In Gaza, delivering safe water is filled with danger. “I’ve heard the sound of explosions while driving from one shelter to another. I feared that the next bomb would fall where I was working,” says Mahmoud Hneif, who has been driving trucks filled with clean drinking water for thousands of families who have fled their homes.
The bombing of the past six weeks has caused massive damage to Gaza’s water supplies. Hundreds of thousands of people are still without running water, as wells and pipelines have been destroyed. The bombing of Gaza’s only power plant means most areas now get just a few hours of electricity a day, making it hard to keep water pumps operating.
Since the start of the crisis Oxfam and local partner the Youth Empowerment Centre (YEC) have delivered safe drinking water to more than 250,000 people who have taken refuge in overcrowded schools and other shelters across Gaza.
Mahmoud’s family runs a desalination centre where the water is treated to make it safe to drink, before it is put into trucks and delivered to people in need. Sometimes there is only electricity to desalinate the water at night, so Mahmoud sleeps at the centre. Due to the huge demands at the moment he’s also been getting up at 6am to drive one of the trucks.
“When the people see the water truck entering the school, they all gather with empty water bottles,” he says. “In the early days of the crisis, some people were so desperate they even filled their bottles when a few drops of water fell from the truck. It’s a scene I’ll never forget.”
Delivering water and other aid has been a dangerous job throughout the crisis. Three staff from the local municipal water agency were killed while trying to repair damaged pipelines. “The insecurity has been one of the biggest challenges,” says Mahmoud. But people’s desperate need for water made him keep working despite the dangers.
“When we arrived at the school the situation was horrible,” says Salwa,* who fled her home and brought her family to one of the school shelters where Mahmoud delivers water. “After a few days, trucks started to come and fill the water tanks in the school. It was like finding water in the desert. What we really need is to be able to go back to our homes and be safe, but having clean water at least stops us getting sick.”
It’s usually late in the evening when Mahmoud returns to the centre, and to see his own family – who also had to flee their home due to the bombing. After a few hours he starts work again.
With the needs so huge, everyone in Gaza has been helping out however they can. Mahmoud says his neighbours often come to the desalination centre to help treat the water. Sometimes urgent needs emerge even before he can reach the shelters. “Two weeks ago, I came across the fire brigade trying to put out a huge fire in a house that was targeted by an airstrike. They stopped me, asking to fill their tank with water. I feel we are here doing something purely humanitarian.”
Oxfam’s emergency water distribution in Gaza is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID) and the European Commission – Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO). It provides people with an average of three litres of safe drinking water a day.
Alun McDonald is Oxfam Media and Communications Coordinator, OPTI