Responding to Crisis while Building for the Future: Water Management in Gaza
March 20, 2013
Water and sanitation services are one of the many unglamorous areas in which the World Bank is invested, as the health of entire communities depends on their safe and reliable management. The consequences of ineffective sanitation systems can be devastating, while careful management of water resources is vital for long-term, sustainable growth.
In March, 2007, the collapse of an embankment at the Beit Lahiya wastewater treatment plant in northern Gaza flooded the nearby village of Um al-Nasser, killing five, causing countless injuries, and displacing approximately 2,000 people. This disaster required immediate action, and raised critical questions about the long-term viability of water management systems in the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas on earth.
In this instance, the World Bank helped drain the sewage and pump it to safe infiltration ponds and also supported the development of a long term and sustainable solution for water treatment in north Gaza. This took several years in the face of the multiple challenges associated with large scale infrastructure projects in conflict affected areas.
We have the constant tension between meeting short-term goals while keeping our eye on the long-term. The short-term is necessary, the latter builds sustainability.
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.
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