This WASH blog is written by Mariam Fayad. She is a Water, Sanitation and Health Engineering MSc alumni, humanitarian worker and early-career researcher living and working in Gaza. The blog was written on 25 November 2023 and is her personal testimony and reflections on the state of water, sanitation and hygiene during the emergency. It does not reflect the official views of the University of Leeds on the tragic conflict.
For the last 17 years, the Gaza Strip has been described as an "open-air prison"(1) due to the long-term siege imposed by the Israeli Blockade. In addition to the blockade, the Gaza Strip has witnessed several escalations (in 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2021) that constantly undermined essential services, including water and sanitation (WASH) infrastructure. As each escalation comes to an end, the Gaza Strip goes through a period of rehabilitation and reconstruction faced by the tightened blockade that hinders the entry of essential materials and equipment into the Gaza Strip.
The Gaza Strip is witnessing a severe humanitarian emergency due to the brutal ongoing assault since October 8, 2023. A ceasefire would save lives and alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. More than 1.7 million are internally displaced, and around 900,000 of them are staying in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) shelters. The Gazans are suffering from a severe lack of life-saving services such as water, sanitation, food, health care, fuel, and electricity. As a humanitarian worker in Gaza and one witnessing and living the current humanitarian disaster, I can deeply observe the seriousness of the persistent crisis.
On October 9, the Israeli government cut off water, food, and fuel entry to the Gaza Strip. That was the last day I saw electricity in our home until now. Before the ongoing bombardment all over the Gaza Strip, we immediately felt the shortage of both drinking water and domestic water. In Khan Younis (Southern Gaza), where I live with my family, the municipality announced that there is no schedule for water pumping as that depends on the availability of fuel and electricity. We spent several days with no municipal water at all. When it finally came, we had to store it in plastic buckets and cooking pans as there was no electricity to pump the water into the water tanks. The situation regarding drinking water is worse with the current severe shortage, especially in the first few days. We have had to drink municipal water (tap water), which is not suitable for drinking in Gaza. In the second week, we were lucky to find one water truck (a traditional method to sell drinking water in the Gaza Strip) to fill our home water tank with more than triple the usual price. Moreover, no food or goods have entered the Gaza Strip for the previous 45 days; the dependence is entirely on what exists in the storage. The severe food shortage in the market has led to prices doubling. We could not find essential food products, and flour was no longer available in the market, raising grave concerns about nutrition, especially for children and lactating mothers.
Thousands of people evacuated to Khan Younis from northern Gaza after the Israeli army kept asking people to vacate to the middle and southern Gaza. I was overwhelmed when I visited a couple of the UNRWA Schools - which currently operate as shelters for internally displaced people- (IDPs) as the number of people is beyond its capacity, which was not designed or adjusted to accommodate IDPs in the first place. People are sleeping in the corridors and the school playgrounds, there is not enough water or food, and the hygiene status is dire. Toilets designed for low-demand use during school hours, without any showering facilities, are now used by thousands. They have to queue for hours without access to cleaning materials essential to prevent public health disasters. Solid waste fills the streets as the local municipalities go out of service.
The situation is getting worse as rainfall is putting more pressure on the sewerage networks, leading to wastewater overflow in the streets and increasing the potential of the spreading of infectious diseases among IDPs. One of my friends is staying at one of the UN shelter centres in Khan Younis with her two children. Her children - who are both under five have suffered from diarrhoea, stomach pain with high temperature; her son, who is two years old, is at the hospital suffering from bacterial meningitis. When I visited her at the hospital, I saw several children cases suffering from similar symptoms.
Due to the unprecedented scale of the Israeli escalation, the on-ground responses from humanitarian aid agencies were lagging even though most, if not all, of those agencies have in-home 'emergency preparedness plans' and allocated funds. This raises the question of how emergency preparedness plans are designed to deal with such humanitarian crises. Since the first days of the ongoing disaster, the UNRWA offices announced that there was no water in their shelters. The IDPs were left without any essential shelter tools (e.g., bedding kits, sealing-off kits, hygiene kits). Also, women in Gaza are struggling to have hygienic menstruation tools, especially in the shelter centres, where even making any alternatives to menstrual pads would be massively tricky with the dire WASH facilities conditions. There are no menstruation products available at all in the market. Most markets have closed their doors entirely as no goods are available.
The public health situation continues to deteriorate despite the aid starting to flow into the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip urgently needs a more organised approach to humanitarian aid delivery that protects the dignity and well-being of the recipients and complies with international standards; according to Sphere guidelines, the minimum required amount of water in case of emergency is 15 litres while the average consumption per capita is reduced from 88 litres in regular days in Gaza to just 3 litres these days. Finally, it is vital to remember the preexisting inequalities; Israeli citizens consume 152 litres per capita per day while Gazan's consumption (pre-the October 8) was 84 litres per capita per (of which 27 litres are suitable for human use).
(1) For example, Gaza was referred to as an open air prison by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2010/jul/27/david-cameron-gaza-prison-camp