A UN agency has warned of the danger of the collapse of the underground water system in the Gaza Strip. In a report, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) claims that over-use and contamination as a result of the Israeli war against Gaza a year ago is having a damaging effect on water supplies upon which 1.5 million people depend. Pollution, says the UNEP, is so bad that Gaza’s children are at risk of nitrate poisoning. Test at nine private wells showed that nitrate levels exceed World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines of 50 milligrams per litre; one well had a level of 331 milligrams per litre. High levels of nitrates can cause “blue baby syndrome”.
Most of Gaza’s water supplies come from an underground aquifer and according to the UNEP more than $1.5 billion may be needed over 20 years to restore it; that cost includes the building of desalination plants to take the pressure off the underground water supplies. The report estimates that 17 per cent of cultivated land, including orchards and greenhouses, is affected severely by disruptions to water supplies.
Increased salinity from salt water intrusion of the aquifer caused by over-abstraction of the underground water supply is a key concern, alongside pollution from sewage and agricultural run-off. Salinity levels in most parts of the Gaza Strip are now above the WHO’s guideline of 250 milligrams per litre. Sewage treatment plants were damaged by Israel during the war twelve months ago and repair materials have not been allowed into Gaza due to the Israeli blockade.
The UNEP report recommends advanced measures to control sources of contamination to the underground aquifer and the establishment of one or two new and modern sewage treatment plants to handle nitrates so that treated water can be used for agricultural purposes.