Fire has gutted a water treatment plant on the outskirts of Gaza City, satellite images captured on Thursday and Friday show — the latest evidence of damage to water infrastructure amid an increasingly dire shortage of clean water.
A satellite picture from Thursday shows an enormous plume of smoke rising from the fire and hanging over a wide swath of the city. The fire burned for at least four hours. An image from Friday shows the entire plant was destroyed.
It was not clear what caused the fire, or how recently the plant had been operating.
The fire broke out amid a water crisis in Gaza, with UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, warning that 70 percent of people in the Gaza Strip are drinking contaminated water. With critical infrastructure destroyed and relatively few trucks carrying fuel and water permitted to enter Gaza, the water emergency has only spiraled.
On Friday, a U.N. expert urged Israel to allow clean water into the territory, along with fuel to run water treatment systems, and called on the country to “stop using water as a weapon of war.”
The expert, Pedro Arrojo-Agudo, the organization’s special rapporteur on human rights and drinking water, told The New York Times that Israel’s bombing campaign has hit wells, water tanks and other water supply infrastructure. With little potable groundwater, Gaza relies heavily on desalination and water delivered from outside.
“But above all, by completely cutting off electricity and fuel supplies, desalination plants, and groundwater pumping, the very functioning of the supply network has collapsed,” he said.
Wim Zwijnenburg, a conflict and environmental researcher for the Dutch organization PAX, who shared details from an upcoming report on the destruction of water infrastructure, also said Pax “has identified numerous water facilities that have been damaged or destroyed that deprive civilians from access to clean water.”
The infrastructure damage caused by the continuing fighting “poses acute and long-term health and environmental risks” to the people of Gaza, he said.
A private company, Abdul Salam Yaseen Company, also called Eta Water Company, operated out of the plant that burned this week. Older images show the words “Water Plant” were written in large letters on the building’s roof, clearly visible from the sky.
Eta Water could not be reached, likely because of the continuing communication disruptions in Gaza.
Both the company’s website and its Facebook page highlight its work with humanitarian organizations in Gaza. Eta’s last social media post, on Nov. 8, showed the company installing water desalination units it said were funded by UNICEF at a crowded refugee site in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza. A September post by the company highlighted a project with the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Aid agencies did not immediately reply to questions about whether the destruction of Eta’s facility would have an immediate impact on access to clean water. The Times reviewed satellite images showing water trucks lining up at the plant as recently as Oct. 12, before most residents fled northern Gaza for the south and Israel launched a ground invasion that, along with the Israeli bombing campaign, has left large parts of Gaza City in ruins.
There have been street battles near the plant, but it is unclear if any occurred in the area on Thursday. The satellite image from Friday does not appear to show the large impact crater typically left by an Israeli airstrike.
Israeli ground forces had been operating nearby; sometime in the 24 hours leading up to the fire the Israelis appear to have bulldozed an area 400 feet from the plant, and new tracks from heavy vehicles were visible. Israeli tanks and other military vehicles were stationed less than a mile away.
Nader Ibrahim contributed reporting.