We Will Build Back a Better, More Resilient Gaza

Tahani Abu Daqa and Yosef I. Abramowitz

A 2-megawatt solar field we developed in Gaza was destroyed last week, but it hasn’t shattered our determination to build back better.

Before the attack (it is unclear who is responsible), and under terrible conditions, we were trying to connect the solar field—the first green independent power producer in Gaza—to the nearby hospital and wastewater treatment plant. This was going to serve as a positive example to both Gazans and the international community, since both have a misplaced reliance on diesel power.

The intolerable humanitarian crisis in Gaza is exacerbated by decades of misguided international aid programs that disempower communities, emphasize a reliance on dirty and expensive diesel generators and prefer long-term, fantastical edifice programs over practical and quick solutions—often creating debilitating dependence. While the world can argue about the appropriate response to the massacre in Israel, innocents are suffering not only from the war but also from fatal development mistakes that are likely to be repeated at the end of this round of fighting.

A 2-megawatt solar field we developed in Gaza was destroyed last week.
Josef Abramowitz

Take the hospitals, for example. With intermittent power being the norm during the best of times in Gaza, none of the international donor conferences for Palestinians focused on the obvious and necessary program of putting solar panels (plus storage) on the hospitals. The donor community essentially helped finance this conflict by maintaining the critical dependence of Gazans on diesel generators and supplied fossil fuels, which are used not only for peaceful purposes.

The same can be said for the wastewater treatment plants. A decade ago, we approached the World Bank, which led the financing and development of the North Gaza Emergency Sewage Treatment plant in Beit Lahiya and proposed to let us power it with solar plus storage. Instead, the World Bank and the other international donors decided to maintain the grid connection and diesel generators, which means between 70,000 and 108,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage flow into the streets and Mediterranean Sea on days when power is not available. That also threatens Israel’s desalination plants. Unfortunately, this effluent also enters into the groundwater, polluting drinking water supplies. Don’t be surprised if a cholera outbreak spreads across Gaza. Several NGOs with whom we work have installed small-scale solar on small-scale wastewater treatment plants, which then supply water for local agriculture. The international community again and again has failed to scale such programs.

Even during the blustery Trump administration there was a genuine interest in improving the life of ordinary Gazans, especially when it comes to water and energy. With Gaza’s humid air, there is more than enough drinking water in Gaza available for everyone. Pulling water out of the air is energy intensive but could work everywhere. We proposed setting up hundreds of solar-powered water kiosks that do just this, run by young entrepreneurs. These kiosks would dot the entire Gaza Strip and sell water at a fraction of the cost of bottled water.

USAID didn’t even acknowledge the proposal to finance the program, which they solicited. Instead, two NGOs, independently established eight such kiosks with small-scale donor funds in order to demonstrate, especially in hospitals, that the solution is appropriate for Gaza. There could have been 1,000 solar-powered water kiosks all over the Gaza Strip today.

The same is true with energy. The Gaza power plant, when it is working, is powered by diesel and can only supply 70 megawatts, about a quarter of what’s needed, while producing 114,868 tons of carbon emissions per year. As such, more than 60 percent of the total water demand is unmet due to electricity outages on an average day. Each time the plant was destroyed during hostilities, the U.S. and others paid to rebuild it rather than pivot to small-scale solar fields with storage for each village and municipality.

The international community has routinely turned down locally derived proposals like ours to support small-scale solar fields. So, we independently built the first and only one in Gaza. It could have turned on the lights for thousands of people, providing food storage, water, and electricity for homes, as well as the nearby hospital. We received plenty of lip service from the international community but zero funds.

Our vision is to build the destroyed solar project back so it can be a local mini-grid that is not dependent upon the larger grid, which is probably destroyed anyway. Who is going to support this instead of more diesel and gas?

When we recently approached a senior USAID representative responsible for Palestinian aid programs to try to understand the lack of action, he said the plan was to focus on developing the Gaza gas field, which, of course, goes against any sane climate or energy security plan. When we spoke with a senior World Bank official about water, they answered that they are working on a large gas-powered desalination plant that would not survive a war because of both the volatility of gas and the likelihood it would be used as cover during conflict.

Our hearts keep breaking every day not only because of the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel by Hamas and the heavy response by the Israeli government, but also because real community-based, solar-powered solutions could be saving lives and alleviating suffering.

Solar fields are easy to fix but the reconstruction system promoted after each conflict is broken. Fair warning: After the war is over, a massive fund to rebuild Gaza will be announced. It will be controlled by the same aid organizations and governments that failed all these years to create a sustainable Gaza, employing the same failed strategies. The U.S. and the international community continue to advance gas and diesel interests ahead of climate-friendly, cost-effective, and fast solutions that would make the lives of Palestinians better and freer, even during a war.

Tahani Abu Daqa, an expert on development and women’s empowerment, serves as CEO of Gaza Life Power. Yosef I. Abramowitz, nominated by 12 African countries for the Nobel Peace Prize, serves as CEO of impact platform Gigawatt Global. The authors are writing in their personal capacities.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.