unity for Palestinian nationalism. However, its history is primarily that of a representative body in exile – a symbol of struggle with little hand in the day-to-day lives of Palestinians in the Territories. This gap between the powerful symbolism of the PLO and its efficacy in the Territories was thrown into sharp relief by the outbreak of the intifadah in late 1987.
The intifadah caught Israel, the world, and the PLO by surprise. A sustained and largely grassroots uprising that began in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp (which residents now refer to as the “camp of the revolution”), the intifadah was the culmination of years of sporadic resistance. On 8 December 1987, funeral services for four Palestinians killed by an Israeli army tank transport became a massive rally of ten thousand protesters. Within days, similar protests erupted throughout Gaza and the West Bank. The Israeli government immediately took military action to suppress what it dismissed as “riots.” Anita Vitullo, an observer in Gaza at the time, noted, however, that the protests exhibited a “sense of community, purposeful resistance.”11 The acts of civil disobedience that characterized the intifadah were not in themselves significantly different from those preceding them. What differentiated the intifadah was its duration and its scope. Prior resistance had been commonplace, yet widely dispersed and therefore containable; the intifadah, despite its spontaneous origins, rapidly became organized, widespread, and sustained, rendering the Occupied Territories largely ungovernable.12
The uprising drew massive media coverage and shifted international attention from Palestinian terrorism to the nature of the Israeli occupation. It put a face on the people whom the PLO ostensibly represented, which increased the organization’s international legitimacy,13 but it did so at a considerable cost. It also resulted in large loss of life, declining living conditions, and intra-Palestinian violence, including the killings of suspected collaborators. Israel’s imposition of prolonged curfews and closures of the Territories in response to the uprising cut off Palestinians from their livelihoods.14
The Persian Gulf War brought an already precarious situation to the point of total collapse. As a result of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait and PLO support for Iraq, remittances from Palestinians employed in the Persian Gulf states fell sharply. Moreover, direct aid to the PLO from Saudi Arabia was cut off and transfer payments to the Territories from the PLO declined precipitously. Palestinian employment in Israel fell to its lowest level since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Gaza was also cut off from its principal export markets in the Persian Gulf, resulting in a crisis for citrus agriculture.
Violence in the Territories rose as conditions deteriorated. In March 1993, Yitzhak Rabin’s newly elected Labour government responded by sealing off the Territories, cutting off 130,000 Palestinians from their jobs in Israel. Israel eventually allowed a small percentage of workers back into Israel and promoted some local job creation within Gaza. However, the number of unemployed far outstripped Gaza’s capacity to absorb labor into its devastated economy.15
As conditions in Gaza deteriorated, Arafat attempted to shore up his eroding position by renouncing violence and calling for an end to the uprising. Eventually, secret talks culminated in mutual recognition by Rabin’s government and the PLO. This recognition, in turn, set the stage for the signing of the Gaza-Jericho First Accord (the Accord) that provided limited autonomy for Gaza Palestinians. The signing ceremony sparked celebrations among Israelis and Palestinians who hoped that the agreement would be the beginning of a lasting peace in the region, but the stability of a semiautonomous Gaza was almost immediately in jeopardy. By the time the agreement was signed, the economic crisis had fractured the once-strong nationalist unity in Gaza, and “growing inter- and intra-factional rivalries for scarce resources were increasingly apparent.”16
The Accord has transferred responsibility for a resource – poor, overpopulated, and politically unstable region – a region frequently referred to under Israeli occupation as a time bomb – from Israel to the newly formed PA. The future of the peace process has been made conditional on the authority’s success in creating a stable political entity in Gaza, and yet the limited autonomy under which this is to be achieved has proven to be more restricted than many had anticipated.
Because of its size and position between Israel and the Sinai Desert, the Gaza Strip can be easily sealed off and isolated. Outside and on the edges of the autonomous area, many policies of occupation have continued unabated.17 Freedom of movement for Palestinians has actually been reduced; travel between Gaza and the West Bank is all but impossible. Within Gaza, Israeli troop levels have not declined. The Israeli military remains in control of all main roads18 and of the areas around the Jewish settlements, which, while small, are dispersed throughout Gaza.19 Overall, the Israeli military still controls over one-third of Gaza’s territory.
Within the autonomous areas, the optimism engendered by Arafat in July 1994 gave way to a more cautious view of the future. The political freedom thought to have been promised by the agreement failed to quickly materialize and some of Arafat’s actions have been perceived as autocratic and biased. He has kept his PLO patronage network firmly in place, installing formerly exiled old-guard Fatah officials in positions of power, at the expense of Gaza’s younger activists. These actions have cost the PA the substantial grassroots support enjoyed by the local Fatah activists, who are seen as having paid their dues by organizing within Gaza under the pressures and dangers of the occupation, and who often served jail terms for their activities. Furthermore, many of Arafat’s appointees “lack credibility or legitimacy within the community [and] are distrusted or hated, and, in some instances, even perceived as collaborators.”20 The conspicuous consumption of many appointees in the face of Gaza’s extreme poverty has further undermined the image of the new administration.
The most significant issue for the majority of Gazans is whether or not the PA can improve economic conditions. Since the implementation of limited autonomy, there have been visible signs of improvement – wealthy returnees have financed a construction boom. Nonetheless, unemployment has risen, and the grim living conditions of most Palestinians have not markedly improved.21The PA has come under fire for relying on its police force to maintain control.22 Arafat himself has staked his position on the success of the peace process, yet since negotiations began, support for the process among Palestinians has fluctuated greatly, both within the Territories and in the diaspora. While most Palestinians remain supportive of Arafat, opponents of the process have been vocal: Arafat has on occasion been accused of losing sight of the goals of Palestinian nationalism, ignoring the Territories for which he is now responsible, trading away the gains of the intifadah, and tying himself to an Israeli agenda.
At first, disenchantment with the PA within Gaza was accompanied by vocal support for Islamist groups, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.23 In November of 1994, thousands protested at the funeral of an assassinated Islamic Jihad leader, and Arafat was roughed up by protesters and forced to leave the ceremony. The media described the protest as a reaction to declining conditions, the slow pace of reform, and Arafat’s “hounding” of Islamic leaders in the Territories.24 While Hamas’s leaders immediately issued an apology and called for unity, the incident illustrated increasing intra-Palestinian tensions within Gaza.
Initially, Arafat responded by adopting increasingly authoritarian measures, requiring that permits be issued for public gatherings and delaying the distribution of newspapers that allegedly exaggerated the number of people involved in pro-Hamas demonstrations. Numerous petitions for Arafat to reform his methods and increase his accountability to his constituents have had little effect. Shortly after the Accord was signed Edward Said wrote that “the leadership has so misunderstood its people that there is now simmering – and frequently open – revolt more or less everywhere that Palestinians gather and live.”25
Since then, however, Palestinian support for Islamic radicals has fallen. Every time a bomb explodes in Israel – and Israel responds by closing its borders to Palestinian workers and trade – there is a popular reaction against Hamas and Islamic Jihad within Gaza. The result of Palestinian disillusionment with both the PLO and the Islamists has been rising political apathy and disengagement.
Environmental Scarcity and Violent Conflict:
A Theoretical Overview
The environmental effects of human activity are a product of the total population in a region and that population’s per capita physical activity. The vulnerability of the local ecosystem to this activity is also important. Both a higher population level and more intensive per capita activity lead to greater stress on the environment. The degradation of agricultural land, forests, water, and fish stocks are the critical environmental effects that contribute most to social turmoil.26 But it is important to note that it is not only degradation and depletion of these renewable resources – that is, reductions of total resource quality and supply – that causes turmoil. Rather, analysts should focus on the overall scarcity of resources.
There are three forms of “environmental scarcity.” Demand-induced scarcity is caused by population growth or increased per capita activity; the resource must be divided among more people, or more intensive activity increases demand for its use. Supply-induced scarcity occurs with a drop in renewable resource supply because the resource is degraded or depleted faster than it is replenished. Structural scarcity arises from an inequitable distribution of resources – they become concentrated in the hands of a few people while the remaining population suffers resource shortages.
These three types of scarcity often occur simultaneously and interact.27 Two patterns of interaction are common: resource capture and ecological marginalization. Resource capture occurs when demand- and supply-induced scarcities interact to produce structural scarcity: anticipating future resource shortages, powerful groups within society shift resource distribution in their favor, subjecting the remaining population to scarcity. Ecological marginalization occurs when demand-induced and structural scarcities interact to produce supply-induced scarcity: marginal populations are often forced to migrate from regions where resources are scarce to regions that are ecologically fragile and extremely vulnerable to degradation.28
The links between environmental scarcity and conflict are neither inevitable nor deterministic. There are many possible “contextual” variables – from relations among ethnic groups and classes to national culture and prevailing market mechanisms – that affect the strength and kind of relationship between resource stress and violence. However, if these contextual factors prevent a society from effectively adapting to resource stress, four kinds of social effects are likely: decreased agricultural production, regional economic decline, population displacement, and disruption of legitimized and authoritative institutions and social relations.29 These effects, either singly or in combination, can in turn produce or exacerbate conflict that is generally “persistent, diffuse and sub-national.”30
Theoretical Application: Water Scarcity in the Gaza Strip
Sandra Postel calls the Middle East the “region of the most concentrated water scarcity in the world,” with nine out of fourteen countries facing water-scarce conditions.31 In Gaza, the water crisis is a function of population growth, an agriculturally intensive economy, a fragile water ecosystem, and a highly inequitable distribution of resources (See Figure 1).
Ecosystem Vulnerability and Overall Availability
Gaza’s climate ranges from semiarid in the north to arid in the south. The warm climate causes high potential envirotranspiration,32 between 1,040 and 1,900 millimeters per year (mm/year) for Gaza as a whole.33 Of the average annual rainfall in Gaza (200-400 mm/year, which amounts to 117 million cubic meters (mcm) of total water from precipitation in Gaza’s catchment area), only 40 percent is estimated to recharge the single freshwater aquifer underlying the territory, while the remainder is lost through surface runoff to the Mediterranean or to evaporation.34 Another 30 mcm of recharge comes from agricultural return flow, wastewater infiltration, and groundwater flow from the east,35 though the last may have decreased over the years due to a number of wells drawing reservoir water beyond the Green Line.
For its freshwater supply, Gaza relies almost entirely on groundwater drawn from its aquifer, with minimal amounts obtained from other sources, such as rooftop rainwater catchments.36 Gaza’s aquifer is often only a few meters from the surface. It is also shallow, ranging in thickness from 120 meters near the coast to 10 meters in the east.37 Since it is near the Mediterranean and a deeper, highly saline aquifer,38 it is vulnerable to declining water levels, saltwater intrusion, and contamination from agricultural and industrial activity. Estimates of the aquifer’s renewable yield vary widely, ranging from 25 to 80 mcm per year, with around 65 mcm the most frequently quoted figure.39
Some analysts of the region suggest that the water crisis in Israel and the Occupied Territories is solely a consequence of structural scarcity rather than of demand or supply pressures.40 This argument may be valid if one considers the water inventory of Israel and the Occupied Territories as a whole. However, Gaza’s aquifer is relatively self-contained, which means that its water inventory can be considered independently. Moreover, although the water resources in the entire region are sparse, on a per capita basis they are nonetheless relatively abundant compared with those in Gaza. Although there are serious distribution problems in Gaza, high population growth and years of heavy extraction have produced a crisis of absolute water availability.
Discriminatory water allocation and pricing structures have significantly contributed to the present crisis in Gaza. Throughout the occupation, Israel practiced blatant and formalized discrimination regarding Palestinian water consumption in both Gaza and the West Bank. In 1967, Israel declared all water resources in the Territories to be state owned and under the jurisdiction of the military. Strict quotas were placed on Palestinian consumption. To preserve Gaza’s aquifer under the occupation, Military Order 158 (which applied only to the Arab population of Gaza, and not to Israeli settlers) prohibited the drilling of new wells or the rehabilitation of existing wells for any purpose without a permit.41 While restrictions applied to both Territories, limits may have been more difficult to enforce in Gaza, where the aquifer is close to the surface and relatively easy to access.
With the exception of minimal allowances for increased drinking-water demand, Palestinian pumping quotas were effectively frozen at 1967 levels.42 Measures to limit Palestinian water consumption included the uprooting of thousands of citrus trees, demolition of cisterns, and the blockage of natural springs and existing wells. Throughout the intifadah, Israeli authorities reportedly cut off piped water to Gaza and the West Bank as an instrument of social control. Extended curfews often prevented Palestinians from having normal access to water for domestic and agricultural purposes.43 As a result of a one-month curfew imposed on both Gaza and the West Bank in early 1991,
…some 2,500 dunums [250 hectares] of squash and additional dunums of fava beans were lost because farmers were not able to spray their crops at the appropriate times. Greenhouse agriculture on 10,000 dunums [1,000 hectares] in the Tulkarm region and in Gaza were also severely affected. The loss of grazing, brought on by drought conditions and exacerbated by the curfew has caused in one month estimated financial losses of $6 million.44
Conversely, Israelis in the Territories and in Israel proper face fewer restrictions on water drawn from the same sources, and they consume on average eight to ten times more than the Palestinians.45 These inequities have been a persistent source of tension. A UN report quotes a Palestinian farmer in Gaza:
Israeli authorities have forbidden anyone to dig a well to irrigate his citrus groves because “Gaza has no water.” But at the same time, ten meters away on the other side of the 1967 border, they will dig not one well but ten. I myself have a farm and they have prevented me from digging a well on my own land, on the pretext that there is not enough water.46
Israel has also allocated resources in its favor through the selective appropriation of agricultural land, placing settlements in the most favorable areas in terms of groundwater quantity and quality and in terms of underground flow.47 In addition, several Israeli wells have been drilled in the catchment area of the coastal aquifer, which is inside Israel but along the border of Gaza. Palestinian water experts argue that these wells have reduced the flow of groundwater to Gaza.48 This has, however, been a point of contention among hydrologists. Israeli sources argue that these wells are blocking the flow of saline water which could damage the aquifer. Others contend that these wells draw on a separate part of the coastal aquifer system and do not affect Gaza’s aquifer at all.49
Uneven pricing schemes are another cause of structural scarcity. Although weak institutions and deteriorating infrastructure provide barely adequate quantity and quality of water, Gaza Palestinians pay much higher prices than do residents in Israel and Israeli settlers in the Territories. Settlers receive significant subsidies, paying $0.10 per cubic meter (/m3) for water that costs $0.34/m3; Palestinians, who receive no subsidies, can pay up to $1.20/m3 for water from local Arab authorities.50 Relative to per capita income, Palestinians pay as much as twenty times what Israeli settlers pay for water.51
This pricing system does not reflect the vulnerability of the region’s water resources: the heavy subsidization of Israeli farmers, especially in the Territories, promotes waste and overconsumption. Surprisingly, a large price differential also exists between the West Bank and Gaza for both Israelis and Palestinians; water is much cheaper in Gaza, yet the crisis there is far more severe.
The net effect of Israel’s policies is to buffer Israelis from the effects of declining levels of water quality and quantity, while Palestinians bear the brunt of water scarcity. This inequity has contributed to a prosperous Israeli settler economy co-existing directly alongside a stagnant Palestinian economy. The consumption restrictions imposed on Palestinians and the widening water gap generate serious friction between these communities.
Population size is possibly the most contested statistic for Gaza. As no proper census has been taken since 1967, available figures are approximate at best, and they tend to vary markedly, depending on the source and the purpose of the data.
The size of Gaza’s current population is largely the result of the original refugee influx from the 1948 war. Approximately 70 percent of Gaza’s population is made up of these refugees and their descendants.52 Most contemporary sources place Gaza’s current Palestinian population at 700,000 to 800,000, but these figures may underestimate the total by as much as 16 percent.53 Most estimates of the present Palestinian population growth rate range between 5.2 and 6 percent,54 among the highest rates identified for any group in the world. (Official Israeli estimates tend to be slightly lower; see Table 1.) Fertility tends to be higher for refugees than for residents, which means the fastest population growth is in the refugee camps – the areas that are also under greatest environmental stress.
Estimates of average population density range from 1,936 people per square kilometer (/km2) to 2,055 people/km2.55 Densities are, again, much higher in the refugee camps; Jabalya camp, where the intifadah originated, has one of the highest population densities in the world at 100,000 people/km2 in extremely poor living conditions.56
Gaza’s growing population and limited water resources are driving down per capita water availability. The Swedish hydrologist Malin Falkenmark has identified one thousand cubic meters per person per year as a “water barrier” for agricultural and industrial development. She defines this barrier as “the level of water availability below which serious constraints to development will arise.”57 The ratio in Gaza – even using low population estimates and optimistic estimates of sustainable water supply – is considerably less than one hundred cubic meters per person per year.
Gaza’s limited resource base also supports a number of Israeli settlements, which occupy an estimated 10 percent of Gaza’s cultivated area.58 Their residents are generally not incorporated in recent population figures. In 1993, the World Bank estimated that the Israeli population of Gaza was 4,000 to 5,000.59 Surprisingly, this number may still be increasing, despite the autonomy agreement. The American Foundation for Peace in the Middle East has reported a 20 percent increase in the number of settlers in Gaza. The Yesha, or grand council of Jewish settlements, also has reported an increase of 10 percent in overall Israeli settler population, though this figure does not differentiate between the West Bank and Gaza.60
The lack of water for agriculture and industry has hamstrung economic development in Gaza for years, and it is especially burdensome now because of pressure on the PA to improve living standards. Gaza’s economy relies heavily on agriculture, and particularly citrus agriculture, which is water intensive. Although steadily declining due to limits on water use, today citrus still makes up 55 percent of the total irrigated area, consuming roughly half of Gaza’s agricultural water supply.61
Consumption of groundwater in Gaza consistently outstrips the sustainable supply of around 65 mcm per year. Estimates of present consumption for Gaza Palestinians range from 100 to 140 mcm per year62 (85 to 100 mcm for agricultural purposes). Israeli consumption from Gaza’s aquifer is a small fraction of total withdrawal; most sources estimate an average of between 4 and 10 mcm per year.63 Yet average per capita domestic water consumption by Palestinians is less than one-tenth that of settlers: 137 compared with 2,000 cubic meters per person per year.64 In general, consumption by settlements, promoted in part by subsidization, is thought to be excessive65 in the context of the local water supply.
However, once again, data on the size of the Gaza groundwater deficit are soft. Of the 3,000 wells thought to exist in Gaza, some 500 to 700 have been illegally drilled (many since autonomy was implemented) and are drawing unknown amounts.66 Decentralization of control makes accurate estimates of consumption almost impossible. In Gaza, administration of the water supply is the responsibility of a confusing hodgepodge of entities: individual operators of wells, Mekorot (an Israeli water company), the Gaza Agriculture Department, utilities, municipal and village councils, and the UNRWA, which supplies water to 20 percent of the population in the refugee camps.67
Some scholars suggest that with rapid population growth in Gaza, demand for drinking water alone may soon outstrip safe supply. It is also possible that Israeli settler demand will increase even if settlement population remains stable, due to “increasing per capita demands for both irrigated acreage and domestic amenities, such as grass and swimming pools.”68 Even if demand remains stable, Gaza’s present water inventory may be in far worse shape than is implied by official figures: some experts suggest that pumping rates in Gaza are 1.5 to 2 times officially declared levels.69
Gaza’s limited water supply has been overexploited (mined) since the early 1970s, and probably since the period of Egyptian control.70 The continuous mining of the Gaza aquifer, on average by an estimated 60 to 65 mcm per year, has caused falling water tables, salt intrusion, and chemical contamination.71
In its natural state, the top of the Israeli coastal aquifer, which is analogous to the neighboring Gaza aquifer, is 3 to 5 meters above sea level. Overpumping has reduced the Gaza aquifer to well below sea level and continues to draw it down by 15 to 20 centimeters per year.72 This decline reduces the aquifer’s hydrostatic pressure, allowing the infiltration of saltwater from the Mediterranean and from saline aquifers below and to the east. Saltwater intrusion has already been detected as far as 1.5 kilometers inland. While levels of salinity vary geographically, Gaza’s groundwater is generally classified as very saline, ranging from 650 to 3,600 parts per million (ppm).73 Salinity increases an average of 15 to 20 parts per million per year.74 This rapid increase has led some to predict the total salinization of the aquifer, if there is insufficient additional water to replace that lost to overpumping.75
Agricultural activity has resulted in chemical contamination of Gaza’s groundwater.76 Unregulated use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers contributes to severe pollution, especially since the aquifer is close to the surface. Chemicals banned from use in Israel and elsewhere, such as DDT, are often used in Gaza – and often misused because there are no Arabic labels on their containers.
As a result, Gaza’s groundwater is often unsuitable for irrigation, as it can damage the soil and lower crop yields.77 Salinity is the greatest concern and in Gaza most groundwater is suitable only for use on highly salt-tolerant crops and highly permeable soil. Yet citrus is a significant agricultural crop and, in addition to being water intensive, citrus cannot tolerate high salinity. Farmers are already seeing declining crop yields and declining quality in many areas due to the use of high salinity irrigation water.78
Experience elsewhere shows that farmers can adapt to such contamination by shifting to more-salt-tolerant crops, adding gypsum and organic matter to the soil, and applying excess clean irrigation water to flush the soil of salt.79 However, with current limits on water consumption and a chronic lack of capital for the farming sector, these measures may not be feasible.
Inadequate disposal of waste matter has also contributed to the contamination of Gaza’s aquifer. Ten percent of Gaza’s population is not served by any wastewater management system, and is simply dumping raw sewage onto sand dunes.80 What systems are in place remain inadequate, particularly in the refugee camps (see Table 2). Public latrines are still widely in use, and the majority of the population throughout Gaza relies on septic tanks and soaking pits. These frequently overflow into lanes, streets, and homes and pose a significant health hazard.81 Furthermore, only one-third of Gazans outside of the refugee camps are served by solid waste collection; and while all of the refugee camps do have collection services, proper sanitary landfill sites have not been constructed anywhere in Gaza.82 As a result of inadequate infrastructure, both sewage seepage and leachate from solid waste disposal and have contaminated the aquifer.
According to one relatively optimistic analyst, 50 percent of Gaza’s drinking-water supply is “murky,” and 23 percent is not potable at all.84 The Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem (ARIJ) is far more pessimistic, maintaining that Gaza groundwater is simply not fit for human consumption. A water quality survey conducted by ARIJ in 1992 identifies concentrations of several key substances that far exceed what are generally regarded as acceptable levels for potability (see Table 3). A similar study conducted between 1987 and 1994 by UNRWA and the Palestinian Health Authority determined that every one of Gaza’s 60 drinking water wells exceeded acceptable levels for at least two tested contaminants (see Table 4).85 While extensive testing for many toxins has not been conducted, several analysts have expressed concern about the infiltration of heavy metals, fuels, toxic organic compounds, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides into Gaza’s drinking water supply.86 Some analysts estimate that the contamination is already irreversible and that Gaza’s population will soon have to find alternate sources of drinking water. At present, however, there are few other sources.87 Overall, contamination and salinization have been costly, – politically, economically, and in terms of public health.