Gaza 2020: A Looming, Avoidable Catastrophe

By 2020 the population of the tiny Gaza Strip will grow by half a million people: 500,000 more to be fed, housed, educated, and employed. Let us address the root causes of this looming disaster rather than expecting the international community to foot the bill to mitigate their disastrous consequences.

The international system is often accused of failing to give adequate early warning; of being myopic and failing to furnish the appropriate powers with data and analysis that would allow an effective and timely response to predictable disasters.

With the recent publication of the report, “Gaza in 2020: a liveable place?”, it would be hard to level these accusations at the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory. The report is a trend analysis based on data from authoritative sources, such as the UN’s Specialized Agencies, the World Bank and the IMF, which sets out where Gaza will be in less than eight years time. This is early warning writ large.

By 2020 the population of the tiny Gaza Strip will grow by half a million people: 500,000 more to be fed, housed, educated, and employed. More than half of the population will be under the age of 18, with one of the highest youth populations as a proportion anywhere in the world.

The lack of safe drinking water is the most urgent concern in Gaza today and it will only get worse in the years to come. Currently, Gazans on average use up to 90 liters of water per person per day, less than the 100 liters recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). Ninety percent of the water from the coastal aquifer, by far the main water source in Gaza, is not safe for drinking without further treatment. Three times as much water is currently extracted from the aquifer as is recharged from rainfall every year. This situation is not sustainable. By 2016, the aquifer may become unusable, and damage to it may be irreversible by 2020 without remedial action now. Already, people have to drill deeper and deeper to reach groundwater. The UN Environment Programme recommends resting the aquifer immediately, as it would otherwise take centuries for it to recover. At the same time, demand for water is projected to grow to 260 million cubic meters per year in 2020, 60% more than is currently extracted from the aquifer.

Only one quarter of sewage is currently treated. The remaining three quarters are dumped into the Mediterranean Sea—some 90,000 cubic meters per day or 33 million cubic meters per year. Based on population growth, the amount of sewage and waste water that is generated per year could increase from 44 million cubic meters today to 57 million cubic meters in 2020. To respond to this, current wastewater treatment plants need to be expanded and improved, and new ones need to be built.

These predictions have profound implications for all humanitarian and development organizations in Gaza, particular the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which works with Gaza’s refugee communities. Some 70% of the Gazan population are refugees, with UNRWA’s current caseload of over 1.2 million, expected to rise to some 1.5 million by 2020. This 30% increase in refugees will require massive investment to maintain current levels of service.

Take health: in 2011 there were over 4.4 million patient visits to UNRWA health centers. That is expected to rise to over 5.7 million annual visits at current rates. UNRWA’s 21 health centers currently have an average catchment of approximately 57,000 registered refugees; without new clinics that would rise to over 74,000 by 2020. To bring UNRWA closer to WHO standards, the Agency currently needs an additional 90 doctors and 95 nurses. Solely to maintain current service levels by 2020, UNRWA would need to add five new health centers, 220 doctors and over 300 other health professionals, and that is without improving the present level of service which stands at the unbelievable level of over 100 patient visits per doctor per day.

In the education sector, there are currently 226,000 students in UNRWA schools. That figure is set to rise to some 275,000 by 2020.  Currently UNRWA has 247 schools in 130 buildings, with 93% double shifting—in other words the same building with two separate shifts of students and teachers each day. To get to single shifting schools UNRWA requires 117 additional school buildings immediately and an additional 53 by 2020. Solely to maintain our current student teacher ratio we would need over 2,000 teachers and support staff.
On social protection UNRWA currently distributes food to over 900,000 refugees, after which some 44% remain food insecure because of a lack of jobs. Without improvements in the economy that can only come about with the lifting of the blockade that figure will rise to over 1 million. An additional 350,000 refugees by 2020 means some 20,000 new shelters will be required.

Our prescription to avert this looming but avoidable catastrophe is simple. While the UN has condemned the rockets many times, we continue to demand a lifting of the blockade, which is costing the international community hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Allow the people of Gaza to enjoy the standards of development and economic prosperity for which they yearn. They are capable of self-sufficiency. They do not want the current levels of 80 per cent aid dependency to continue and neither do the world’s taxpayers who fund the international aid agencies’ budgets. Let us address the root causes of this looming disaster rather than expecting the international community to foot the bill to mitigate their disastrous consequences.

Robert Turner is the Gaza Director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees.

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