Friday, October 15, 2010

Water in Palestine by Nora Barrows-Friedman

Thanks to Nora Barrows-Friedman for this special post on water in Palestine! Today is Blog Action Day 2010 and the focus is water. We hope this piece will contribute to awareness, discussions, and solutions to the water crisis around the world. - MECA

“The wind finally came to Palestine,” a friend of mine told me on the phone today, from his home in Battir, a small village near Bethlehem. “Now we can finally breathe.” He said he was relieved that the sweltering Palestinian summer was nearing its end and Autumn was showing its colors in the parched hillsides and in the air. But the water in my friend's home, in his village and across occupied Palestine is still slow to trickle, as it has been for months.

As Jewish Israelis enjoy trips to the beach, neighborhood swimming pools, unfettered access to clean drinking water, state-of-the-art sewage treatment infrastructure, and endless amounts of running water in their homes, Palestinians in communities separated by boundaries, walls, and checkpoints brace and prepare each time the weather heats up and the antiquated wells dry up. For weeks on end – especially in the refugee camps inside the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – there simply is no water coming from the tap, and people are forced to purchase bottled water just to meet their daily needs.

For Palestinians under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and in Palestinian-Bedouin communities inside Israel itself, water has historically been a precious commodity especially in the summer months – which can stretch, like this years', for over five months – because of the ongoing resource theft of groundwater tables by the Israeli state and the economic blockade the government continues against the people in Gaza.

According to current statistics by Amnesty International, Israel takes 80% of the water in the Mountain aquifers in the north (one of many water sources available to Israel, including the state's full access to the Jordan River, which runs inside the occupied West Bank); while Palestinians in the West Bank are left with just the remaining 20% of that one aquifer, and are prohibited from accessing water from the Jordan river altogether.

However, in Gaza, 95% of the groundwater is extremely polluted and deemed unfit for human consumption, according to new reports from Israeli human rights organization B'tselem ( The water crisis has entered into a troubling phase as Israel maintains its suffocating blockade against the 1.5 million Palestinians trapped inside the strip. This blockade, which has been in place as collective punishment following the Hamas party's political takeover in 2007, prevents entry to hundreds of items – including essential industrial materials needed to repair the water infrastructure.

The Electronic Intifada reported on B'tselem's findings back in September (

“Citing reports from the United Nations' Environment Program, the Palestinian Water Authority, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility and international aid organizations, B'Tselem's report says that children are being especially affected by the water crisis in Gaza. The report references the over-pumping of groundwater, combined with poor wastewater management systems and the toxification of ground soil from waste disposal sites -- where asbestos, medical waste, oils and fuels were dumped after Israel's three-week attacks in 2008-09. As a result, according to B'Tselem, chemicals such as chlorides and nitrates are contributing to excessive diseases and internal injuries, especially in Gaza's children.

Israeli air strikes during the winter attacks also damaged wastewater treatment plants in Gaza, and damaged thirty kilometers of water networks, eleven wells and six thousand residential water tanks. Reports estimate that the damage to the water infrastructure amounted to approximately $6 million.

"According to international aid organizations, twenty percent of Gazan families have at least one child under age five who suffers from diarrhea as a result of polluted water," B'Tselem reports. "A UN study published in 2009 estimates that diarrhea is the cause of 12 percent of children's deaths in Gaza. The lack of potable drinking water is liable to cause malnutrition in children and affect their physical and cognitive development."

Moreover, the blockade and the bombings have affected the sewage infrastructure as well. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Gaza City released a shocking report in August on the toxification of the sea itself because of the deterioration of Gaza's wastewater treatment plants.

“Gaza's current wastewater treatment facilities were constructed with an operational capacity of 32,000 cubic meters of waste a day,” states the report (

“With a growth rate that is one of the world's highest -- an estimated 3.6 percent annually -- Gaza's surging population has overwhelmed the capacity of the waste treatment facilities, and Monther [Shoblak, director general of the Coastal Municipality Water Utility] estimates that the facilities are now receiving at least 65,000 cubic meters of waste daily. Unable to handle more than half of its intake, much of the sewage is directly transported to the sea, where it is dumped completely untreated. Much of this sewage washes back onto Gaza's shores, polluting the beaches and creating toxic swimming conditions for the countless children and adults seeking escape from the intense summer heat,” the report continued.

Facts like these are staggering, and nothing new to Palestinians who have experienced decades of humanitarian crisis. So, what do we do about this deliberate water emergency unfolding across Palestine, especially inside the Gaza strip, and especially affecting the most vulnerable population, the children?

Berkeley, California-based Middle East Children's Alliance has taken direct action against the water crisis in Gaza, launching the Maia project to provide Palestinian children with clean, safe drinking water. Maia is Arabic for water.

According to their website,, the project began “when the Student Parliament at the UN Boys’ School in Bureij Refugee Camp, Gaza were given the opportunity to choose one thing they most wanted for their school: They chose to have clean drinking water. MECA’s partner in Gaza heard about this vote and, after meeting with representatives from the school and the Student Parliament, came to MECA to see if we could respond to the children’s request for drinking water. MECA provided the funds to build a water purification and desalination unit for the school in 2007.”

MECA's interest in simply providing something we here in this country, and in most industrialized places across the world, take for granted – clean, safe, drinking water – is intrinsically aligned with their 22-year old philosophy that Palestinian, Iraqi and Lebanese children deserve a better and healthier future than the one they've acquired under so many years of occupations and wars.

This philosophy includes the radical notion that there are already incredible people on the ground who are already working hard to better their communities, and international donor support should compliment and sustain that locally-based work. MECA says they are working in partnership with various community organizations “to build water purification and desalination units in schools throughout the Gaza strip...We have provided clean water to twelve large UN schools in Palestinian refugee camps and to ten kindergartens in refugee camps, towns, and villages,” they say.

MECA is appealing for generous donations to combat the aggressive and unraveling humanitarian crisis in Gaza by building water purification systems in Palestinian childrens' schools.

“A large purification unit for a UN school in a refugee camp costs $11,300. The UN schools run in shifts due to overcrowding and each unit provides drinking water for 1,500-2,000 children and staff. A small purification unit for a preschool or kindergarten costs $4,000 and serves 150-450 children. Many of the small units are located in community centers with after-school programs and summer camps so the units serve these children as well. Many organizations, individuals, and schools around the US are raising the whole cost of a unit in their communities,” MECA says.

There's always so much despair when I talk or think or write about Palestine – but through this project, and with the work that MECA's staff in California and in Palestine have been doing for so many years, I know it's possible to make an extraordinary difference in children's lives.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Keeping Hope Alive in Gaza

By Dr. Mona El-Farra

Children are everywhere here in Gaza. They make up more than 60% of the entire population because the average family size is 7.2 people. Crowded towns, refugee camps and cities cram over 1.5 million people into these 360 square kilometers, making Gaza one of the densely populated areas of the world.

Between the Israeli occupation, the siege of Gaza, and the internal Palestinian divisions, children in Gaza have been, and continue to be deprived of many of their basic rights. The right to play, to live in suitable homes, to live in a safe and healthy atmosphere, and to have access to food and clean water.

In short, children in Gaza are not living in safety. They are not living with the rights we are supposed to provide them.

In Gaza we know that our situation will not improve overnight so we look to our children as the future. All efforts to support our children are extremely needed and appreciated by the community. The accumulative work of everyone who cares in the local and international communities will affect the future of the hundreds of thousands of kids who experience poverty and the threat of military attacks on a daily basis . This creates an immediate need to make life easier and tolerable through entertaining activities and relief services. I don't expect we can make quick, dramatic changes given the complexity and deterioration of the situation in Gaza. But certainly I believe the effects of these efforts will prove to be important in the future, particularly in the lives of these children and their families.

In such complicated circumstances with endless needs for children, the Middle East Children's Alliance (MECA) is working hard to make life tolerable for children in Palestine. In my day-to-day life, I can see the effects of MECA's work. When I was at one of the UN schools where we implemented a water purification system, one of 15 systems we supplied so far this year, I was touched to hear the different stories and positive comments from the families, the teaching staff, and the children. We all know the importance of good clean water but many people take drinking clean water for granted. This is not the case for people who are deprived of it in Palestine, India, or countless other locations around the world. In the Gaza Strip, more than 90% of our water is not suitable for drinking.

The university scholarships project targets students and whose families would not be able to educate their children without MECA's support. I see the huge impact of the psychosocial program “Let the Children Play and Heal” that has already reached more than 110,000 children throughout all of Gaza, plus providing vital trainings to hundreds of mothers that empower them to take action to help their own families and communities. I went several times to the Zaytoun neighborhood this summer to observe “Learning on the Rubble,” a project that provided intensive educational and psychosocial support to children in a particularly impoverished and traumatized area of Gaza. None of these children can be completely healed while the occupation and siege continue but I believe our work meets the children's most urgent needs and contributes to their chances for a good future.

I feel privileged to see the successes of MECA projects and partnerships on the ground. I feel proud to be part of the team of MECA. I tell the children of Palestine more and more about MECA's work and about the committed people abroad who work hard to help the Palestinian people. I try to educate the entire community about the genuine great work in support of the Palestinian people's rights and the continuous work to expose the colonial racist nature of the Israeli occupation that is happening around the world. I understand that our freedom is not an easy task to be achieved but to be sure there are growing solidarity efforts to achieve peace and justice and MECA is an important part of them. MECA's work and the work of all the friends and solidarity activists around the world make me feel not alone and not forgotten and I convey this message everywhere in Gaza where my people live one day after another working hard to endure the most difficult situation.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Biddun Maia, Fish Heyya (Without Water, There is no Life)

Since I started working at Middle East Children's Alliance, the MAIA Project to bring clean water to the children of Palestine has become closest to my heart. All of our projects are important for people in Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq, but the MAIA Project is connected to my history and my family. It takes me back to the days when I struggled with my family to bring clean water to our house so we could drink, cook and, sometimes, have a shower. My mother, sisters and I would carry gallons of water in heavy containers on our heads. Providing this essential for our family made my mother physically strong, her arms and shoulders shaped by her efforts, but her health suffered greatly. Much work and time is required to achieve the basic necessity of clean water. I still remember the weight of the water and the great responsibility on our necks and backs everyday.

Israel controls and uses 89% of the water resources in the West Bank, leaving 11% for the 2.5 million Palestinians. The Israeli Occupation continues to limit Palestinian access to clean water as form of collective punishment by controlling the water resources and distribution and by destroying the water that we are able to get. During Israeli military incursions, and especially during curfews, when we could not leave our homes, Israeli soldiers would shoot the water storage tanks on our roofs. Our water would pour down the sides of our buildings unused. During the recent attack on Gaza, Israel targeted the entire water infrastructure including the largest water purification system in Gaza. They also targeted electrical generators that supported water purification and sewage treatment. This kind of collective punishment is also used against Palestinians inside Israel. Palestinian villages “unrecognized” by the Israeli state are not connected to the national water grid that serves all Jewish communities, and the residents suffer from a lack of clean water.

In 1994 and 2001 I visited Black townships in South Africa. When the inhabitants in the townships explained their daily lives, they focused on the scarcity and difficulty in obtaining clean water. Water, they said, was only for the white people of South Africa. I immediately understood and thought that we could substitute Palestinian refugee camps for the South African townships. It is the same system of oppression. During apartheid access to public spaces, especially public beaches, was restricted according to race. The beautifully maintained beaches were accessible only for the white people. This is the same situation found in Palestine now. Israel severely restricts our access to the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and Lake Tiberias. Palestinians are forced to apply for permits from the Israelis to access these sites, even for a simple visit. Even when limited access is allowed, such as in Gaza, the coastline is often flooded with untreated sewage as a result of damage done by Israeli bombardments.

As I was writing this article, I spoke with Dr. Mona El-Farra, MECA’s Project Director in Gaza. We were discussing the current water situation and she was saying that the tap water in her apartment was unusable. She said “Ziad, the water here is polluted and undrinkable, more than that it is unusable for cleaning. Some people have started to lose their hair from showering with this water. The new business in Gaza is selling clean water from tanks around the city. Of course it is expensive and since few people are employed they cannot buy the water. People here are constantly sick from the lack of clean water.” She added that as a doctor she is seeing an increase in kidney disease, dysentery and other serious medical conditions related to polluted water. If people are lucky enough to survive the Israeli air strikes and sniper fire they go on to face the threat of dirty, dangerous water.

Images from Gaza show water tanks driven around the cities, people waiting in lines for water, and children carrying empty water containers searching for water to fill them. Children in Gaza are missing their childhood. They are defined as children by their age but they live as survivors, not as children. They are taking responsibility to protect themselves and their families. When I was a child in a refugee camp in the West Bank, our struggle to obtain basic necessities to survive was the same. Thirty-five years later, Palestinian children are still forced to grow up too soon.

The Middle East Children’s Alliance is working to support the rights of children, particularly the right of Palestinian children to survive and flourish. In the last two years, MECA’s Maia Project has succeeded in building 22 water purification systems in primary schools and kindergartens giving nearly 25,000 children access to clean water. As a result, thousands of mothers will feel less frightened that their children might be harmed by polluted water. Dr. El-Farra has witnessed the precious moments of accomplishment and pride when a new unit is installed.

MECA’s Maia Project seeks to expand to all the schools in Gaza so more children can realize their right to clean water. In South Africa apartheid has ended, but water injustice is still something the inhabitants of the Black townships and other marginalized communities struggle against on a daily basis. In Palestine, we are still struggling against the Israeli apartheid system that deprives us of our basic human rights, including the right to one of the most important things in life: Water.