The Gaza Strip, a densely populated coastal enclave, faces a severe and worsening water crisis. Over the past five months, Gaza has been devastated by Israel’s unrelenting military campaign. With the death toll now above 31,000 and a catastrophic humanitarian crisis plaguing the strip, one of the most urgent challenges facing its residents is access to water. The 2.2 million Palestinians living in Gaza are rationing 1-3 liters a day for all water uses and are often resorting to drinking water from the sea or other unsafe sources. Dehydration, flu, and skin diseases from lack of safe and sufficient water supply are widespread.

This water crisis, though devastatingly more severe, is not new to Gaza. Water insecurity has had a significant impact on human security, public health, economic development, and climate resilience for decades. This latest, acute water crisis is exacerbated by the underlying challenges facing Gaza’s water sector. Unravelling the layers of this complex issue requires understanding the critical barriers to clean water access and the devastating consequences of both prolonged and acute water insecurity.

Water insecurity is a long-time reality in Gaza

Gaza faces the fundamental challenge of poor natural water availability. Saltwater intrusion, as a result of over-extraction, and contamination from wastewater have rendered 97% of the Coastal Aquifer, its only natural source of water, unfit for human consumption. Gaza supplements groundwater supply by purchasing most of its potable water from Israel and developing desalination plants. However, Israeli restrictions on the entry of materials for water infrastructure development have compounded Gaza’s insufficient water availability. The Israeli military imposes bureaucratic measures that can delay or entirely halt the import of essential supplies, like pipelines, and construction equipment. This poses a significant challenge to the construction and maintenance of water infrastructure, including desalination plants, impacting Gaza’s ability to deliver essential services.

Contractors struggle with financial and administrative burdens due to delays, and donor fatigue sets in as project deadlines are repeatedly missed. Even the desalination facilities that do produce small quantities of safe drinking water are often unable to operate at full capacity due to fuel and electricity shortages and cutoffs, which are also imposed by the Israeli military. These factors combined impede progress toward achieving stable and sustainable water security in Gaza and fuel the cycle of dependence on Israeli-supplied water, reinforcing external control over a critical resource.

Prior to today’s ongoing war, Gazans only received one-fifth of the safe drinking water recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), with an average of just 21 liters of safe water per day compared to the recommended 100 liters. This stark disparity left Gaza with less than 10% of the water enjoyed by Israeli citizens, who average approximately 280 liters daily.

The prolonged water crisis in Gaza has had dire consequences for human security. Limited water availability forces households to prioritize essential needs like drinking and cooking, often at the expense of sanitation, bathing, and laundry. This can directly impact health, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases and skin infections. Gazans are forced to rely on private, unregulated water vendors, which has historically raised concerns about contamination and affordability. Residents spend significant resources on alternative water sources or dealing with health-related costs, often leaving their municipal water bills unpaid due to its poor quality, increasing the financial strain on the sector.

Moreover, the lack of clean water hampers economic development. Agriculture, a foundation of Gaza’s culture and economy, suffers due to water scarcity. This fuels unemployment and further strains the already fragile economy, creating a vicious cycle of poverty and water insecurity. Further, the shrinking physical space for agricultural development in Gaza, from both periodic Israeli military campaigns and other land development restrictions, not only impacts livelihoods and hampers agricultural development, but also accelerates desertification, heightening Gaza’s vulnerability to climate change.

Climate change adds another layer of complexity. In a reality where, for example, water authorities are unable to cover even their most essential costs or develop the infrastructure to supply the population’s most basic needs, it is near impossible to make it climate resilient. With changing rainfall patterns threatening future water availability, chronic water insecurity undermines the ability to invest in climate-resilient solutions and creates a precarious situation where a population already struggling with basic water needs becomes increasingly vulnerable to climate shocks.

Today’s catastrophic water crisis

A great shock has hit Gaza, but it is not a climate-related one. In response to Hamas’ brutal attack on Israeli communities on Oct. 7, Israel launched an all-out military offensive and declared a “total” siege of the Gaza Strip, including an immediate cutoff of water and electricity supplies from Israel to Gaza. “No electricity, no water, just damage,” stated Israel’s Coordinator of the Government Activities in the Territories, with similar sentiments echoed by ministers and government officials. Since this “total” siege was declared, controlling and severely restricting water, electricity, and fuel supplies has been a central tactic in Israel’s military campaign.

Today, only one of the three water connections from Israel to Gaza is operational, and it is only operating at 47% capacity. Water facilities, including 60+ municipal wells and Gaza’s three desalination facilities, have all experienced full or partial shutdowns — with only 17% of groundwater wells operating. Currently, two of the desalination facilities are running; however, they can only generate water at 25% capacity due to fuel shortages. Over half of Gaza’s water and wastewater infrastructure has reportedly been damaged by airstrikes, and there is no clean water access in northern Gaza. Even when facilities are operating, albeit far below capacity, networks and pumping stations have been destroyed across the strip. Tankers are thus being used to deliver water to residents, placing service providers at great risk. Staff members of Gaza’s largest water utility, the Coastal Municipality Water Utility, have been killed in airstrikes while providing these services.

Management and oversight of the sector is near impossible. Communication blackouts prevent utilities from evaluating facility operations or well productivity. Further, all three of Gaza’s centralized wastewater treatment plants — the construction of which was only completed in the last few years — have been damaged in airstrikes. The extent of the damage can only be seen with satellite imagery, since staff cannot reach the sites. The only functioning wastewater treatment plant in Gaza, a small facility in Rafah long in need of rehabilitation, is currently overloaded; staff is diverting partially treated sewage to the Mediterranean Sea. With large portions of the wastewater network destroyed across the strip, sewage is flooding the streets.

The long-term environmental impacts of this devastation are difficult to fully assess amid the ongoing violence; however, early analyses have indicated that the largest environmental and climate impacts of this war are the immense emissions from Israel’s aerial strikes and ground invasion of Gaza.

Amid the bombardments, residents are becoming increasingly reliant on water supply from unsafe sources to survive, with average water consumption currently estimated between 1.5 and 3 liters per person per day. Humanitarian organizations have declared that 15 liters of water is the minimum amount needed in emergency conditions, which includes water for drinking, cooking, and hygiene, while 3 liters is the bare minimum for survival. These quantities are devastatingly low, leading to a high prevalence of dehydration and skin infections, while concerns about other water-borne diseases such as cholera are particularly heightened. As of March 12, 27 people have died in Gaza due to dehydration and malnutrition. As an emergency measure, a small desalination plant has been installed on the Egyptian side of the Rafah crossing, delivering emergency supplies to the population in Rafah. However, the number of trucks delivering water and other essential humanitarian aid is far below demand and they have frequently been prohibited from entering Gaza by Israeli authorities and by Israeli demonstrators.

Moving forward: Humanitarian response and long-term water security

The water crisis in Gaza today is catastrophic, and its severity is exacerbated by the long-standing challenges to water security in the strip. With limited natural resources and insufficient desalination capacities due to barriers to construction and development, Gaza has had very little ability to supply water amid the war. Israel’s unilateral decision to shut off water supply therefore had a devastating impact, due to Gaza’s overreliance on this safe drinking source. Further, the very same barriers to building Gaza’s water security, such as the Israel’s restrictions on material entry for construction, are also preventing the entry of humanitarian relief and water aid. In order for Gaza to build water security, these barriers — which are rooted in Israel’s systemic and deliberate policies to restrict water access — must be fundamentally changed.

First and foremost, the international community must undertake the essential political advocacy to advance a cease-fire and long-term political solution. Most immediately, the following interventions — identified by the WASH and Health Humanitarian Clusters for Gaza  — are critical to addressing this dire water crisis:

  • Humanitarian aid, including water, must be provided at scale across Gaza in a safe, unimpeded manner.

  • The entry of emergency fuel supplies into Gaza is also essential for increasing the operations of water desalination and wastewater facilities in the strip.

  • Ensuring the free movement of WASH technical staff and water service providers into and within Gaza is critical for effective and accessible aid delivery.  

  • The operational water pipeline from the Israeli water company, Mekorot, should return to full supply capacity. Technical staff should be granted access to the remaining two, non-operational pipelines to conduct damage assessments for repair.

  • Emergency funding for humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies operating in Gaza is essential to enable the scale-up, sustainability, and protection of this critical work.

Beyond immediate needs, long-term water security requires a substantial overhaul of the barriers imposed on Gaza’s water sector. This necessitates lifting restrictions on material entry so that the water sector can develop and maintain its own infrastructure. Constructing desalination plants to generate alternative supplies can reduce Gaza’s dependence on Israeli water sources. Bolstering desalination capacities will also allow water service providers to ease groundwater abstractions and rehabilitate the Coastal Aquifer, which is vital for long-term resilience. International political and financial support plays a critical role in this — funding for infrastructure development will be essential, especially once the Gaza Strip can transition to a period of reconstruction. These investments also provide an opportunity to support the water sector in prioritizing climate-resilient approaches to infrastructure and supply programs; the sector’s latest developments in technology and best practice should be mobilized to support these programs.

While the ongoing conflict has exacerbated the situation significantly, Gazans face long-standing challenges in their struggle for our most basic necessity. Addressing this water catastrophe thus requires a multi-pronged approach — one that provides both the urgent humanitarian relief and addresses the root cause of Gaza’s prolonged water insecurity. A cease-fire and immediate entry of sufficient humanitarian aid is essential now, while sustainable long-term solutions require a broader vision. A permanent and lasting political solution is paramount and should work toward enabling the occupied Palestinian Territories to develop full self-determination, including entirely rebuilding Gaza’s water and wastewater systems and fostering self-reliance over this fundamental resource.


Natasha Westheimer is a water governance analyst and practitioner based in Jerusalem. She focuses on the intersection of climate change, human rights, and regional security.

Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

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