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Water Crisis in Palestine Is Worsening

by Nora Barrows-Friedman

“The wind finally came to Palestine,” a friend of mine told me on the phone today, from his home in Battir, a small village near Bethlehem. “Now we can finally breathe.” He said he was relieved that the sweltering Palestinian summer was nearing its end and Autumn was showing its colors in the parched hillsides and in the air. But the water in my friend's home, in his village and across occupied Palestine is still slow to trickle, as it has been for months.

As Jewish Israelis enjoy trips to the beach, neighborhood swimming pools, unfettered access to clean drinking water, state-of-the-art sewage treatment infrastructure, and endless amounts of running water in their homes, Palestinians in communities separated by boundaries, walls, and checkpoints brace and prepare each time the weather heats up and the antiquated wells dry up. For weeks on end – especially in the refugee camps inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – there simply is no water coming from the tap, and people are forced to purchase bottled water just to meet their daily needs.

For Palestinians under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and in Palestinian-Bedouin communities inside Israel itself, water has historically been a precious commodity especially in the summer months – which can stretch, like this year's, for over five months – because of the ongoing resource theft of groundwater tables by the Israeli state and the economic blockade the government continues against the people in Gaza.

According to current statistics by Amnesty International, Israel takes 80% of the water in the Mountain aquifers in the north (one of many water sources available to Israel, including the state's full access to the Jordan River, which runs inside the occupied West Bank); while Palestinians in the West Bank are left with just the remaining 20% of that one aquifer, and are prohibited from accessing water from the Jordan river altogether.

However, in Gaza, 95% of the groundwater is extremely polluted and deemed unfit for human consumption, according to new reports from Israeli human rights organization B'tselem (http://www.btselem.org/English/Gaza_Strip/20100823_Gaza_water_crisis.asp). The water crisis has entered into a troubling phase as Israel maintains its suffocating blockade against the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped inside the strip. This blockade, which has been in place as collective punishment following the Hamas party's political takeover in 2007, prevents entry to hundreds of items – including essential industrial materials needed to repair the water infrastructure.

The Electronic Intifada reported on B'tselem's findings back in September (http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article11517.shtml):

“Citing reports from the United Nations' Environment Program, the Palestinian Water Authority, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility and international aid organizations, B'Tselem's report says that children are being especially affected by the water crisis in Gaza. The report references the over-pumping of groundwater, combined with poor wastewater management systems and the toxification of ground soil from waste disposal sites -- where asbestos, medical waste, oils and fuels were dumped after Israel's three-week attacks in 2008-09. As a result, according to B'Tselem, chemicals such as chlorides and nitrates are contributing to excessive diseases and internal injuries, especially in Gaza's children.

Israeli air strikes during the winter attacks also damaged wastewater treatment plants in Gaza, and damaged thirty kilometers of water networks, eleven wells and six thousand residential water tanks. Reports estimate that the damage to the water infrastructure amounted to approximately $6 million.

"According to international aid organizations, twenty percent of Gazan families have at least one child under age five who suffers from diarrhea as a result of polluted water," B'Tselem reports. "A UN study published in 2009 estimates that diarrhea is the cause of 12 percent of children's deaths in Gaza. The lack of potable drinking water is liable to cause malnutrition in children and affect their physical and cognitive development."

Moreover, the blockade and the bombings have affected the sewage infrastructure as well. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City released a shocking report in August on the toxification of the sea itself because of the deterioration of Gaza's wastewater treatment plants.

“Gaza's current wastewater treatment facilities were constructed with an operational capacity of 32,000 cubic meters of waste a day,” states the report (http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article11455.shtml).

“With a growth rate that is one of the world's highest -- an estimated 3.6 percent annually -- Gaza's surging population has overwhelmed the capacity of the waste treatment facilities, and Monther [Shoblak, director general of the Coastal Municipality Water Utility] estimates that the facilities are now receiving at least 65,000 cubic meters of waste daily. Unable to handle more than half of its intake, much of the sewage is directly transported to the sea, where it is dumped completely untreated. Much of this sewage washes back onto Gaza's shores, polluting the beaches and creating toxic swimming conditions for the countless children and adults seeking escape from the intense summer heat,” the report continued.

Facts like these are staggering, and nothing new to Palestinians who have experienced decades of humanitarian crisis. So, what do we do about this deliberate water emergency unfolding across Palestine, especially inside the Gaza strip, and especially affecting the most vulnerable population, the children?

Berkeley, California-based Middle East Children's Alliance has taken direct action against the water crisis in Gaza, launching the Maia project to provide Palestinian children with clean, safe drinking water. Maia is Arabic for water.

According to their website, http://www.mecaforpeace.org/project/maia-project, the project began “when the Student Parliament at the UN Boys’ School in Bureij Refugee Camp, Gaza were given the opportunity to choose one thing they most wanted for their school: They chose to have clean drinking water. MECA’s partner in Gaza heard about this vote and, after meeting with representatives from the school and the Student Parliament, came to MECA to see if we could respond to the children’s request for drinking water. MECA provided the funds to build a water purification and desalination unit for the school in 2007.”

MECA's interest in simply providing something we here in this country, and in most industrialized places across the world, for granted – clean, safe, drinking water – is intrinsically aligned with their 22-year old philosophy that Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese children deserve a better and healthier future than the one they've acquired under so many years of occupations and wars.

This philosophy includes the radical notion that there are already incredible people on the ground who are already working hard to better their communities, and international donor support should compliment and sustain that locally-based work. MECA says they are working in partnership with various community organizations “to build water purification and desalination units in schools throughout the Gaza strip...We have provided clean water to twelve large UN schools in Palestinian refugee camps and to ten kindergartens in refugee camps, towns, and villages,” they say.

MECA is appealing for generous donations to combat the aggressive and unraveling humanitarian crisis in Gaza by building water purification systems in Palestinian childrens' schools.

“A large purification unit for a UN school in a refugee camp costs $11,300. The UN schools run in shifts due to overcrowding and each unit provides drinking water for 1,500-2,000 children and staff. A small purification unit for a preschool or kindergarten costs $4,000 and serves 150-450 children. Many of the small units are located in community centers with after-school programs and summer camps so the units serve these children as well. Many organizations, individuals, and schools around the US are raising the whole cost of a unit in their communities,” MECA says.

There's always so much despair when I talk or think or write about Palestine – but through this project, and with the work that MECA's staff in California and in Palestine have been doing for so many years, I know it's possible to make an extraordinary difference in children's lives.

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