• Emma Houiellebecq

Coping with Conflict in the Gaza Strip: Keeping the lights on and the taps running

A home is a place where you expect to feel safe and secure. But how does life look when your home has the backdrop of a decades-long conflict? Over 2 million people live in the Gaza Strip, where a conflict between Israel and Palestine has been playing out over several decades. A 2012 report by the UN suggested that by 2020, Gaza would be “unliveable”. That dire prediction was stated before the third and fourth Gaza-Israel wars in 2014 and 2021, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet in 2022, Gazans continue to endure.


Image 1. Smoke billows after an airstrike hits the Ansar compound in Gaza City on May 15th 2021. (Credit: Majdi Fathi)

Keeping Gaza’s essential infrastructure running is critical to safeguarding the health of the population; however, this is a major challenge. Since 2007, a strict blockade has crippled Gaza’s economy and impeded efforts to import materials necessary for construction, maintenance, and the repair of essential infrastructure. As a result of the blockade and periodic escalations in the conflict (most notably, the wars in 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021, as well as more frequent small-scale escalations), the condition of the urban infrastructure and essential services in Gaza has severely declined.


Even in times of relative calm, Gaza only receives approximately 50% of its electricity needs. This means that power is rotated throughout the Gaza Strip usually on a schedule of eight hours “on”, followed by eight hours “off”. Many essential services are dependent on electricity to be able to operate and function reliably, such as hospitals, water pumping stations, and wastewater treatment plants. With limits to electricity, these essential services must either use diesel generators as a back-up electricity source (which few can afford) or simply reduce their operations. As a result, during blackouts hospitals may only be able to keep critical loads connected (i.e., life support equipment), while pumping stations are unable to deliver adequate water supplies to the population, and partially treated wastewater is discharged into the sea.


The severity of these issues is further exacerbated by the state of Gaza’s water supply, which is on the verge of collapse. According to the World Bank, 96% of Gaza’s drinking water does not meet WHO water quality standards. A joint statement at the 48th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in October 2021 declared that “people in Gaza are being slowly poisoned by the contaminated drinking water”, with up to 26% of all diseases observed in Gaza being water-related. Gaza’s coastal aquifer is its primary water source and has been over-extracted (due to limited alternatives). Also, the aquifer has been contaminated by leaching from partially treated wastewater and the over-use of pesticides in the agricultural sector, as well as seawater intrusion. In addition to quality issues, the quantity of water available to the general population is of major concern. With water resources already very limited, roughly 40% of the water supply that is extracted is subsequently lost during distribution through pipe leakages arising from the outdated and continuously damaged water distribution network. As a result, the average daily allocation of domestic water per person in Gaza is 77 litres, while the average daily water consumption in the UK is 140 litres.


Image 2. A Palestinian searches through rubble of their destroyed home hit by Israeli strikes in Towers Al-andaa - the northern Gaza Strip. (Source: United Nations, Flickr)

With electricity and water supply already in a fragile balance, it does not take much additional pressure to cause these systems to further unravel. This was demonstrated in the latest Gaza-Israel war in May 2021, where during 11 days of intense hostilities, infrastructure was once again destroyed or damaged and the supply of essential services was significantly disrupted. Damages to power supply infrastructure resulted in daily power cuts of 18-20 hours. This lack of power, compounded by infrastructure damages and a lack of access to water and wastewater facilities, resulted in approximately 800,000 people being cut off from a water supply, and sewage flowing into the streets. With further impacts to road networks, buildings and houses, health infrastructure, and disruptions to solid waste collection and food supply, the situation was beyond dire by the time a ceasefire was agreed on the eleventh day.


In the midst of this chaos, some noteworthy efforts are worth acknowledging. Over the course of the 11 days, water and electricity technicians bravely stepped up to carry out emergency repairs to critical infrastructure in order to restore services, even with the continuation of airstrikes nearby and with no safety guarantees. These repairs were facilitated by the pre-positioned contingency stocks of materials and equipment in various warehouses throughout Gaza – a preparatory measure put in place with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Other interventions that explicitly aimed to strengthen the resilience of the infrastructure systems during such periods of hostilities also proved to be effective. For example, the automation of transformer switches and water wells (supported by the ICRC and World Bank between 2017-2021), enabled the electricity and water supply to be remotely and automatically managed. This not only allowed for the continued operations of essential services, but also significantly reduced the risk and exposure of technicians, who previously carried out these operations manually.


While such efforts certainly helped reduce the extent and severity of the impacts from the May 2021 war, what remains clear is that recovery efforts and humanitarian interventions must increasingly aim to strengthen the resilience of critical infrastructure systems in anticipation of future crises. While the concept of “resilience” in the humanitarian sector is still relatively new, there is a growing recognition for humanitarian responses to extend their focus to include life-improving responses as well as the traditional emphasis on lifesaving activities, ensuring that recovery efforts are addressing the root causes of vulnerabilities. Since May 2021, Gaza has once again started the process of picking up the pieces and rebuilding its communities and infrastructure. With the electricity and water situation now more severe than before, it will take significant local efforts and international support to ensure these services deliver the quantity and quality needed to sustain the public health and wellbeing of Gaza’s population.


 

Emma Houiellebecq [2016, 2021] is a PhD candidate in Engineering where she is exploring how to strengthen the resilience of critical urban infrastructure systems in protracted fragile and conflict-affected situations.