Gaza City – For seven days now, when Khalil Hassan turns on the tap, he finds no water. He must now go back and forth between his home and an open vegetable stand in Zeitoun district, where he collects water from a truck with a water tank.
“I have 30 people living at home, and not a drop of water for almost a week,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.
Sometimes, he transports water in buckets and canisters from a nearby mosque that still has a functioning private well. If the mosque is closed, he has to travel to another neighbourhood in search of water.
The 10-day Israeli assault on Gaza has had a heavy toll on the strip’s already fragile water infrastructure, leaving the territory’s 1.8 million residents facing an imminent water crisis.
According to International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), hundreds of thousands of people are now without running water, and within days, the entire Gaza population “will desperately run short of water resources”.
“Water and electrical services are also affected as a result of the current hostilities. If they do not stop, the question is not if but when an already beleaguered population will face an acute water crisis,” said Jacques de Maio, head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories.
The five-hour UN-supervised truce which began on Thursday morning is not likely to allow time for workers to fix some of the damaged water pipelines.
Nearly 70,000 Palestinians live in al-Shati refugee camp, and 35 percent of the camp population is either under the age of six months or pregnant women, according to Sara Badiei, ICRC’s head of engineering in Gaza.
The camp’s residents have been cut off from running water for a week, and have been forced to draw water from local wells. Water wells are 25 percent higher in salt concentration than the levels set by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Before the latest Israeli onslaught, households in Gaza received running water for only six to eight hours at a time: 25 percent of households had access on a daily basis, 40 percent every other day, 20 percent once every three days, and the remaining 15 percent only one day out of four.
These people put their lives at risk to go and fix the pipelines without any coordination. In my mind they are great heroes, they really made a huge difference.
On the day the water was supposed to be delivered to the camp, al-Shati’s pipeline was hit by an Israeli airstrike. It took another three days for the Red Cross to coordinate with the Israeli army to ensure that the army would not strike the municipal workers struggling to fix the pipes.
“We hope that with the presence of ICRC, workers can go to highly sensitive areas to do their work and make sure that the infrastructure will serve the population,” Christian Cardon, the head of ICRC’s Gaza office, told Al Jazeera.
Two municipal workers were killed on Friday while trying to fix a damaged water infrastructure. A third worker died from wounds sustained two days earlier in an Israeli airstrike. As a result, Gaza’s water provider, the Coastal Municipalities Water Utility (CMWU) decided not to send their employees to the field without ICRC accompanying them.
“It’s the number one problem that I see – people getting killed while on duty and travelling in clearly labelled cars with municipality logo,” said Badiei.
CMWU also stopped all their routine operations, like closing and opening valves. Consequently, some neighbourhoods, like al-Shati camp, which is already receiving water once every fours days, will not get it.
Sewage and wastewater treatment systems in Gaza are also deficient. There are five sewage treatment plants in the Gaza Strip, three of which had already been damaged by the bombings. The biggest wastewater treatment plant in Gaza was hit by an Israeli airstrike at 3am on Tuesday. A team of workers went to fix it despite the risks.
“These people put their lives at risk to go and fix the pipelines independently. In my mind they are great heroes, they really made a huge difference,” Badiei added.
In Beit Lahiya, in northern Gaza, another sewage treatment plant was damaged in the bombings, both on the inlet and outlet side of the plant, the pipes are leaking raw sewage and partially-treated water into the surrounding area.
“The problem is that in the same vicinity there are regular water pipelines that are also damaged, so as a result there is a giant pool of sewage mixing with regular water and then feeding into regular pipelines that are going into people’s homes,” explained Badiei.
The water and sewage situation in Gaza was worsening even before the Israeli offensive. Destruction of infrastructure in previous Israeli attacks, especially in 2008-2009 Israeli offensive, known as Operation Cast Lead. The Egyptian-Israeli blockade has also caused fuel shortages and restrictions on importing necessary materials to Gaza.
An estimated 90 percent of water in Gaza is unfit for drinking or cooking, forcing most people to buy water instead.
Back in Zeitoun district, the Badawi family is one of the few families that stayed behind despite the threat of bombing. The house of 65-year-old Mariam Badawi is now shelter to around 100 people, most of them children and relatives whose houses have been destroyed by the Israeli airstrikes.They, too, have not had running water for a week now when a nearby well was bombed in an airstrike last Wednesday.
“I wanted to pray, and I couldn’t even wash my hands. The children don’t shower, we don’t do laundry. We buy water from private companies, and it is barely enough for cooking,” Mariam told Al Jazeera.
The family cannot afford to buy enough water to cover all their needs.
As vegetable stand owners were about to close their shops and return to overcrowded UNRWA schools, Khalil Hassan stood by, hopelessly looking for a source of water. The water truck had already left to deliver water to families living nearby.
“I don’t know what to do any more. I can’t call a water-tank delivery, because no one wants to drive to Zeitoun.”