Gaza’s “groundwater diplomacy”…a scientific “utopia” destroyed by war Science

About 20 years ago, I walked out study An EU-funded scientific study involving researchers from Palestine, Israel, Italy and France has concluded that groundwater aquifers in the Gaza Strip will no longer be suitable for use in 25 years due to high salinity levels. The most obvious reason for this is the natural flow of salty water from the eastern Gaza Strip's aquifer in Israel that mixes with the Gaza Strip's aquifer.

At that time, a research team led by Avner Vengosh, a geochemist at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, determined that solutions to this problem could come from within Israel, within the framework of so-called “science diplomacy.” However, “al aqsa floods“On October 7 last year, he added a new reason for stopping the water supply to the Gaza Strip five years before the date specified in the study, namely poisoning the water.” Contains white phosphorusIsrael used more intensity in this war than in previous wars.

The starting point for this study is “science diplomacy,” which refers to scientific cooperation to build trust, promote goodwill, support understanding between countries, and overcome differences. Within the framework of this concept, the study proposes a project to treat groundwater in the Gaza Strip as a means of understanding and reconciliation between the Gaza Strip and Israel. Researchers involved in the study said at the time that the political background did not allow for the study. A Palestinian researcher who participated in the study said in a telephone interview with Al Jazeera: We are dreaming, as researchers we have the right to dream, but it looks like they are just hallucinations. “

Palestinians place a plastic bucket at a water filling point in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on October 28, 2023. Israeli attacks on Gaza continue amid shortages of medical supplies, water and electricity, but Israeli airstrikes have caused significant damage to the Strip. Infrastructure on the Palestinian side.
High withdrawal rates from groundwater wells increase salinity in Gaza (Shutterstock)

Diagnosing a problem…solution taken out of context

Some 1.2 million people in the Gaza Strip rely on water from the southern Mediterranean coastal aquifer, which lies underground and extends into Israel.

Researchers led by Avner Vingosh, a geochemist at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, found that drinking water in the Gaza Strip often contains more than one gram of sodium chloride per liter, well above the legal limit in Europe, which The limit is 250 and in Israel it is 600 mg.

They concluded that most of the salt comes from Israel's aquifers and flows naturally into the Gaza Strip, then came up with what they say is a relatively simple solution to the problem. They say the salt content in the water in the Gaza Strip can be reduced and its quality improved by:

  • Pumping brine out of Israel before it reaches the Gaza Strip and convert it into clean drinking water using desalination plants. The study recommends adding just ten groundwater wells near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, as well as two small desalination facilities.
  • Reduce the amount of water extracted from Gaza’s groundwater aquifers.

“Israel's implementation of these measures will allow the Palestinians to benefit from improved water sources and Israel will gain goodwill while only losing salty water that is not used anyway,” study leader Avner Vengosh said.

Palestinians collect water in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza Strip, on October 15, 2023.  Thousands of Palestinians fled to southern Gaza seeking asylum on October 14 after Israel warned them to withdraw ahead of an expected offensive against Hamas. Deadliest attack in Israeli history.
Since occupying the Palestinian territories, Israel has worked to eliminate water justice (Shutterstock)

How did the problem come from within Israel?

What Vengosh and his team revealed is that the impact of water flow from Israel on groundwater salinity in the Gaza Strip is not a new problem. Last February, the African Journal of Geosciences published: study In it, conducted by Ashraf Mushtaha, a researcher at the Water Authority of Coastal Cities in the Gaza Strip, in collaboration with Christine Wallervens, a researcher at the Laboratory of Applied Geology and Hydrogeology at the University of Ghent in Belgium, he revealed three main sources: increased groundwater salinity in the Gaza Strip, This includes Israel’s aquifer.

Ashraf Mushtaha's research results indicate three main sources of groundwater salinity:

  1. Sea water leaks.
  2. Lateral flows from Eocene rocks to the east or from agricultural return flows using treated wastewater for irrigation near Israel's eastern border.
  3. Fossil ocean salt water at the bottom of an aquifer.

Mushtashi did not propose a solution to the problem, but a controversial new study led by Ben-Gurion University geochemist Avner Vingosh, presented at a Geological Society of America meeting during the war, It is unique in doing so, but the solution it proposes seems more like a “utopia” as Nader describes it. Nour El-Din is a professor of water resources at Cairo University’s Faculty of Agriculture.

“From a scientific point of view, there is nothing wrong with this solution at all,” Noor El-Din told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “It is true that it can actually help solve the problem, but it seems illogical then and now. .” The current political framework, because if Israel wants to show good… intentions, which have not existed in its history, the sector may establish desalination with good technical capabilities and strong support from the World Bank plants and financing institutions, rather than private water stations with limited capacity that pump water from aquifers without study or supervision.

He added, “As the number of these stations increases and they are located closer to the sea, this leads to seawater leakage, which in my opinion is the main cause of the problem because of the over-pumping of freshwater from coastal aquifers, which reduces the effective water level and this This drop in water levels is caused by the intrusion of seawater into aquifers from nearby oceans. Because seawater has a higher salinity concentration than freshwater, when seawater intrudes into coastal aquifers, the salinity raises the water table, making the water unfit for drinking and agricultural use. .”

Before 2000, public wells were located far from the sea and no seawater leaks were observed, especially in the southern Gaza Strip (Khan Younis and Rafah governorates). But later, public wells appeared two kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea, and from then on, seawater began to seep in due to massive pumping of groundwater, Nour Eldin explained.

The general basis for water justice that treats Palestinians as people in need of water just like Israelis simply does not exist (Shutterstock)

water justice…absent

While Nour Eldin tried to capture the scientific dimension of the study and put it in the context of the current political situation, Ahmed Ayoub, a researcher at the International Center for Advanced Agricultural Research in the Mediterranean Region in Italy Ayoub) believes that he does not see any “supposed” scientific characteristics in this study. In a telephone interview with “Al Jazeera”, he stated that its purpose is mainly political and its presentation seems to be divorced from the real context.

He denounced: “Do we expect Israel, which has been keen to ignore water justice since its occupation of the Palestinian territories, to be able to provide the energy to enable desalination plants to supply water to the Gaza Strip?! What logic can we use to discuss this?” The solution, especially at this time when Israel is obsessed with not only the lack of water justice, but the lack of it in all aspects of life? ! “

Ayoub explained that the general basics of water justice, which treats Palestinians as people who need water just like Israelis, are completely absent, which is evident in:

  • inequality of accessas there are stark conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis over access to water, seemingly because Palestinians tend to have limited access to clean water for domestic, agricultural and industrial use compared to Israelis due to the share of West Bank citizens Water – for example – Israeli citizens receive a quarter of the water.
  • water shortagePalestinian communities often face limited access to adequate water. For example, they are not allowed under any circumstances to dig underground wells or reuse water for other purposes through treatment plants. This affects daily life, agriculture and economic activities.
  • Dependence on external resourcesBecause Palestinians have limited access to their own water resources, they often rely on foreign aid or purchasing water from Israeli authorities, a dependence that affects their self-sufficiency and sovereignty in managing their water needs.

Ahmed Ayoub said in a sarcastic tone: “When we have achieved the basis of water justice, we can discuss solutions to improve the conditions proposed by the study, which seem to be divorced from reality.”

Continued pumping of water from aquifers will increase water salinity and also cause significant damage to soil (Shutterstock)

Environmental issues…no answers

Rola Khadra, a researcher at the International Center for Advanced Agricultural Research in the Mediterranean Region of Italy, did not discuss the political dimension, but was only keen on scientific assessments, noting that there are still many questions that remain unanswered in this regard, most notably those Sustainability-related, as it is known that continued pumping of groundwater from aquifers results in higher salinity of the water and also causes significant damage to the soil, which is most important.

“Excessive pumping of groundwater will lead to a gradual reduction of the earth's surface, which happens when the void left by groundwater disappears,” Khadera, a member of the Arab Water Council, told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview. The water will put pressure on the covering soil. “Stability and subsidence can cause structural damage to buildings, infrastructure and farmland, while excessive pumping that lowers groundwater levels brings salt water closer to the surface, and this salt water can seep into the soil, causing soil salinization and loss of water in the soil. High salt levels can stunt plant growth, reduce agricultural productivity and worsen soil quality over time.”

After raising these challenges, she asked: “Has there been a study of these challenges, how to address them, and the time frame for the continuation of this proposed project on the Gaza Strip and the Israeli border so that over-pumping of groundwater does not lead to these question?”

Impacts of white phosphorus used by Israel in the Gaza war persist in the environment with long-term leaks into groundwater (Reuters)

In the age of white phosphorus…humanitarian solutions

In response to the energy challenges mentioned by Ahmed Ayyoub and the environmental challenges raised by Rula Kadra, Mohamed Hajiri, head of the Irrigation and Drainage Department at the Egyptian Desert Research Center, repeatedly used the word “utopia” when describing the research. “The word.

“What we are seeing now confirms this description, as Israel is currently using white phosphorus at an unprecedented intensity, eliminating the future of agriculture and groundwater in Gaza,” Hajiri told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview.

He added: “In the era of white phosphorus, it seems there are no good intentions, today or tomorrow, as this harmful and deadly element not only affects the present but also destroys the future.”

The immediate impact of using white phosphorus is that it burns on contact with air and can cause severe burns and injuries on contact with skin. Breathing in its fumes or fumes can cause respiratory problems, lung damage and chemical pneumonitis. The future impact is that it continues to persist in the environment for a long time and continues to leak into groundwater long after its use has ceased during war.

Although Israel continues to use it extensively in the current war since October 7, it reminds us study A Palestinian woman told Adnan Mohammad Ash of Al-Azhar University's geology department about the environmental damage caused by Israel's use of the material during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009. environmental impacts observed over two years. after that operation.

The researchers found that the content of white phosphorus in agricultural areas is about 110.9 mg/kg, in non-agricultural areas adjacent to the border it is about 63.3 mg/kg, and in urban areas it is about 85.2 mg/kg, which is higher than the allowed value.

With Israel keen on implementing a “scorched earth” policy in Gaza, eliminating life chances there, there appears to be no hope of an improvement in the political climate for the implementation of a groundwater project proposed by a joint study by Palestinian and Israeli researchers.

Amer Marai, a hydrologist at Al-Quds University and one of the study's participants, said in a statement reported by Nature: “Moving this proposal from the realm of science to the realm of politics will take the world sponsors such as banks, and the improvement in the political climate in the region, which does not fit the agenda.” Current politics.

But he seemed optimistic, saying: “This agenda will change so that it can be implemented.” However, after seeing what is happening now, he told Al Jazeera: “It seems our imagination is very broad.”

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