Gaza City – Water in the Gaza Strip is mostly undrinkable and laden with health risks.
Large-scale desalination plants, funded by international donors and private companies struggling to alleviate the crisis, are in full swing in the besieged Palestinian enclave. But a new high-tech effort comes from an unlikely source: an Israel-based company.
Israel’s crippling 14-year blockade has exacerbated the water catastrophe facing the people of Gaza, with key materials and equipment needed to produce drinking water retained from the coastal enclave.
A Russian-Israeli billionaire – shocked by images of children filling plastic containers from a street vendor – has decided to take action.
Billionaire businessman Michael Mirilashvili owns a company called Watergen, which produces clean drinking water from the air using solar technology.
The Israeli company in Mirilashvili 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 to have access to the best quality drinking water,” he said.
The project is far from being able to meet the water demand of Gaza’s two million inhabitants, but “it can help solve the water problem in the long term,” said Fathi Sheikh-Khalil, director from the Gaza branch of the Palestinian NGO Damor for Community Development, which helped bring two of the water generators to the territory.
Gaza’s main source of water is an aquifer, but the World Bank warned last year that 97% of groundwater was undrinkable. Overuse of the aquifer has allowed seawater, which was heavily polluted by treated wastewater partially or not at all over the years, to seep into the groundwater, increasing salinity levels and contamination.
The few well-off residents depend on imported bottled water, and the declining middle class has water purifiers in their kitchens. But with half the population, a million people, living below the poverty line, the only solution left is to buy water from trucks that run through the Gaza Strip all day. However, two-thirds of this water is already contaminated when it is delivered, according to UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency.
Gaza needs more than 200 million cubic meters of water per year. Experts consider seawater desalination to be the most viable solution. Three desalination plants funded by the international community, including the UN and the European Union, produce around 13 million cubic meters of water per year. The most ambitious project is to build a central desalination plant with a capacity of 55 million cubic meters in the coming year.
The acute electricity shortages that have characterized life in Gaza for the past 14 years have been a huge obstacle to solving the water crisis. For each desalination plant, a solar farm must be built.
But Watergen generators can run on electricity from local grids or on solar power.
High-tech devices suck the air and purify it before sending it to a condensation chamber where the steam is transformed into drinking water. Water is distributed from the machine through a tap with the possibility of cooling or heating it.
The units – each costing around $ 61,000 – were delivered to Gaza by Watergen after successfully convincing the Israeli authorities to let them pass. Two models have the capacity to produce 800 liters of pure water per day, and a larger installed one 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 hooked up to solar panels “to reduce dependence on electricity and thereby reduce costs,” Sheikh-Khalil said.
Khan Yunis Municipality has placed the cube-shaped blue box outside its building, serving visitors to a nearby park, clinic and police station. The machine is “a promising technology and has a future because the device gives you water out of thin air,” said Mahmoud al-Qudra, an official at the town hall.
Unfortunately, small solar panels can only keep devices running for five hours a day.
Last summer, another unit was installed on the roof of a pediatric hospital in Gaza City, donated by the US charity Palestine Children’s Relief Fund for the pediatric cancer ward.
Dr Muhammad Abu Nada, head of oncology at Al-Rantisi Hospital, said his patients needed clean water “with sodium that is beneficial to the body.” However, the machine does not run constantly because it depends on an unreliable power supply.
Most households receive electricity eight hours a day, with long outages as the territory’s only power plant and electricity purchased directly from Israel fail to meet the demand of the rapidly growing population.
The blockade, the split between Gaza ruled by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and repeated conflicts with Israel hamper efforts to improve Gaza’s electricity capacity.
Watergen’s technology in Gaza, therefore, is constantly evaluated in terms of efficiency, cost, energy and feasibility.
“During the trial period, we will have full knowledge of the feasibility and cost of using the devices in Gaza,” Sheikh-Khalil said. “We won’t be able to run the machine all day.”
Mirilashvili said he was determined to deliver more machines to Gaza because seeing people drinking clean water from his company’s machines “touched him deeply.”
“This goal [providing potable water] concerns the whole world, but we feel it particularly with regard to the Gaza Strip since the residents there are our neighbors, ”he said.