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Water is a human right

The illegal deprivation of water supplies to Gaza is only the latest step in a decades-long water crisis, say SCIENCE AND SOCIETY 

The human body can survive without food for weeks — without water, only days. Gaza has been without reliable water for 18 days. According to a spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, “people have either no water at all or limited supplies.” On Monday, the temperature in Gaza hit 32°C.
 
We condemn without equivocation the terrible violence against civilians committed by Hamas. Yet it is clear that the Israeli state’s decision to turn off the water supplies to over two million civilians — half of them children — is an unjustifiable response. It could never be justified, neither morally nor legally. Without downplaying the other aspects of the ongoing catastrophe in Gaza, here we want to focus on just one — water — to analyse how a systematic deprivation of a universal necessity has come about.
 
Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the chief executive of Oxfam GB, wrote on October 19 that the denial of water was a clear breach of international law: “The humanitarian rulebook has been thrown out, and polite pleas from politicians to ‘minimise civilian fatalities’ are naive at best, and at worst seem blind to the unimaginable horrors already taking place in Gaza.”
 
At first, many British politicians offered their support for Israel’s right to respond in any way it saw fit, without qualification. Now, the situation is so appalling that even Rishi Sunak has written that “we need to see all water supplies to Gaza restored” — although he added the bizarre qualifier “where physically possible.” In Gaza, it is the Israeli state that determines what is “physically possible.”
 
Sunak believes that “good progress has been made to open up humanitarian access.” First Minister of Scotland Humza Yousaf’s parents-in-law are among those under siege in Gaza. On Monday Yousaf told the BBC the experience was “torture”: his mother-in-law Elizabeth El-Nakla told him they were down to six bottles of water in a house of 100 people, including a two-month-old child. Yousaf said “trickles of aid” through the Rafah crossing with Egypt were "nowhere near" what was required, and that El-Nakla had pleaded with him and the UK government to “not just ask, but demand that border to be opened.”
 
According to reporting by the Financial Times on Monday, more than two weeks after turning off supplies, Israel is still turning on its water pipeline to southern Gaza for only three hours a day. Without water, sanitation is impossible and mass outbreaks of infectious disease seem inevitable. 
 
Cutting off essential supplies to Gaza means that journalists inside struggle to report what they are seeing to the outside world. More than 20 journalists have been killed. Those who have not must devote most of their time to finding food and water, like any other person trapped under siege. The resulting limited coverage from within Gaza of air strikes, hunger, dehydration and disease further dehumanises Palestinians. BBC journalist Rushdi Abualouf — currently homeless with his family due to aerial bombing — described on Tuesday how he had seen children begging journalists for water.
 
The escalation of water scarcity can obscure the fact that Gaza has been having an ongoing water crisis for decades. Calls to “restore” the normal supply might suggest that it is adequate; it is not. Gaza lies along the coast, and the coastal aquifer — an underground layer of groundwater that can be accessed by digging wells — relies on replenishment by rainfall to avoid becoming too salty from seawater.
 
Since 2005 Israel has built barriers that reduce the natural flow of surface water down through valleys into Gaza’s aquifer. These and other policies forced Gaza’s densely packed population to deplete the coastal aquifer through hundreds of wells. The net result is that, according to the Palestianian Water Authority, water is taken out of the aquifer at more than three times the rate it is replenished by rainfall. The water has become saltier and more polluted. So 97 per cent of groundwater in Gaza is now unsafe to drink without further treatment.
 
The majority of those in Gaza therefore rely on desalination plants. There are nearly one hundred of them in Gaza, some operating 24 hours a day. Even at the best of times, many of these produce water that is unsafe, including some that is contaminated with faecal bacteria. Shutting off Gaza’s electricity means these plants cannot operate. 

Israel is aware of these desalination plants: according to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, it has restricted the supply of materials needed for their operation and maintenance. For example, since September 2021 it has banned some types of fibreglass vessels required for filtering water from entering Gaza.  
 
Israel has near-complete power over water in the occupied Palestinian territories. According to Amnesty, this control goes back to 1967, when a military order was enacted “stating that Palestianians could not construct any new water installation without first obtaining a permit from the Israeli army.” In the West Bank, at the same time as restricting Palestinian access, Israel ensures that its own citizens in illegal settlements have a reliable supply.
 
Where Israel has has pursued “de facto annexation” of territory, in the words of the UN’s Palestinian Rights Committee, the state ensures the supply of water for settlers. In recent years, seizures of land for new settlements in the West Bank have been engineered in every aspect by the Israeli state — including providing water. As the UN committee wrote in a recent report, “Israel directly negotiates leases and licensing agreements for the exploitation of Palestinian natural resources with Israeli and international corporations” — including water, alongside quarries, oil, and minerals. These actions “may amount to acts of pillage” in breach of the Hague Regulations and the Geneva Convention.
 
It is hard to have any optimism about the terrible humanitarian crisis in Gaza. A group of Jewish lawyers, including a former president of the UK Supreme Court, wrote a letter to the Financial Times on October 17 emphasising the importance of international law: “it would be a grave violation…to hold [civilians] under siege and while doing so deprive them of basic necessities such as food and water.” 

But that is what is happening. The lofty aspirations of international humanitarian law mean nothing if they are not enforced. Palestinians are being failed by Western governments, including our own, who refuse to call out Israel’s illegal actions.

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