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Desalination plants help respond to Gaza’s water crisis

 By Catherine Weibel and Sajy Elmughanni

GAZA-State of Palestine, 9 January 2014 - Every other day, Ramadan, a resident of Nuseirat refugee camp, used to carry empty bottles and jerry cans across the tiny alleyways of the camp, until he reached the nearest private water vendor. Since he could only carry so many bottles, the father of five would bring along four of his young children to carry more bottles filled with water home. He would spend the equivalent of ten dollars a month on buying water, a large sum for cash-strapped families in the coastal enclave.

“The water that comes through the tap is saline and undrinkable,” says Ramadan, whose family only uses it for washing and bathing. “It is not fair,” he adds. “I am unemployed, and I need to save as much as I can in order to survive and put food on the table for my children. Until recently, I could only afford the strict minimum amount of water, not even knowing what my children were really drinking.” An estimated four-fifths of water sold by private vendors is polluted.

The water situation in Gaza is particularly acute, with up to 95 per cent of the territory's sole aquifer contaminated by sewage, chemicals and seawater. With no streams or rivers to speak of, Gaza has historically relied almost exclusively on its coastal aquifer. This saline pollution is made worse by untreated sewage, with 90,000 cubic meters of raw and partially treated sewage allowed to flow into the shallow sea waters each day from Gaza. The United Nations warned that due to over abstraction of ground water, the aquifer might be unusable by 2016, with the damage potentially irreversible by 2020.

More than four out of five Gazans buy their drinking water from unregulated, private vendors, a heavy burden on already impoverished families. "Some families are paying as much as a third of their household income on water," says June Kunugi, UNICEF Special Representative.

Neighbourhood desalination plants and their public taps providing free, clean water seem a lifesaver for the poorest of Gaza’s 1.7 million residents. The coastal enclave already hosts 18 small plants, most of them supplied by UNICEF. With support from the Government of Japan, UNICEF has, so far, installed three brackish water desalination units with the capacity to treat 50 m3/hour, and 10 units with the capacity to treat 50 m3/day, providing safe drinking water to 95,000 people in Gaza.

With support from the European Union, UNICEF is now installing a sea water desalination plant to treat 6,000 m3 per day, which will benefit 75,000 people.

“The desalination units were installed where there is maximum water pollution,” says Bilas Dongol, Head of the UNICEF WASH programme. “It’s a perfect solution for Gaza, provided there is enough electricity and fuel available to power the plants.” Gaza is currently affected by one of the most serious energy crises since the beginning of the closure.

For Ramadan and his family, the situation has improved dramatically since UNICEF installed a brackish water desalination plant that serves 15,000 refugees living in Nuseirat refugee camp with clean drinking water. Funded by the Government of Japan, this desalination plant produces 50 cubic meters of drinking water per hour from the polluted water coming from a brackish water well.

“Residents receive access to drinking water once per week, which allows them to fill up their storage tanks at home with water that lasts until the next refill,” says Sabri Al-Faleet, from Al-Nuseirat municipality.

Ahmad Essawi, Ramdan’s seven year old son, is happy to be spared the tedious task of carrying heavy water bottles every other day. “It used to be a long walk with my sisters in the cold winter and the summer heat,” he says. “Now we can all focus on our studies or play with our friends.”



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