Nov. 5, 2003 Beneath the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip is a groundwater crisis that's rapidly depriving Palestinians of drinkable water. Israeli, Palestinian, and French geoscientists have worked out a way to save Gaza drinking water while offering Israelis and Palestinians a rare opportunity to work together and solve a problem for their mutual benefit.
The Mediterranean Coastal Aquifer is shared by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It's quickly becoming contaminated with salts, nitrates, and boron, with many wells already exceeding international health standards, explains geochemist Avner Vengosh of Ben Gurion University in Beer Sheva, Israel (until Feb. 2004 Vengosh is on sabbatical at Stanford University in California). Vengosh will present both the source of the groundwater problem and a possible solution on Monday, November 3, at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Seattle, WA.
In a joint Israeli, Palestinian, and French/EU study of the geochemistry of the area, Vengosh and his colleagues -- Erika Wienthal of Tel Aviv University, Amer Marie of Al-Qud University and Alexis Gutierrez and Wolfram Kloppmann of BRGM, France -- have discovered that over pumping of groundwater by the Gaza Strip's 1.3 million people has caused the groundwater level to drop. This has created a slope in the groundwater table, allowing the naturally saline groundwater from Israel to flow steadily westward and spoil the aquifer under the Gaza Strip.
As if that wasn't enough bad news, the booming population growth of the Gaza Strip is bound to make matters worse. By 2010 the 40-kilometer by 15-kilometer Gaza Strip is expected to house 2.6 million people, says Vengosh, taking the water situation from bad to dire.
"The problem is not lack of water, but water quality," said Vengosh. "We see it as a potential time bomb."
To head off even more troubling times, Vengosh has worked with his Israeli, Palestinian, and French colleagues to see what can be done. "We were able to work with Palestinians, which is quite rare," he pointed out, regarding the work that's already been accomplished.
The multilateral team developed a plan based on numerical groundwater modeling that could stop the flow of saline water from Israel and defuse the "time bomb." The modeling indicates that the drilling of several large wells on the eastern boundary of the Gaza Strip would tap the saline Israeli water that is moving into the Gaza Strip and slow its progress into the freshwater supply. That would go a long way toward preserving what's left of the potable water under the Gaza Strip. What's more, the saline water from the same boundary wells could be desalinated and used in Palestine to help offset the growing demand for water there.
"They are already talking about desalination on the coast," said Vengosh. By investing the same money for such a desalination facility along the Israel-Gaza Strip boundary instead, not only could useable water be produced, but also an aquifer could be saved, he says. "From the Israeli point of view they would not lose anything," Vengosh says, since the Israeli groundwater that would be pumped is now too salty to be of use to anyone.
Another potential benefit of the boundary well proposal is that it could set a political precedent. "It could enhance cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians," said Vengosh. "Most of the time when we talk about water problems it's a mechanism for enhancing conflicts. But on the Gaza Strip no one is going to lose. So it's a mechanism for cooperation."
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