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Gaza: a quest for clean water & a longer-term reckoning with immense need

Southern Gaza, Oct. 15, 2023. CARE staff distribute water bottles to people displaced by the conflict amid a severe shortage of drinking water. Photo: Saaed Rafiq al Madhoun/CARE

Southern Gaza, Oct. 15, 2023. CARE staff distribute water bottles to people displaced by the conflict amid a severe shortage of drinking water. Photo: Saaed Rafiq al Madhoun/CARE

“The evacuation order came on Thursday,” says Hiba Tibi, CARE's Country Director for the West Bank and Gaza. “And, to be honest, I wish the events of Friday never happened. I wish I could erase them.”

Hiba is speaking on Tuesday, four days after the Israeli authorities ordered the people living in northern Gaza to evacuate.

Hiba is in Ramallah, and from here, she’s helped coordinate the evacuation of CARE’s staff, who, along with the nearly million others in Gaza, have had to take extraordinary measures to get out of what they were told was the most immediate danger.

“I was in the south about a month ago,” Hiba says, “And the journey that has taken them 16 hours only took me 20 minutes in normal times.”

These are clearly not normal times.

Rubble from flattened buildings. In the background, buildings are standing but clearly damaged.
Destroyed houses are seen in the al-Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City, following several Israeli airstrikes. Photo: Grayscale Media.

The violence that has engulfed Gaza and Israel since Oct. 7 has affected millions. On Monday, Oct. 16, the UN estimated that nearly 3,000 people have been killed in Gaza and the West Bank, and 1,300 in Israel. And then on Tuesday, an explosion rocked the Al Alhi hospital in Gaza, reportedly killing hundreds there.

“Gaza had already been under a full lockdown since October 9,” says Nirvana Shawky, CARE’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “Cut-off electricity, no access to fuel, freshwater supplies, or basic communication needs.”

After Israel announced its “total blockade” on Oct. 9, the UN and other humanitarian organizations warned of the critical shortage of clean water, and of hospitals on the verge of collapse, which put thousands of already vulnerable lives at further risk.

And then late Thursday night, Oct. 12, the evacuation order came.

“Now, we’re witnessing an unprecedented displacement in the Palestinian territories,” Nirvana says. “The situation worsens by the minute, with a looming humanitarian crisis ahead.”

Palestinians inspect their cars after they were destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City. Photo: Grayscale Media

‘What are the basic, most important needs?’

“Anyone familiar with Gaza knows that resources were already stretched thin in the south before the conflict,” Hiba says. “And then, suddenly, with almost double the population, families in the south faced a worse crisis.”

One of the most urgent needs has been the most basic – water.

“Even if you have cash — and most of the people don’t have cash – but even if you have cash, you will not have water to buy or food to buy. So once our colleagues were secured in the south, they started to think, what are the basic, most important needs?”

“Our initial response centered on medical and pharmaceutical supplies and hygiene kits. But we soon realized there was a severe water shortage.”

Hiba Tibi with CNN's Becky Anderson

“The water shortages and fuel issues are intertwined,” Hiba says. “With the water shortage leading people to drink contaminated and salty water, risking waterborne diseases, while, at the same time, many hospitals are low on fuel.

“The smaller ones have already run out, and their generators can’t produce the electricity needed for the wounded, women, children, elderly, the pregnant women, the babies in incubators, and the patients on dialysis.”

Miracle Water

In the midst of this crisis, in what Hiba called a ‘miracle,’ CARE’s Gaza team located 12,000 cases of clean water – 72,000 bottles – in northern Gaza and transported them to places in need further south.

CARE staff distribute water to people displaced by the conflict amid a severe shortage. Photo: Saaed Rafiq al Madhoun/CARE

“To get clean water to the people in Gaza required a bit of everything we’ve learned over the years. The theories we’ve adopted, resilience building, nexus programming, humanitarian frameworks, and all the information we’ve juggled – we had to get the best from each thing to make this work.

“We applied our development knowledge and supply chain practices,” Hiba says.

“Colleagues from the West Bank reached out to traditional partners to provide water for our programs and contacted suppliers. The same colleague who took 16 hours to reach the south helped distribute water, and said he saw the hope and joy in the eyes of children receiving water.”

"Despite the hardships, there's hope.”

Hiba Tibi

A child in Gaza holds a case of 'miracle' water. Photo: CARE

What happens now, and how you can help

CARE has been working with Palestinian communities in the West Bank Gaza since 1948. Currently CARE’s programs in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip benefit half a million civilians living in 100 marginalized and vulnerable communities each year. Right now, CARE is planning its response to the enormous humanitarian needs emerging from this crisis.

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“Our top priority now encompasses multiple areas,” Nirvana says.

“First is medical support. We have rooted partnerships with the Ministry of Health and other medical-focused organizations. CARE is a trusted partner, working with them to provide medical supplies, especially for communities in hard-to-reach areas with no access to medical services. We collaborate with local health providers to offer mobile clinics in these areas.”

Even during the evacuation, Hiba and her colleagues have tried to find sources of hope.

“One colleague said she left her windows open,” Hiba says. “And she expects a dusty home upon return. I told her we will help you. We will come and help you set up the house again. Another colleague told me don’t worry, the longer the absence it is happening, the longer we are apart or absent, the better it will be — the reunion.”

To join CARE’s efforts to help those in crisis, visit our Women & Families Emergency Crisis Fund page.

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