The Beit Lahiya collapse was the source of a much larger, potential public health crisis. The aging and inefficient sewage treatment system was in danger of contaminating the groundwater, which would have put all 350,000 residents of North Gaza at risk.
Containing the crisis and implementing a longer-term solution also addressed the much larger problem confronting both the Palestinian Territories and the region as a whole, that of dwindling natural resources. Much of the Middle East and North Africa consumes more water than can be naturally replenished, putting aquifers at risk of depletion. The effective management of ever scarcer water resources will be critical for sustainable economic growth across the region. This is especially critical for the Palestinian people, who by regional standards have the lowest access to freshwater resources.
The work could have been considered complete once the sewage had been drained and the Beit Lahiya plant upgraded. But with its commitment to long-term solutions, the Bank persisted and leveraged its relationship with multiple donors to raise the necessary funds for the construction of a new modern wastewater treatment plant at a nearby location. It will provide advanced secondary treatment of wastewater. A groundwater quality monitoring program was also established, and a wastewater recovery and reuse program is being developed to irrigate surrounding fields with safely treated effluent and also protect the Coastal Aquifer.
Growing demand on limited supplies has affected water quality across the Palestinian Territories. The depletion of the sole aquifer that supplies the Gaza Strip has led to seawater intrusion. Only five to ten percent of the aquifer now yields drinking quality water. The need to develop new supplies and expand existing systems is hampered by restrictions on movement imposed by the Israeli Government. Not only does it pose difficulties for large scale infrastructure projects, it also limits access to vital materials such as pipes, for repair and expansion, and chlorine to disinfect supplies. The result is a high incidence of water borne diseases, especially for those forced to rely on shallow wells and trucked in water, as is the case for many in the poorest segment of society (pdf). The annual cost of the health impacts of poor water and sanitation on children 5-years old or less is estimated at US$20 million, or 0.4 percent of the Palestinian Gross Domestic Product.
In view of its significant economic and health consequences, the World Bank has maintained a steady focus on water quality in the West Bank and Gaza. Another project was launched in November of last year that will finance the rehabilitation and expansion of all of Gaza’s existing water and wastewater systems. Apart from addressing the critical deterioration of the system, and protecting the health of the population, it will lay the foundation for the long-term and effective management of precious natural supplies of water.