Baker Mousa stands in a narrow street looking for customers to make purchases from a small grocery store he runs out of a front room in his home in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood of the Gaza Strip. The fifty two-year-old Palestinian converted his living room into the shop five years ago to provide for himself and his nine children. These days most of his customers are neighborhood kids who buy candy. The sales are usually enough to cover the cost of food, however, for the last few days all of the profit went towards buying water as an electricity crisis abruptly cut off supply across the Gaza Strip.
“We have heard and seen the dangers of this pandemic but sitting at home is another threat of death. We could starve,” Mousa said. “Days ago I had to knock on my neighbor’s door to get some water.”
At the same time, Gaza underwent it’s first broad lockdown with businesses, schools and houses of worship closed after health officials learned for the first time the coronavirus was no longer contained inside of government-run isolation centers, leaving many Palestinians caught between parallel crises. Curfews were ordered across the Strip last week and extended in 19 hot spots this week. Palestinians are sheltering in place at their homes amid high temperatures on just four hours of electricity a day, and without running water.
More than 200 have tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-March. While that number is low, Gaza’s is grappling with a collapsing healthcare systems and few testing kits are available. Up until last week, the only known cases of the coronavirus were found inside of government-run isolation centers or at medical checkpoints at the borders. As of the time of publication almost 600 have tested positive in Gaza, up nearly 500 in a week.
At night Shujaiyeh’s paved roads and sandy alleyways are dark, with the exception of a few glares from homes with generators. Nestled east of Gaza City, more than 100,000 people live on roughly four square miles. In the afternoons there is little movement on the streets with the exception of some in search of basic necessities.
Mousa has walked a few times to a local mosque that allows the community to fill jugs from a well on their property. Ten days ago he discovered his water was shut off when he went to use the tap and it was dry. At first he called the municipality who informed him they would file a complaint. Within days, news had emerged that recent cross-fire between Israel and Hamas escalated to Israel suspending fuel transfers. On August 19 Gaza’s only power plant had shut down. With no electricity, the water service stopped soon after.
On August 26 the Gaza City municipality said in a statement the current electrical crisis caused water distribution to plummet to a quarter of the city’s needs. The statement said the municipality “owns 76 water wells inside and outside of Gaza City, all of which operate with an electric current, and the shortage of electricity is now compensated for by operating backup generators.”
On Monday Israel and Hamas reached an deal to quell the tensions with Hamas agreeing to stop sending incendiary devices and rockets into Israel and Israel agreed to cease nearly two weeks of nightly airstrikes and allow an injection of cash for fuel from Qatar. Despite the tentative detente as of Thursday Gaza was only meeting around three-fifths of its water demand as power shortages remain.
Gaza’s first lockdown
The shortages occurred just as Palestinians went into their first lockdown since the pandemic began, leaving many in a double crisis.
“From the first day of the curfew I knew that hard days will come,” said Shatha Abdelsalam, 48, who tried to prepare food and water shortages before going into lockdown last week. “I started collecting wood, cartons, old clothes and anything that I could use to make fire,” she said. “I know the coming days will be tough and I may use these things to cook.”
To cover the needs of her seven children, she has a massive 2,000 liter tank in her home that can store water, but was not able to fill it before the water was cut.
“We sacrificed an important part of our money to guarantee water for at least a week, but after finishing it we will have no options left if we cannot get tap water.”
At another home in Shujaiyeh, Majeda al-Zaalan, 49, sits at her kitchen table with her three teenage sons and organizes their resources for the day. She divides a single serving of bread and cheese for the four to share. Next she organizes water, giving each three liters per day for personal use. She did laundry for the household once in the last week and everyone was rationed to one shower.
“In such times, water is the most valuable thing and it must be in every home, but unfortunately we don’t even have it normally,” she said.
“The family used to live off of a small income from my eldest son Ahmed who sold little bottles of perfume in a main street. But since Monday none of us have walked out the door,” al-Zaalan continued. Now her sole source of income comes from a grant from the British charity Oxfam International who provides her with a modest $35 each month.
“I only have my family and have no intention to lose any of them,” she continued.
Water cuts in Gaza function similar to rolling blackouts; there is no schedule when water will turn back on and Palestinians have taken to checking their faucets around the clock.
“I believe we have reached the worst condition of any place in the entire world, and still in the coming days, I believe it will get worse,” she said.