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Gaza Has Never Had Enough Water

A deep dive into the origins of its water crisis

People waiting for water.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Home to two million people, the Gaza Strip sits squeezed between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea on a bit of land just twice the size of Washington, D.C. Gaza is the smaller part of Palestine’s two territories; you could walk the length of its southern border with Egypt in under three hours. But land is not the only thing that’s long been in short supply in Gaza. As the war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the region, has made clear, Gaza is also increasingly bereft of water.

Over the course of the tragic war, water infrastructure has played an unprecedented role. In the aftermath of Hamas’s massacre and kidnapping of Israeli civilians on October 7, the Israeli government took measures to halt drinking water — as well as aid, food, and electricity — from entering the Strip. First, on October 9, Israel shut off the pipelines that usually send water into Gaza and halted deliveries by truck. And while it turned back on some of the pipelines on October 15, it didn’t restart the electricity or the fuel shipments that power Gaza’s desalination and wastewater treatment plants.

Yet these harsh measures in recent weeks belie a much longer-term problem, as a deeper dive into the region’s infrastructure reveals. Palestinians in Gaza have not had access to safe or ample drinking water for decades.

“The water crisis that Gaza is facing is a chronic crisis,” Dr. Shaddad Attili, the former Palestinian minister of water and head of the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) from 2008 to 2014, told me. “But now water is being used as a weapon. If they don’t get killed by missiles, they will die from the contaminated water that they’re using.”

The Israeli Defense Forces, the water authority in the West Bank, and COGAT, the Israeli body responsible for the government activities in the Palestinian territories, all did not reply to requests for comment by the time of publication.

A history of water

There are three natural water resources that run through Israel and Palestine: the Jordan River Basin on the eastern border; the Mountain Aquifer, which runs directly through the West Bank; and the Coastal Aquifer, on which Israel is upstream and Gaza is downstream. The majority of the water comes from these three sources, but since the region is a desert geography, water is generally in short supply.

Israel acquired control over all the water that runs through the Israeli and Palestinian territories in the Six-Day War in 1967 when it seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights in the north from Syria. In November of that year, Israel introduced a military order stating that Palestinians could not construct any new water infrastructure without first obtaining a permit from the Israeli army. Israel gave, and continues to give, these permits sparingly.

Today, the water discrepancy is striking. While there are eight times more Palestinians living in the West Bank than Israeli settlers, 70% of the water output is given to the settlements, where it is largely used for farming, according to an April 2023 report on the West Bank’s water deprivation by the Israeli humanitarian organization, B’Tselem.

During the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s, the West Bank won some rights to run their own pumping stations in select parts of the territory. Today, they still need to earn permits from the Israeli military in order to build new pumping stations. Gaza used to pump their water from the Coastal Aquifer, but developments over the past 30 years have made that water inaccessible.

Why Gaza has so little water

Prior to this war, the water situation in Gaza was already dire. The World Health Organization said that Gaza’s water supply was unable to meet the minimum requirement for daily per capita water consumption.

Gaza has some unregulated pumping stations that pull water up from the aquifer, but they’re not a major cause of the problem. The Coastal Aquifer extends from a town called Binyamina in Northern Israel to the Sinai Desert in Egypt. Just 2% of the total aquifer passes through Gaza. Through the late 1990s, it supplied drinkable tap water to most of Gaza’s residents. While it historically has provided 95% of their freshwater, it’s unusable now for a few reasons.

First, Gaza’s population growth rate is among the highest in the world, with almost half of the population under 18 years old in 2022. High population growth means the already scarce groundwater can no longer replenish fast enough to meet demand.

But there are deeper problems with the water’s quality. Seawater seeps into the aquifer since it’s so close to the coast and untreated wastewater has polluted the aquifer for decades to a point that it’s no longer safe to drink. In 2020, a study in the journal Water said that the quality of groundwater in the Coastal Aquifer had “deteriorated rapidly,” largely due to Israeli pumping.

“At least 95% of the freshwater (from the aquifer) is either inaccessible or not drinkable,” said Jordan Fischbach, director of planning and policy research at The Water Institute and author of a report on the public health impacts of Gaza’s water crisis in 2018.

As a result, the Coastal Aquifer — the primary source of Gaza’s water — is essentially out of commission. Residents of Gaza are now left with only about 20% of their needs filled.

But those sources have also proven to be unreliable.

The first are the pipelines, which were built with funding from international humanitarian aid. The pipelines run from Israel-controlled fresh aquifers and the water is paid for by the Palestinian National Authority (PA) in the West Bank. These are the pipelines that Israel stopped sending water from following Hamas’ attack on Israeli civilians.

But even in the best of times, the pipelines only supply around 10% of the water demand in Gaza. Attili from the Palestinian National Authority said that the water is combined with some of the unsafe brackish water in order to increase volume.

The second source of water are small-scale desalination plants, which turn seawater into potable water, but they rely on electricity to run.

Usually they provide another 10% of Gaza’s water, but when Israel halted the importation of fuel and shut down electricity transmission into Gaza, these plants stopped running too.

However, even when electricity and fuel are available, over one-third of plants are not monitored, maintained, or officially regulated. “A number of construction materials, fuel and other things you would need to build and power drinking and wastewater facilities are considered ‘dual use.’” said Fischbach, meaning they could also be used to build weapons. “These are types of materials that are restricted by both Egyptian and Israeli authorities.”

A 2021 study showed that 79% of desalination plants are unlicensed and 12% of water samples tested showed dangerous contamination levels.

“Desalination is necessary to get anything even close to drinking water quality and only a fraction of [desalination plants] are actually licensed and monitored” said Fischbach. “Many of them are producing water that we would still consider below drinking water quality.”

He added that most of them don’t run to their capacity anyways because they are so energy intensive and Gaza doesn’t have enough electricity.

Gaza also gets water from water trucks controlled by humanitarian aid or delivered by the Palestinian National Authority. This water passes directly through Israeli land, which means Israel was able to easily halt deliveries in the wake of the Hamas attacks.

In recent weeks, some residents of Gaza have resorted to drinking sea water or brackish water directly from the Coastal Aquifer. Not only are these not sources of freshwater, they are also further polluted by untreated sewage running through the region.

How sewage pollutes what little water Gaza has left

Israel’s decision to cut electricity to Gaza also meant that the wastewater treatment plants can’t run. Treated wastewater is used for showering and other sanitation uses. But when it’s not processed through a plant, wastewater runs into the aquifer and groundwater, further polluting what’s left of their drinking sources.

While the situation is worse due to the lack of electricity from the war, Gaza has never had ample wastewater treatment plants.

“For two decades now Palestinians have been prevented from building and maintaining the infrastructures that keep wastewater out of the aquifer,” says Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Bard College. She is the author of Waste Siege: the Life and Infrastructure of Palestine.

In the West Bank, the aquifer is deep, carrying around 340 million cubic meters of water every year, so wastewater that has been somewhat treated can be further cleaned by soil and rock as it seeps through the aquifer. But Gaza’s aquifer is very shallow — its estimated to carry only about 55 million cubic meters per year —, and therefore cannot clean the water. Instead, it needs extensive infrastructure.

“In Gaza, you would need an incredibly high sophistication of technology to permit the wastewater to go safely into the ground,” says Stamatopoulou-Robbins. “Even the kind of concrete containers that would hold wastewater are not permitted to be maintained or built.”

In addition to the plants themselves, you would need piping to connect buildings to the wastewater treatment plants, she adds. “So all of the conveyance technology and infrastructure which is expensive anywhere in the world, all of that is subject to Israeli controls and tends to be prevented.”

As is the case with desalination plants, neither Israel nor Egypt allows the necessary materials into Gaza for building wastewater treatment plants because those materials are also considered dual-use materials.

Even as Israel turned the water and electricity back on, there are questions around how many of these desalination and wastewater treatment plants have been bombed and are no longer running.

As far as logistically turning off these resources, it’s fairly straightforward. “The ability to shut off electricity transmission is quite easy,” said Fischbach. “It’s just flipping a switch — the same way with a rolling blackout. Fuel imports are also easy. Nothing is going into Gaza. As far as drinking water lines, you can just not pump that water. So the logistics are easy.”

Several reports of hygiene related diseases spreading through cramped spaces are surfacing in recent days. Doctors in Gaza are saying that patients are showing signs of disease caused by overcrowding and poor sanitation. Children are suffering from diarrhea, lung infections, and rashes.

“The desalination plants are out of service because there’s no electricity, the sewage treatment plants are out of service because there is no electricity. And because our people now take refuge in shelters, there is a hygiene problem,” said Attili. “I have gone to so many conferences where we say water is a tool for cooperation, not conflict, and they all agree, but now the international community remains silent.”

Jesse  Chase-Lubitz profile image

Jesse Chase-Lubitz

Jesse Chase-Lubitz is a climate change writer and the author of the Edifice newsletter. Her writing has appeared in Bloomberg, Foreign Policy, Politico, The American Prospect, and others. She recently completed an MSc in Environmental Policy and Regulation at the London School of Economics, where she conducted original research into Dutch sea-level rise adaptation architecture within the Netherlands and Indonesia. Read More

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