New pipes bring Gaza hospital lifesaving clean water

A major hospital shouldn’t have foul, brown water flowing from its taps. But until recently, doctors at the Shifa hospital had to wash their hands contaminated water, the building’s old pipes rusted and polluting the water that ran from its faucets.

UNICEF State of Palestine
New pipes bring Gaza hospital lifesaving clean water
UNICEF-SoP/Anas Baba

26 December 2019

When treatments required clean water, they sometimes asked patients to bring the water from home. Other times, they made due with hand sanitizer.

“Treatment of disease requires disease-free treatment facilities. As a doctor who needs to use clean running water several times daily, I was not even able to turn on the tap – the water coming out of it was so rusty, smelly, and nauseating,” recalls neonatal intensive care doctor, Nasser Bolbol, 45.

The discolored water also damaged sensitive medical equipment, which was already difficult to obtain and repair due to the 11-year blockade imposed on Gaza that prevents the movement of people and goods.

Rust-coloured water flowed from the faucet in al-Shifa hospital’s restroom, before a UNICEF project to change the hospital’s aging pipes
UNICEF-SoP/Anas Baba

UNICEF, supported with funds from EU Humanitarian Aid and partnering with the Ministry of Health, financed the difficult task of changing the hospital’s old, narrow pipes with new ones and installing water pumps.

The project took seven months and required careful management as the hospital continued to serve patients. Nevertheless, the results were quickly apparent.

“After the recent intervention [was completed], I started to notice its impact on infant health, and on our work environment as doctors,” said Bolbol.

CLEAN WATER CRISIS

The United Nations has warned that the Gaza Strip may soon become uninhabitable due to the lack of clean, potable water. Ninety-six per cent of underground water resources in Gaza are undrinkable, according to World Health Organization standards. This is due to the over-extraction of groundwater, which allows the intrusion of seawater and contaminants. Sewage and chemicals from farming also pollute the water.

Most of Gaza’s 1.9 million people – nearly half of them below the poverty line – purchase costly bottled water or water from small-scale desalinization plants. These vendors do not always guarantee removal of contaminants, placing those who drink the water at risk of waterborne disease.

Repeated conflict has destroyed and damaged water networks, and the blockade prevents the proper response to the water and sanitation crisis, such as upgrading public infrastructure. Cement and other materials needed for infrastructure development are generally prevented from entering Gaza, with aid organizations required to apply for special import approvals.

Shifa hospital relies on its own groundwater well and desalinization plant, but staff were still unable to use the water from its taps due to poorly maintained public water infrastructure and rusting, aging pipes within the hospital. The 250-bed hospital dates to the early 1900s when the British controlled the Gaza Strip.

“It was a challenge to remove the old metal pipelines that had been rusted by chemical reactions with chlorine in the water, and then to replace them with more resistant materials that won't rust,” said Sady Ali, the project engineer. “Inside a busy hospital, working 24/7, with hundreds of patients and doctors, we were under immense pressure.”

UNICEF engineering teams in Gaza City's Shifa Hospital work to replace aging pipes while the hospital carries out normal operations
UNICEF-SoP/Anas Baba

Now, however, doctors are able to prepare patients with clean water, and wash their own hands before and after medical procedures with the confidence that they are not introducing contaminants.

“The results solved a catastrophic health problem,” said Ali, proudly.