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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Troubled Waters: Collision In Gaza

Air Date: Week of

Poverty and crowding in the Gaza strip are the issues in this installment of our special series on Mideast Water. Unemployment in Gaza hovers near forty percent, and birth rates are among the highest in the world. Living on Earth’s Sandy Tolan reports that paltry and contaminated water supplies in Gaza may be fueling a public health crisis.


KNOY: Of all the obstacles to Middle East peace, one of the most daunting is the reality of poverty in the Gaza Strip. Fifty years ago 80,000 Palestinians lived in Gaza. Then the state of Israel was born, war erupted, and refugees streamed into the territory. Today, nearly a million Gazans crowd into about 100 square miles along the Mediterranean between Tel Aviv and Egypt. It is one of the most crowded places on Earth, and one of the most miserable. With the continued closure of Gaza by Israeli authorities, unemployment hovers near 40%. One out of every 3 Gazans lives below the poverty line, and the birth rate is among the highest in the world. The numbers take on added weight when you realize that Gazans have less available water now than they did in 1947. And what water they do have is rapidly deteriorating, further drying out an already brittle tinder box. Today, as our series Troubled Water continues, Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan brings us this journal from Gaza: a place where diminished and contaminated water supplies may fuel a public health crisis.

(Traffic sounds)

ABU SOFIER: We have here, this is one of the major features in fact of the Gaza Strip, that you find the donkey cars...

TOLAN: It was early in my journey to the Gaza Strip, and what happened in an instant one hot afternoon I took as a kind of omen. I was riding with Dr. Yousef Abu Sofier, soft-spoken environmental scientist, water expert, a representative of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

ABU SOFIER: Many problems are intermingled together...

TOLAN: We were on our way to a refugee camp in the middle of Gaza. The doctor's black Audi dodged potholes, passing old men in donkey carts, women carrying fodder by the road side, young men sitting on stoops with nothing to do. The doctor was explaining something about contaminated water in the camps, his specialty, and his mind was not fully on the road.

ABU SOFIER: Make a wrong detour, okay --

TOLAN: Watch it, watch watch watch watch watch watch watch watch ...!!!!

(The car screeches loudly. Abu Sofier shouts in Arabic.)

TOLAN: Everyone was safe, but if the man in the Toyota hadn't seen the collision coming it would have been a disaster.

ABU SOFIER: He was driving so fast. I didn't see him, you know.

TOLAN: Yeah, I know it.

ABU SOFIER: Sorry for that, what happened.

(A call to prayer over loudspeakers)

TOLAN: Fifteen minutes later we arrive at the Brayj refugee camp. The Mu'azzin calls for the evening prayer.

(Children yell)

TOLAN: It's nearing dusk and we can see children playing in the haze of the unpaved streets. We meet a group of men outside a cafe.

(Men's voices speaking in Arabic)

TOLAN: They're standing in front of a hand-painted bedsheet of a decidedly younger Yassir Arafat. Dr. Abu Sofier explains why I'm there. I've heard about how Gaza has grown more than 1,000% in the 50 years since Israel was born. How the aquifer is severely over-pumped, so badly that sea water is beginning to intrude. And that ruins a good cup of sweet Arabic tea.

(Conversation in Arabic, call to prayer and yelling children in the background)

ABU SOFIER: Preparing tea with the high salty water is not by any means, you know, tasty as tea. They cannot drink, you know, a cup of tea that tastes good.

TOLAN: But that's just the beginning, they tell us, for it's not simply the indignity of serving salty tea. It's what else is in the water. Sometimes it's so bad they can see tiny worms floating in their glass.

(Discussion in Arabic continues)

ABU SOFIER: When they run out of water, you know, they send their children to get some water from the nearby agricultural wells, from the farms in fact. They go and, you know, this water is not monitored, and nobody knows what can go on sometimes. They get it, you know, mixed with dirt and with maybe sewage, and that is what they are saying.

TOLAN: Dr. Abu Sofier explains that as the level of the aquifer goes down, the salinity of the water that remains goes up. So does the concentration of agricultural chemicals used on nearby farms. Tests by Dr. Abu Sofier indicate that 85% of Gaza's drinking water wells are unfit for human consumption. There is a little clean fresh water delivered by pipeline from Israel, but it's only a fraction of what the people here need. Some people in this camp are down to about 15 liters per day, barely 5% of the average in Israel, and not nearly enough for basic hygiene or drinking. And then, there's the raw sewage flowing in open canals down the hillsides and into a big black lagoon nearby, where it seeps back into the groundwater. At some nearby camps, the sewage is pumped back up into the wells, and people are drinking their own excrement. Here in this camp, every night from the black sewage pond, swarms of mosquitoes rise up and visit the camp.

(Men conversing in Arabic)

ABU SOFIER: What they are saying, and if you want to know how they suffer because of the sewage and the smell and the mosquitos, they invite you to spend one night in the camp and see how it looks like. You know, living, you know, with the sewage running into the street and the mosquitoes are just, you know, flying everywhere here and there.

(Children in the streets, men talking in Arabic)

ABU SOFIER: Here, this little baby fell 2 times this day into the sewage. And you can imagine the impacts. That's why they catch diseases.

(Children yelling; fade to a hospital with crying children and echoed footfalls)

TOLAN: At hospitals and health clinics around Gaza, scores of children come in every day with parasites.

(Crying children)

TOLAN: There's a big decal of Donald Duck on the waiting room door of the children's ward of Al Nasser Hospital. I'm in Gaza City in a narrow room under a spinning fan, watching children squirm on six tiny jammed-together beds. Their mothers in white head scarfs try to calm them down. A harried doctor hurriedly writes out prescriptions. He's way too busy to talk to me, so nearby I find Dr. Abdul Jaber Tibi, Director of Public Health in the Ministry of Health, Palestinian authority.

TIBI: The major health problem is diahrreal disease, the prevalence of diahrreal disease in our area is very high. Especially dysentery, and also the anemic cases is increasing because a lot of parasite inside the gut of our children. In some locality, we do a study and we discovered 80% of one or more parasitic infestation in children in some of the schools.

TOLAN: Four out of 5 children in some schools with parasites. The Health Ministry study indicates 60% of these kids suffer from anemia.

TIBI: Anemic child--that means the growth of this child, the attitude, it reflect on all the health. It affect on the mentality of the children, it affect on all aspects of their life.

TOLAN: The anemia may be the result of elevated nitrate levels. Nitrate in Gaza's drinking water wells coming from sewage and agricultural chemicals in the groundwater is up to 13 times the safe standard set by the World Health Organization. Dr. Tibi says he's also seeing sharp rises in hypertension linked to high salinity levels, and kidney stones and kidney failure, which could be caused by excessive fluoride levels in the Gaza wells. Natural fluoride and salinity levels rise sharply as the aquifer is over-pumped. Kidney problems are also linked to dehydration. People don't have enough to drink. The scarcity can also cause skin problems because they don't have enough water to wash properly. For all these problems, says Dr. Tibi, there's little money available for studies to connect cause and effect. But there are a few exceptions.

TIBI: The quality of the water, here we have the worst standards, maybe, in the world. I don't know. I am -- these data are really awful. I never saw in other countries so high concentration of lead, for example.

TOLAN: I've tracked down Piero Ingrosso, a research physician working in Gaza for an aid program of the Italian government. Contamination of wells from pesticides combined with chemical and fecal matter from the sewage makes for the worst drinking water Dr. Ingrosso has ever seen.

INGROSSO: In some wells, there is a concentration of lead which is highly dangerous. Three hundred times more than the recommended ones by WHO. The nitrates or the pesticide concentrations in some wells are so high that you, you could use it as pesticide (laughs).

TOLAN: Are people drinking this water?

INGROSSO: Oh, of course they drink it. My daughter drinks mineral water. I buy for her. And sometimes I think to all the children in Gaza who cannot have the mineral water and drink that water that we couldn't use neither for our flowers. You know, that's really hurt me a lot.

TOLAN: Dr. Ingrosso was one of the few people from the outside looking into the health effects of the contaminated water here. Along with Dr. Tibi of the Palestinian Health Ministry, Dr. Ingrosso believes the chemical contamination from sewage and agricultural pesticides is linked to anecdotal reports of increased cancers.

INGROSSO: This is maybe the most alarming question, and already now we have evidence that there is a correlation between pesticides and growth increase of the cancer of the liver. We expect that after 15, 20 years, a lot of cancer will come out.

(Traffic sounds, horns)

TOLAN: There's one place in Gaza where the water is not nearly so bad. The Israeli settlement of Gush Katif on the Mediterranean coast appears on the UN maps of Gaza as an island of green. Sunbathing areas are marked with little beach umbrellas, and at one the words "Settlers Only." But I wonder, are the contrasts really so stark as they appear?

(A car door slams, a motor revs)

TOLAN: Gush Katif is about 20 miles south. To get there I have to take a taxi north to the checkpoint, walk a narrow steel gauntlet back into Israel, and drive all the way around Gaza and back in through a corridor of Israeli military checkpoints that cut Gaza in two to protect the settlers.

(Traffic sounds mingle with bird song. Men converse in the background.)

TOLAN: Some people want this to be the Riviera of Israel. Days Inn has a hotel here, 114 rooms on the Mediterranean, with horseback riding and jeep tours.

(More motors rev up)

TOLAN: A bulletproof tourist bus passes me, heading toward the hotel with a military escort.

(Traffic honks)

TOLAN: Finally I arrive at a gas station to wait for Akiva Baker, an American who came here in 1971. At the little settlement village I stare through an electrified fence topped with the looped barbed wire you see atop prison fencing.

(A singer over speakers)

TOLAN: Through the links I can see the face of a young soldier absorbed in a book. “Unbreak My Heart” blares from cheap speakers at the guard post.

(Singing continues; fade to sounds inside an auto)

BAKER: Take you around the other way and see the whole size of this place...

TOLAN: Twenty-six years in Israel have given Akiva Baker a slight accent, almost a British lilt, not a match for his Ann Arbor origins or the big belly, bushy-gray beard and farmer's hat he wears. He went to Harvard in the ‘60s, lived in Jerusalem in the ‘70s, and moved here 15 years ago. We're riding in his old Volvo toward his greenhouses. There's plenty of water, Mr. Baker says, for his tomatoes and green herbs. For whatever the settlers need.

TOLAN: So what will you say, nobody --

BAKER: I can't remember Israel talking about limiting water consumption drastically. I can remember way, way, way, way back in a drought when the people were told over the television to wash their car with one bucket of water once a week. That hasn't been the situation for a long, long time. Nobody would think twice. But washing the car, taking as many baths as they want, keeping a nice green lawn going, well, we're talking about pretty big lawns, too.

TOLAN: The reason? He pulls over to show me.

(Car door opens, shuts)

TOLAN: Fat white pipes protrude from the sandy soil bound for the concrete storage tanks on the hill above us. This water comes from Israel's National Water Company, pumped from aquifers beneath Israel and the West Bank and diverted from the Jordan River about 100 miles away. The rest of the settlers' water comes from underground, pumped from a sweet pocket of the Gaza aquifer. Together with the water in these pipes, it means no one's thirsty in Gush Katif.

(Car motor)

BAKER: And it's been really a blessing, that we don't have to worry about water like we did once. We were really tight.

TOLAN: I tell Akiva Baker what I've seen in Gaza. How people are struggling.

BAKER: What sort of an answer do you want? I don't have to solve their problem in order to live. I have to solve mine. They have to solve theirs with whatever help they can get, but it's not my responsibility to solve it. If they were able to solve it the way they wanted to solve it, I wouldn't exist any more. Now, I can understand it. But I'm not understanding it in the same sort of liberal leftish way that I did when I was back in my 20s. I don't see the world that way any more.


TOLAN: Mr. Baker says the plight of the Gazans is not just to be pinned on the Israelis. It's a direct result of the tactic the Palestinian leadership took in their struggle against Israel.

BAKER: There was a concentrated effort, and it was enforced, so that people would not leave the refugee camps. It was politically correct to stay there, until -- (laughs) we were all pushed into the sea or sent back to Brooklyn or wherever. It was to be a pressure cooker for politics. And this is the sad side of the politics all along the way. Things could have been better. It didn't have to be this bad.

(Motors, honking)

TOLAN: Back inside the gates and fences of Gaza, I find a white-haired old man in a crisp blue suit sitting at his desk squinting at his papers through a magnifying glass. Dr. Issam Shawa is from Gaza's most influential family. He's been cajoled out of retirement by Yassir Arafat. When he sees me, he rises slowly and shows me to a corner of his office.

SHAWA: These are the hand grenades, gas grenades, bullets, all sort of war articles that they used against us, you know. These are flares, which they use...

TOLAN: These are the means by which Israel's will was enforced during the Occupation. Brute force, says Dr. Shawa, is largely to blame for the deterioration of the water supply in Gaza. He says Israel actively impounded water that would have flowed into Gaza from Israel and then stood by as the aquifer became contaminated through 27 years of neglect. Now that the Palestinians are in charge, it's no better. And now, the rage builds against both the Israelis and the Palestinian authority. As bad as it is, problems with water here are going to get worse. With the Gaza's high birth rate, the depleted, contaminated water supply will be reduced by half in 20 years or so.

SHAWA: You need water for your food, your bath, your sanitation, and the toilet, you know. You need water for all these things. And if you don't have it, it'll be a catastrophe. If this situation prevails for much longer, the people here will not keep quiet. They cannot. They'll have to go out seeking food, seeking water. The Israelis are not even heeding this thing, you know. They're not thinking of this. They think that America will always protect them, will always give them arms, and they will be the biggest power in the Middle East. They are now. But you think this can prevail forever and a day?

TOLAN: I left Gaza. I have to admit it felt like I escaped, and I went to talk with some Israelis at the Techneon, Israel's scientific and technical institute in Haifa. Fresh from a high-pressure shower with 2 shower heads, I drove the lush green boulevards to Professor Dan Zazlavsky's office. Professor Zazlavsky was once Israel's water commissioner. He's considered hawkish. But when he talked about water in Gaza and in the Israeli settlement of Gush Katif, he sounded more like the Palestinians I'd been talking to.

ZAZLAVSKY: The fact that people in Katif don't save water is rotten it's unacceptable, it's inconsiderable for me. It's bad education. To have a lot of water here and no water on the other, across the fence--. It's not that it's not right, it just won't exist, to not, you are not able to maintain it, forget about it. You cannot have peace this way. It will explode in our face.

TOLAN: Immediate solutions are nowhere to be found. But there are plenty of grand schemes for the long term. In the ivory tower, Professor Zazlavsky has designed an aluminum tower: a cone one kilometer high that would pump sea water to the top and spray it back down, creating winds that would generate electricity that would desalinate water. Vast amounts of water, he says, potentially enough for everyone in the region. The professor admits this scheme, years away at best, wouldn't solve the short-term problems for Gaza. But he says conventional desalinization could.

ZAZLAVSKY: Gaza without desalinization, it's doom. They stand in line with cans to get water.

TOLAN: Taking the salt out of sea water is expensive, and at the moment unrealistic for the cash-strapped Palestinians. Then there's the pipe dream for Nile water to cross the Sinai from Egypt, but that's fading, too.

TIBI: It's a difficult question, what we can do.

TOLAN: We're back in Gaza with Dr. Tibi of the Palestinian Health Ministry.

TIBI: We have limited resources. We have a very big problem. The water is deteriorating. The political solution not reaching to its maximum in order to divide the water equally between the Israeli and the Palestinian. The settlement is still there, no solution for the problem of settlement till now. It is difficult, it is a challenge to the authority.

TOLAN: Some say Israel should give back to the Palestinians the water that lies under the mountains of the West Bank, and then some of that could be piped West across Israel into Gaza. But with the collapse of the Oslo peace process, the chance of that happening is remote. The two sides can't even agree on how to pipe in a small amount of water from Israel as part of the Oslo process. There are some plans now to tackle Gaza's sewage problem, but not to bring in more fresh water. As bad as it is here, there are no realistic plans to sharply increase Gaza's access to fresh water. The only certainty is that Gaza's water supply will continue to go down.

(Bird song, traffic sounds)

TOLAN: Before leaving Gaza, I travel to the south, home to some of the sweetest oranges on Earth. As the aquifers have grown shallow and salty, the orange trees have begun to die. You can see the leafless, curling branches on the surviving orchards. There are only a few healthy orange groves left, and their days are numbered.

(Motors from pumps)

TOLAN: Here at the farm of Ali D'Har, pumps suck away at one of the last sweet pockets of water in the territory.

D'HAR: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: The situation is very bad. We need fresh water for farms and for drinking. Every year we pump and it goes down and down.

TOLAN: Ali's oranges are accelerating the decline of the aquifer because citrus is among the thirstiest of crops. Now, as new straws pull at the small, sweet pocket of water, Ali's well now supplies his fields plus nearby farms and homes. Elsewhere in Gaza there are reports of hundreds of new unauthorized wells, since the Palestinian autonomy began. At this well a diesel engine pumps the good water out of the ground for 15 hours a day.

D'HAR: [Speaks in Arabic] TRANSLATOR: I have been born to this land. It is more precious than a son. It is more precious than life. It is more precious than a human being. The fresh water is being drained. I am worried. Our fathers and grandfathers irrigated this land with our sweat. Our family has lived on this land for centuries.

TOLAN: Palestine, wrote the late novelist Ghassan Kanafani, is the land of sad oranges. As I leave Gaza it's clear the way things are going, Ali's orange groves, the farms and homes around him, will eventually all go dry. They don't really have to; the technical means are there to deliver plenty of water to Gaza. But given the expense and the renewed bitterness of long-time enemies, it's hard to imagine when that might happen.

(Motors rev up)

TOLAN: For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting.



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