Meet the Palestinian engineer who may have solved Gaza’s water crisis
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Each year, Gaza’s population uses 180 million cubic metres of water but only has capacity for 60 million cubic metres of water usage per year. Running out of water is a constant fear for Gazans.
And if UN projections are correct, Gazans will only be using more in the future: the international organisation has estimated that five years from now, Gazans will be using 260 million cubic metres of water a year as their population swells by an extra 500,000. This fast-approaching crisis pushed one Gazan engineer to experiment with nanotechnology to find a long-term, sustainable solution to Gaza’s water shortage.
“The lack of water has us all worried”To understand the context of the crisis, we first spoke to our Observer Majdi Fathi, a photographer who lives in Gaza. He described the daily struggles of living in a place with a shortage of potable water.
The water that comes out of the taps in Gaza is too salty to drink. We only use it for washing. We have to buy bottled water to drink. Each family goes to water vendors. [Editor’s note : Often, families buy water from private companies who run desalination plants with little regulation. Though the water quality is often criticised, it’s still very expensive]. People frequently pay about $2 for 500 litres of water. There are ten people in my family and we can live on 500 litres for about 25 days. Though the authorities give some free water to the very poorest, it’s not enough.
We are all worried about the water shortage. Often, the taps run dry and we end up having to use the drinking water that we purchased for cleaning. Buying water from vendors is not a long-term, sustainable solution!
“I’d like to build a small version of my filtration system that could be fitted into each family’s home”Abou Assi, 29, is an engineer in Gaza. He believes that the only solution to the water shortage is to desalinate sea water. He thinks he has figured out how to produce high-quality drinking water without expending too much energy by using a machine that employs nanotechnology.
The water table, which is the main source of drinking water in Gaza, is being over-exploited and is also polluted by both nitrates used in agriculture and by sea water. Gaza’s groundwater could run out as soon as next year, according to the United Nations.
While I was working on my masters in engineering at the Islamic University in Gaza, I started looking for a radical solution to the problem. Seeing as Gaza is located on the shores of the Mediterranean, I started considering a filtration system that could desalinate sea water.
There are seven different desalination plants in Gaza. They each produce between 45 and 80 cubic metres of water an hour. The problem is that all of these factories use the reverse osmosis procedure [Editor’s note: This is a water purification system that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove larger particles, including salt molecules, from water molecules].
Even though the method is ingenious, it requires a lot of energy. This is a problem in Gaza, because we also have a major energy shortage. Our power plant, which provides Gaza with about a third of its energy, regularly stops working due to fuel shortages.
Abou Assi and his team at the Islamic University in Gaza. Source.
I wanted to find a way to desalinate water using less energy, so I turned to nanotechnology. Because it operates on a tiny, molecular scale, nanotechnology can be used to filter both bacteria and salt from drinking water.
My team and I conducted 170 experiments in 14 months before we managed to create a machine that reduced the salinity of the seawater enough to make it drinkable.
The machine is very simple: it pumps sea water very quickly through iron pipes. The water passes through electrical boxes that push the water through membranes made from nanomaterials. The membranes have tiny, microscopic pores that block the sodium chloride (salt) molecules but allow the water molecules to go through. After the water is filtered, the useful minerals are re-injected. After all this, the water that comes out of the taps is clean enough to drink!
With this machine, it’s possible to treat one cubic metre of water per day, using 60% less energy than with the old system. The water meets the quality standards of the World Health Organisation, which puts limits on a number of substances, including chlorine, limestone, lead, nitrates, pesticides and bacteria. For now, some so-called "drinkable" water in Gaza has nitrate levels that can reach up to 220 mg per litre even though the WHO recommends a limit of 50 mg per litre. Poorly treated drinking water can cause many health problems, especially for children. [Editor’s note: The WHO recently noted an increase in cases of children with diarrhea in Gaza].
Thanks to a grant from the Middle East Desalination Research Center in Oman and the support of the Islamic University in Gaza, I was able to obtain partial funding for the development of this technology, but not enough. I went 7,000 euros into debt to finish my research.
In order to transition from the prototype to a practical application, I need more financial support. I would like to create a model of a smaller version that could be put into people’s homes in Gaza. In order to develop this, all I need is about $20,000.
That said, in order to really resolve the drinking water crisis across Gaza, we would need to build a desalination plant that uses this technique. That would be expensive — about $300,000 million – and there would always be the fear that the plant would be bombed, like with the power plant.
We have attempted to discuss our ideas with officials in both Gaza and Ramallah but, for the time being, we have received no response. We hope for support both from Palestinian institutions and from the international community.
Post written with France 24 journalist Dorothée Myriam KELLOU.