Gaza city – Most of the water in the Gaza Strip is not drinkable and harmful to health.
In the besieged Palestinian enclave, large desalination plants are in full swing, funded by international donors and private companies fighting to contain the crisis. A new high-tech effort, however, comes from an unlikely source: an Israel-based company.
The crippling 14-year blockade of Israel has exacerbated the water disaster for the residents of the Gaza Strip as vital materials and equipment are needed to produce drinking water from the coastal enclave.
A Russian-Israeli billionaire – shocked by pictures of children filling water in plastic containers of a street vendor – decided to act.
Michael Mirilashvili, the billionaire businessman, owns a company called Watergen, which uses solar-powered technology to produce clean drinking water from the air.
Mirilashvili's Israel-based company donated three machines to Gaza after seeing the plight of its Palestinian neighbors.
He told Al Jazeera that the drinking water crisis in Gaza affected him personally. “We want every child there to have access to the best quality drinking water,” he said.
The project is far from being able to meet the water needs of the two million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, but “it can help in the long term to solve the water problem,” said Fathi Sheikh-Khalil, branch director of the Palestinian NGO Damor for Community Development in the Gaza Strip . that helped bring two of the water producers to the area.
A Palestinian girl fills a container with water from a public tap in the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza [Mohammed Salem/Reuters]The main source of water in the Gaza Strip is an aquifer, but the World Bank warned last year that 97 percent of groundwater is undrinkable. The overuse of the aquifer has allowed seawater, which over the years has been largely, partially or not at all treated with wastewater, to penetrate into the groundwater and increase both salinity and contamination.
The wealthy few residents depend on imported mineral water, and the dwindling middle class has water purifiers in their kitchens. With half the population, a million people, living below the poverty line, the only solution is to buy water all day from trucks that travel the Gaza Strip. However, according to the United Nations Children's Agency, UNICEF, two-thirds of this water is already contaminated upon delivery.
Gaza requires more than 200 million cubic meters of water annually. Experts see the best solution in desalination of seawater. Three desalination plants funded by the international community, including the United Nations and the European Union, produce around 13 million cubic meters of water annually. The most ambitious project is the construction of a central desalination plant with a capacity of 55 million cubic meters in the coming year.
The acute power shortage that has shaped life in Gaza for the past 14 years has been an enormous hurdle to solving the water crisis. A solar power plant must be built for every desalination plant.
However, Watergen generators can be powered either by electricity from local grids or by solar energy.
The high-tech devices suck in air and clean it before it is fed into a condensation chamber, in which the steam is processed into drinking water. The water is dispensed from the machine via a tap and can be cold or hot.
The units – each costing about $ 61,000 – were shipped to Gaza by Watergen after successfully convincing the Israeli authorities to let them pass. Two models have a capacity of 800 liters of pure water per day, and a larger model can produce 5,000 to 6,000 liters per day.
The largest water generator is being tested in the city of Khan Yunis and is connected to solar panels “to reduce dependence on electricity and thereby cut costs,” said Sheikh-Khalil.
The Khan Yunis community placed the cube-shaped blue box in front of their building and served visitors to a nearby park, clinic and police station. The machine is “a promising technology and has a future because the machine will give you water from nowhere,” said Mahmoud al-Qudra, a city hall official.
Unfortunately, the small solar panels can only run the devices for five hours a day.
Another unit was set up on the roof of a children's hospital in Gaza City last summer and donated to the children's cancer ward by the American charity Palestine Children's Relief Fund.
Dr. Muhammad Abu Nada, head of the oncology department at Al-Rantisi Hospital, said his patients needed clean water, “with sodium that is beneficial for the body.” However, the machine does not run all the time because it depends on an unreliable power supply.
Most households get eight hours a day of electricity, with lengthy cutbacks as the only power station on the territory and the electricity purchased directly from Israel do not meet the needs of the rapidly growing population.
The blockade, the split between the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and repeated conflicts with Israel are hampering efforts to improve the power capacity in Gaza.
Watergen's technology in Gaza is therefore continuously evaluated for efficiency, cost, performance and feasibility.
“In the testing phase, we will have extensive knowledge of the feasibility and cost of using devices in Gaza,” said Sheikh-Khalil. “We won't be able to operate the machine all day.”
Mirilashvili said he was determined to give Gaza more machines because he was “deeply touched” by people who drank clean water from his company's machines.
“This goal [providing potable water] affects the whole world, but we feel it especially with regard to the Gaza Strip, as the people there are our neighbors, ”he said.
With only a few machines in Gaza, Watergen is far from meeting the demand for the two million people living in the crowded coastal enclave [Emmanuel Dunand/AFP]