The Siege of Gaza’s Water

On October 9, in response to the October 7 assault by Hamas militants, Israel’s defense minister ordered a “complete siege” on the Gaza Strip, including the halting of electricity, food, water, and fuel sent to Gaza from Israel. Clean water is unavailable for most living in Gaza, and Israeli airstrikes are destroying water infrastructure and wells—in potential violation of international humanitarian law—in addition to taking thousands of lives and displacing almost two million Gazans. Even more lives are at risk as the threat of disease increases. Improving water access in Gaza is essential to preventing further loss of life and livelihoods and to rebuilding a secure and sustainable future when the present conflict ceases.

A Water Crisis Worsened by War

Gazans struggled to access adequate safe water even before the current crisis. About 90 percent of Gaza’s water supply comes from the Coastal Aquifer Basin, which runs along the eastern Mediterranean coast from Egypt through Gaza and into Israel. However, the water is brackish and contaminated due to seawater intrusion, overextraction, and sewage and chemical infiltration. Consequently, Gazans rely on small-scale desalination units and unregulated private water tankers, which can be costly and pose additional health risks. The remaining 10 percent of water not pumped from the Coastal Aquifer comes primarily from three Israeli pipelines and from small-scale seawater desalination plants.

As a result of Israel’s siege, Gazans’ access to water from all sources, including desalination and external Israeli sources, quickly dropped by 95 percent after October 9. The United Nations estimates that the average Gazan is living on only 3 liters of water per day for all needs—well below the United Nation’s emergency standard of 15 liters. Without energy, all five of Gaza’s wastewater treatment plants and most of its 65 sewage pumping stations were forced to shut down by mid-November. Some small desalination plants in southern Gaza may be operating at a much reduced capacity, but plants in northern Gaza are not functional. As many as 70 percent of Gazans now resort to drinking salty and contaminated water straight from wells.

The ongoing violence after October 7 further exacerbates the crisis. The Applied Research Institute in Jerusalem estimated that of 581 key water and sanitation facilities, 37 were destroyed and 226 had suspected damage by November 14. Daily bombardments restrict civilians’ ability to collect water, render farming impossible, endanger staff operating water plants, and limit circulation of water tankers.

Airstrikes and Israeli evacuation orders have driven much of the population from their homes seeking safety. Some 1.9 million Gazans—nearly 93 percent of Gaza’s population—have been displaced since Israel’s invasion. The staggering number of internally displaced people (IDPs) increases water stress in Southern Gaza, with water systems in the south ill-equipped to meet the rising demand. Constantly moving populations complicate delivery of water supplies, and the crowding in southern Gaza has led to the spread of waterborne illness and disease stemming from lack of hygiene. By November 9, humanitarian organizations warned that outbreaks of cholera and typhoid were imminent. 

Israel’s control over Gaza’s borders has inhibited aid agencies’ ability to fill the gaps. When aid trucks were finally allowed to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing on October 21, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) delivered over 44,000 bottles of drinking water as part of the 20-truck convoy—only one day’s supply of water for 22,000. The November 24 truce temporarily allowed for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees and UNICEF to supply fuel to Gaza’s main water utility, which in turn distributed it to water and sanitation facilities in the south, but aid agencies remained unable to improve access to water in the north.

The Resulting Public Health Disaster

A long-expected health crisis has now surged. Inadequate water quality and quantity can lead to decreased water consumption and associated unsafe hygiene practices related to contaminated food, hands, and utensils. By November 29, the World Health Organization reported more than 75,000 documented cases of diarrhea since mid-October with children under age five accounting for around half the cases. By comparison, in 2021 and 2022, Gaza averaged 2,000 diarrhea cases a month among young children. Without access to clean water, doctors are resorting to chemical disinfectants to sterilize instruments. Coupled with the unavailability of iodine to clean wounds, hospitals struggle to provide sufficient care. Medical experts also fear the collapse of water and wastewater treatment services, together with overcrowding in hospitals, makeshift camps, and shelters, could fuel the spread of infections resistant to antimicrobial treatment.

The breakdown of Gaza’s water systems risks prolonging a deepening social and public health disaster even after the conflict ends. Before October 7, 26 percent of diseases observed in Gaza were water-related, stemming from reliance on the contaminated and brackish Coastal Aquifer Basin in conjunction with inadequate and under-resourced water services. Now, damage to sanitation infrastructure is causing untreated wastewater and sewage to overflow into the streets and the sea. Over time, wastes can leach into the groundwater supplies, polluting wells and nearby agricultural areas. Common diseases caused by contaminated water include diarrhea, viral hepatitis, liver and kidney diseases, methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome), and anemia. The wars in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Iraq For example, the conflict in Yemen that began in 2015 damaged or destroyed critical water infrastructure. In 2016 and 2017, two devastating cholera outbreaks flared after heavy rainfalls overwhelmed compromised sewage and stormwater systems, resulting in over two million recorded cases and 3,500 related deaths. In some cases, damage to water infrastructure in conflict zones can pose greater health risks than the violence itself. UNICEF reports that during protracted conflicts, children under five are over 20 times more likely to die from diarrheal diseases linked to unsafe water and sanitation than from violence.

These health concerns do not just endanger Gaza but can travel across borders through sewage and water systems. Without functioning treatment plants in Gaza, tens of millions of gallons of raw sewage are discharged daily into the Mediterranean Sea, renewing pollution threats to the intake of desalination plants in Israel. And while prior to the current siege Gaza’s health clinics were able to detect waterborne diseases, Gaza’s overwhelmed health practitioners have limited capacity for disease containment. Were an epidemic to arise, disruption and mass displacement could spread diseases to neighboring countries, as it did in 2015, when a cholera outbreak exacerbated by instability in Iraq widened to Syria, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

Gaza’s Collapsing Water Systems and Infrastructure

Even more destructive than previous conflicts in Gaza, the current violence impairs an already brittle water sector. Years of clashes between Hamas and Israel have severely deteriorated Gaza’s water and sanitation services. The 2014 war alone caused $34 million in damage to these systems. During the May 2021 escalation, 290 water infrastructure “objects” were damaged, inflicting $10–15 million in damages. At the same time, the denial of humanitarian access and the blockade on Gaza significantly slowed repairs and restoration of water services, leaving them vulnerable to further degradation. Following the 2021 conflict, untreated sewage flowed into the streets, lakes, and sea from damaged wastewater infrastructure. With the destruction still incompletely repaired months later, severe storms in 2022 led to flash flooding worsened by damaged pipes and stormwater drains clogged with untreated waste.

Israel, worried that piping could be used to make weapons, has restricted the equipment needed to enhance Gaza’s water services. These restrictions, combined with frequent bouts of conflict and repeated destruction of critical infrastructure, have made donors wary of investing in Gaza’s water sector. By 2016, around 79 percent of the desalination plants were unlicensed, and 38 percent of the water they produced was contaminated. Such challenges forced the authorities into a reactive cycle of rebuilding damaged water infrastructure and abandoning more forward-looking plans for resilient systems, such as artificial aquifer recharge. Instead, donors and aid agencies have invested in decentralized wastewater and desalination plants, solar panels, and other dispersed facilities to mitigate the consequences of the blockade and recurrent violence.

However, according to a recent study, many of these installations have been destroyed. Humanitarian aid organizations reported to CSIS that NICEF and EU-funded desalination plant in northern Gaza that provided 10,000 cubic meters of drinkable water per day, which makes up 14 percent of Gaza’s potable water, has been damaged, as well as the beach well where the plant extracted water. The Gaza Central Wastewater Plant was also severely damaged. Opened in April 2021 with an additional solar panel field providing electricity, the facility treated the sewage of over half of Gaza’s population. The solar field, meant to increase the resilience of a blockaded Gaza, has been destroyed.

While the violence continues, many uncertainties will remain as to the conflict’s scope and long-term impact. Yet the damage to Gaza’s infrastructure will eventually need to be assessed in hopes of reconstruction and water systems will need to be restored, raising several important considerations.

Barriers to Reconstruction

Many challenges have hindered past post-conflict reconstruction efforts, including inadequate financing, import restrictions, lengthy approval processes, and difficulties ensuring that Hamas will not benefit from the aid provided. This has rendered previous recovery efforts far too slow and limited Gaza’s ability both to establish more resilient water systems and prevent the impending collapse of the Coastal Aquifer. Reconstruction efforts after Israel’s May 2021 offensive only began four months after the ceasefire, with rebuilding estimated to cost up to $485 million over the first two years. In comparison, UNICEF now calculates immediate costs of $53.4 million to meet urgent water and sanitation needs. The ultimate price of reconstruction will be colossal. One analysis estimates the cost of rebuilding decimated housing stocks alone at $3.5 billion.

Past reconstruction has primarily focused on the immediate requirements of the region, not long-term solutions. Given the persistent threat of conflict in the region, it is imperative to support resilient water systems and infrastructure that can meet the needs of civilians in times of crisis. This requires much faster and greater levels of funding, agreements enabling imports of critical supplies for essential infrastructure, and an increased focus on improving the delivery of safe water services to conflict-affected and displaced communities.

Protecting Water in Times of Conflict

The near complete blockade on water in Gaza is unprecedented. During times of conflict, international humanitarian law prohibits attacking or destroying “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” such as water infrastructure and drinking water installations. International law also forbids depriving civilians of access to water and requires parties to conflict to allow safe passage for humanitarian relief. In Gaza, water infrastructure has been destroyed and the delivery of clean water and fuel to operate water treatment plants has also been impeded. The protection of water under international humanitarian law needs to be strengthened and upheld, and greater allowances made for the importation of critical supplies, in addition to the prioritization of long-term and resilient solutions.

Yet no solution can be achieved by Gaza or Israel in isolation. All the region’s water and wastewater sources cross into Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza alike. Both populations have an interest in tackling the crisis before it further undermines environmental and public health.

Some have argued that the United States and the international community should support development of a multiyear cooperative agreement for the importation of bulk water into Gaza from Israel. In the wake of so much violence, it will be difficult to achieve the trust needed for such collaboration. Assistance constructing much-needed water infrastructure in Gaza is another necessary step, but Israel’s political calculations on the future of Gaza may overwhelm such efforts.

This latter issue points to a more fundamental need. International and regional actors will have a larger role to play than financing in the aftermath of hostilities. Donor states and influential stakeholders will need to help mobilize substantial resources and apply pressure to the parties to this conflict to move toward a more sustainable, equitable, and secure future. While many issues remain uncertain and contentious, ensuring Gazans clean water availability in the near term could avoid full-blown environmental and health catastrophes. Plans to deliver aid and water by ships, for instance, which can transport 500 times more supplies than trucks, should be considered. Over the longer term, using a mixture of aid and careful diplomacy, countries with Israel’s trust, such as the United States, can start to push this process while providing security guarantees during this conflict.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Anita Kirschenbaum is a program manager for the Global Food and Water Security Program at CSIS. David Michel is the senior fellow for water security with the Global Food and Water Security Program at CSIS.

David Michel
Senior Fellow, Global Food and Water Security Program