World Affairs

Dying of Thirst in Gaza – A Real News Network Interview

Woman fills plastic bottles with water collected from a community supply source.
Woman fills bottles with water collected from a community source in Gaza. Screen shot.

In Dying of Thirst in Gaza, Marc Steiner, concerned about the dire conditions for Palestinians in Gaza, interviews hydrologist Clemens Messerschmid about the acute shortage of clean drinking water, why this is so, and what can be done about it. The interview brings into sharp focus the appalling living conditions in this ‘open air prison’, making it hard to believe that Gaza was once an oasis enjoyed by many.

In 2000, the World Trade Organization put out a report that said that 90% of the water in Gaza is unfit for drinking. That was true then, it’s worse now, and after all that the world has turned a blind eye to a continued siege which only made living conditions in the small, overcrowded strip worse and worse and worse, making it impossible for people to barely survive.

The Real News Network, 12 Mar 2020


Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, good to have you all with us. When you hear the word Gaza, what does that conjure up for you? War? Bombs being dropped? Rockets firing? Israeli blockades and occupation? Whatever it conjures up, it’s not positive and, too often, forgotten. 

In 2012, the United Nations issued a report entitled Gaza 2020: A livable place? with a question mark. If the report took off the question mark, it would’ve answered its own question in the title. No, it’s not. 

From the Israeli blockades allowing just enough so complete starvation doesn’t take place, to both Israel and Egypt controlling the borders, the answer is it is not livable. What is even more alarming, if you look back in 2000, the World Trade Organization put out a report that said that 90% of the water in Gaza is unfit for drinking. That was true then, it’s worse now, and after all that the world has turned a blind eye to a continued siege which only made living conditions in the small, overcrowded strip worse and worse and worse, making it impossible for people to barely survive. 

So what if there’s a severe shortage in food, medicine, electricity and any sense of freedom to come and go as you please, everyone who lives in Gaza has their life threatened because they face one of the most severe water shortages of any place on the earth. Everyone’s life in Gaza is threatened. Lack of water means widespread outbreaks of kidney diseases, tooth diseases, among many other things that are easily preventable and because of this, Middle East Eye published a video reminding the world of the cause and consequences of this water situation. 

Water environment expert Ahmed Helles spoke to Middle East Eye’s, Ahmed Helles: (foreign language 00:01:41)

Translator: 96% of Gaza’s residents rely on groundwater for their daily needs, including drinking water. More than 35 to 40% of Gaza Strip sewage is not connected to a sewage system because of the Israeli blockade and of the Palestinian political division. So Gaza’s groundwater is exposed to pollution. Only 2% of Gaza’s groundwater is drinkable and that does not cover people with needs.

Marc Steiner: And we’re joined now by Clemens Messerschmid who is a hydrologist and spent many years studying the water situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He’s written hundreds of articles and book chapters on the politics of water and Palestine, is now on the Faculty of Environment Natural Resources at the University of Freiburg and welcome, Clemens, good to have you with us. 

Clemens Messerschmid: Hello?

Marc Steiner: So those United Nations and the WTO reports I alluded to earlier, I mean they clearly talk about the water being a crisis, but it’s not just that, water shortage, which I want you to explain. This has to do with water quality. I mean it’s why things have gotten worse instead of better. So talk a bit about what that means and why. 

Clemens Messerschmid: Well, look, Gaza is under very different conditions than, for example, the other part of the Palestinian Occupied Territories, which is the West Bank. The West Bank is extremely water rich. Gaza is not. Gaza is not naturally water scarce, but I would say limited amount of water. Now you have in Gaza a very high population. You have two million people in an area half the size of Baltimore, of your city. So it’s densely crowded, however, Gaza under the occupation used to have higher amounts of water per capita than the West Bank simply because Israel did not completely block any groundwater access. 

The problem in Gaza for the past decades was mainly water quality. You have too much salt in the water and then increasingly also pollution, part of which comes from wastewater, part of which comes from fertilizers in the agriculture, so that would be nitrates, which are directly very, very bad for the health and major concern for public health. And then additional pollution from solid waste and cars and the remainders of industry, all that. So water quality is for the past decades the main concern of Gazans. Water quantity now also becomes a very big concern, but this is due to on top of, on top of, on top of the blockade and everything in the past years, the power cuts; there is no more electricity in Gaza to just run the pumps. So then you get on top of very bad water quality also enormous supply gaps as water quantity problems. 

Marc Steiner: So, Clemens, one of the issues here when you talk about this, I think it’s important to talk about is that, as we talked about before we went on the air together, Gaza was once almost a paradise. Gaza had plenty of water. You talked about the aquifer being shallow. We can talk a bit about that but the situation is completely different. People have to buy water. Most people have no access to water every day or clean water. People are getting ill and sick, some people dying from it, so this is a situation not just of a place that once knew it had water and could grow crops and lived a certain life that has been just destroyed and people are suffering daily, which is why so many people are fleeing Gaza by whatever way they can, so let’s get to the heart of that matter. 

Clemens Messerschmid: You are right. Gaza used to be considered a lush place, an oasis. Alexander the Great made a stop on the famous fresh, sweet springs of Gaza. Gaza had a very vibrant agricultural sector even for export to Europe. Imagine this is because ground water is shallow, so you can easily drill a shallow well and get the water up and then irrigate your crops. Now everything has turned suddenly and very harshly with the so-called Nakba, which the Israeli call their independence or war for independence… 

Marc Steiner: 1948? 

Clemens Messerschmid: In 1948, and the Palestinians call it the catastrophe, the Nakba, when Gaza was first of all shrunk to a small portion of what used to be the Gaza District under the British mandate and then was crowded with refugees. So suddenly many of the existing wells were not any more accessible because they were outside this confined Gaza Strip that we see today on the map and in addition you had a quadrupling of the population. You had a catastrophic situation immediately, right then. 

Since then during the 1950s, ’60s, under then-Egyptian rule, Gaza made great effort and made great progress in drilling more wells, getting back somehow on its feet. You still had the vibrant agriculture and then the occupation started and we have now over 50 years of Israeli occupation and now for a bit more than 10 years, the Israeli are out of the Gaza Strip, have redeployed outside and now Gaza is left on its own, but is hermetically sealed. I guess that everybody knows that there is a blockade. Gaza is now a ghetto, a slum, it’s a slum it’s a ghetto that is sealed off and that is quite unique on earth. I mean you have so many slums, but the point about a slum is that people move in and move out, not Gaza. 

So it’s a slum that is left on its own. It’s a slum that has no supply from outside. This makes everything completely untenable and there is not even a hope to address even the most basic problems if you don’t address that issue, a sealed-off slum. Now Gaza water quality is getting worse and worse. It’s a crowded area. It’s not a countryside, it’s a city. Everything is densely populated, is inhabited, so you have now a lot of pollution. You have increasingly salt getting into the ground water. By the way, this is not really known, most of the salt does not come from the Mediterranean Sea. There is some sea water intrusion from the Mediterranean Sea into Gaza making it extremely salty, but you have a lot of saltwater flowing as brackish groundwater under the border with Israel from the Negev into Gaza and that is the main source of salt until today. 

Marc Steiner: Is this some new phenomenon or is it always this way?

Clemens Messerschmid: This is a natural phenomenon, but it is increased as the pressure regime changes. So in Gaza the water level drops, then the flow from outside increases. We have a stronger gradient and then more water flows into Gaza and that is brackish water. So as things turned bad with the water levels, then this is increased, turning even worse with respect to salt inflows from outside. So basically what Gaza gets is salt from Israel, okay? Not very welcome. 

Marc Steiner: All right, so the question is here, I mean, now talking directly as a hydrologist who’s worked in these issues, let’s talk a bit about what can be done. I mean, how does this change? It seems to me that that’s one of the things that’s missing is conversations. You know, you take Trump and his absurd plan aside for Israel and the Palestinians and go back to the harder ones. What changes this? What brings the vibrancy back? I mean right now you have a situation in Gaza where people have to buy water and the reality is that most of the unemployment is so severe, in some places 70, 80, 90%, people can’t afford even to buy the water they need. So what resolves this? 

Clemens Messerschmid: Okay, we have to talk, I’m afraid, about three different issues. One thing is what can be, what should be immediately done, emergency interventions, what can be done. The second thing would be what would be a technical, longterm solution for Gaza in the water sector, technically speaking, okay? The third would be what is the hydro political landscape? How does the Trump deal of the century fall into place? What are the strategic interests of Israel? These are three different issues. Palestinians have drilled a lot of wells in Gaza, actually in Gaza we have too many Wells, not too little, we have too many wells, so we are pumping more water out the aquifer than comes in naturally from rain inside the strip. This is not sustainable. It’s getting worse by the day. 

Gaza needs additional supplies. There is one proposal now that is unfortunately also supported by the Europeans and the Union for the Mediterranean, which is a French-led international initiative and so on, to bank on a technical fix which is called large seawater desalination. I’m very much against that for technical and for political reasons. But let’s first make the list. You could just drill more and let the water levels drop more and more and you will get into more and more trouble. Otherwise, there are no water sources for Gaza. There is no source, there is nothing you can do to get more water. You can always improve a little bit on the edge, of course you can treat your wastewater a bit better, but this will not solve the original problem that there is now also an absolute shortage of water. Under these situations also the water quality gets worse and worse. It was already said in the beginning, and this I want to confirm, 96% of the drinking water wells in Gaza have a chloride content or salt content above what is considered a drinking water standard by the World Health Organization, okay, so it’s not drinkable water. 

Now you have a lot of small-scale desalination plants which do not use seawater, but they actually drill and tap into the slightly brackish, slightly salty groundwater and desalinate that water. To me this makes all the different and I’m not against that because it’s just a matter of energy and that of cost. If you have very little salt in the water or slightly brackish water, it costs not very much to desalinate. However, if you have highly saline sea water, it’s hugely expensive to desalinate or you can also call, if we talk about climate change, you spend a huge amount of energy just to produce fresh water. So these are two completely different things, but there are lots of technical and political problems with these small-scale, brackish water desalination plants where people are supplied because they have problems with the transport and with regulation, So the water often arrives at the household contaminated. 

And anyway, this is not a solution. Yes, it’s a short-term remedy and it is a emergency measure, but it’s not a longterm solution to carry around water in trucks. Water should flow through a pipe and end up at your faucet. That’s how it should be in my house, in your house, in everybody’s house, okay? Full stop. And nothing less should for me be acceptable, okay, so it’s just short term, but we have all these problems. You could approach it but still then you still bank on groundwater. It’s not really something that will help forever, okay? 

Now what should be done long term? Well, there we have to look at Gaza in a very different way. We have to understand, I mean, I’m a German citizen. I’m living for 20 years in Palestine, but I originally come from Munich, Bavaria, one of the richest cities in Germany near the Alps, lots of rain, splendid, we have a little river and so on. Gaza, a few years back happened to have the same population density as Munich, the same area and the same population as Munich. Now, if I imagine Munich was sealed off for just two days from outside, no more road, no more tube, no more train, okay, and you would also cut off this little river, how would we survive? Munich gets its water from the Alps, some 90 kilometers away, I don’t know, 50 miles? you make the math. We get the water from the Alps, as a matter of fact, and now this is something really I would like to highlight. If you cut anything out of the video, don’t cut that. As a matter of fact, there is no city on planet Earth that is supplied from within its own perimeter with water. There is no city, London, or take any city in the world…

Marc Steiner: So no city, even in Baltimore, our water comes from the surrounding counties and does not come from the city itself, that every city is the same way. 

Clemens Messerschmid: This is every city. We have to understand that a city, an urban space, has manpower and universities and industry, productivity, but resources, food and water and so on, comes from the hinterland, comes from the rural space, okay? This is a given, any city planner or whatever knows that. So if we consider, and we understand correctly that Gaza is not a country, Gaza is a city and it actually has the population density of a city, it functions as a city. There is no solution long term at all to supply Gaza from within Gaza. 

Marc Steiner: So the only way to really, the longterm solution has to do with a real peace and self-determination for Palestinians and a real peace taking place in that region so water can flow? That’s the only way out. 

Clemens Messerschmid: No, not at all. Not at all. No, completely not. I don’t think that is the case. Let’s take technical first, if you allow me, the solution for every city on the planet is to be supplied from outside. 

Marc Steiner: Right. We have got… 

Clemens Messerschmid: Every city, Gaza has to be supplied from outside. I really deplore that all our donor country interventions, well-meaning, okay? I deplore that they are all banking on we try to make Gaza independent. This is a futile effort. 

Marc Steiner:Absolutely. 

Clemens Messerschmid: The UN tries. The Germans try, the Americans try. Everybody tries. That is wrong. You cannot make a ghetto sealed off independent. 

Marc Steiner:So then what is it the…

Clemens Messerschmid: That doesn’t work, so supply from outside, do you need peace to supply from outside? No. Why would you need peace? You need water from outside. For example, we in the West Bank, we are occupied but we buy all our electricity from Israel. We are a client of the occupation. Is that nice? No, it’s not nice but it works. We can do it. You can even import from your enemy. Is Israel willing to sell water or electricity to us in the West Bank? Yes, they are. As a matter of fact, me, in water-rich Ramallah where I’m living, up in the mountains with more rain than London, when I open the faucet, I get 100% Israeli water bought from Israel. I mean it’s Palestinian water, it comes but it’s bought from Israel. We can buy it, the West Bank actually buys water. 

Why should not Gaza buy water from Israel? I think, now this sounds like, wow, you are breaking a taboo, but I think Gaza has to buy, let’s say, 60-million cubic meters per year from Israel. By the way, Israel built a huge so-called water carrier where they tap into the Jordan River in the north of the country since the 1950s, ’60s, and pump all that water from Lake Tiberias down along the coastal plain to the cities and to the Negev. The water is there, the water passes just a few kilometers by Gaza, but it doesn’t reach Gaza. There is a huge water line flowing just by Gaza, just buy 60 million cubic meters from Israel for a very pragmatic solution tomorrow, not after tomorrow, tomorrow. The infrastructure is there. 

Now, as a long term perspective, when you talk about water rights, then you can renegotiate and can say now Palestinians in Gaza should get that water as part of their water allocation for national water rights of the whole country. 

Marc Steiner: So then… 

Clemens Messerschmid: Now then you can say this will be then given for free but it has to be given from outside. That is as simple as it is.

Marc Steiner: So Clemens Messerschmid, I wish we had a great deal more time because we can start the second and the third chapter next time we speak. I appreciate the conversation. We’ve learned a lot and I look forward to many more and thank you for your work as well, thank you. 

I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you for listening and watching us today. Let us know what you think. I’m really curious to see what you think about this and the way things are heating in that area. Take care.

A woman and a man in a wheel chair fill bottles with drinking water collected from a community source in Gaza.
“Palestinians in Gaza should get…water as part of their water allocation for national water rights of the whole country. “


Killing Gaza – A Documentary by Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal

Journalists Dan Cohen and Max Blumenthal document Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza. Not only is it a documentary about Palestinian resilience and suffering, it is a chilling visual document of war crimes committed by the Israeli military, featuring direct testimony and evidence from the survivors.

Killing Gaza from Dan Cohen on Vimeo.