TENS of thousands of Gazans are still homeless and without basic services such as piped drinking water three months after the 18 January ceasefire, warns a coalition of international aid agencies.

The warning regarding the crisis in Gaza came in a statement issued on Monday by 23 members of the Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA).

The agencies, including Oxfam International, CARE West Bank and Gaza, War Child Holland and Medical Aid for Palestinians-UK, also called on the international community to do more than pay lip service to the needs of the people of Gaza whose lives were torn apart during the three-week military operation.

The demand for action was particularly aimed at the European Union, which in the coming weeks will consider stronger relations with Israel.

‘If the EU does not put the brakes on the process to strengthen ties with Israel, it will be sending a dangerous signal to the world that maintaining a destructive policy of closure is acceptable,’ said Martha Myers, Country Director of CARE West Bank and Gaza.

‘Gaza’s industry, including the agricultural sector, has almost completely collapsed and reconstruction has proved a near impossible task.

‘Operation Cast Lead destroyed Gaza’s economy which was already severely weakened after months of blockade.

‘It makes no sense to continue depriving ordinary people the opportunity to earn a living and support their families.

‘The crossings must be opened now to allow the normal flow of commerce. If they are not, the people of Gaza simply will not recover,’ added Myers.

Reconstruction in Gaza is severely constrained. Materials such as cement and reinforced steel rods are still being deniecvd entry by Israel.

This means that the 20,000 families – or at least 140,000 people – whose homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable as a result of the conflict are unable to rebuild their lives.

Many are living in tents and in makeshift shelters constructed with salvaged bricks and plastic sheeting, with no end in sight.

Furthermore, some 35,000 people still do not have access to piped water or safe sewage disposal.

And, three months on, there are still damaged schools, universities, health clinics, hospitals and other parts of the civilian infrastructure that have not been repaired.

Most food items and some medicines have been allowed in through the single crossing of Kerem Shalom, but entry remains erratic and many medicines remain out of stock in Gaza.

‘There has been zero progress in allowing construction materials in to help people rebuild their lives. This is unacceptable, full stop,’ said John Prideaux-Brune, country director for Oxfam GB in Jerusalem.

‘World leaders must take practical steps to fully open the crossings and exert as much pressure on Israel and all parties to ensure that families can finally see a light at the end of what has been a very long and dark tunnel.

‘A drip-feed of food aid and medicines is simply not enough.’

The scenes of devastation and despair in Gaza have drawn expressions of dismay across the world from senior world figures such as Javier Solana, the EU’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, who said in February that the EU would be helping in the reconstruction process.

Such welcome statements must be followed up by concrete action that will benefit the people of Gaza says the statement.

It adds that Israel continues to fail to meet its obligations of respecting the basic rights of Gazans by denying unrestricted movement to and from Gaza for people, goods and supplies.

On the same day the aid agencies highlighted the crisis in Gaza, the World Bank issued a damning report on ‘chronic’ water shortages for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The report, titled: West Bank And Gaza: Assessment Of Restrictions On Palestinian Water Sector Development, found that Israelis have access to more than four times more water than Palestinians.

The report, the first of its kind, noted the ‘complete dependence’ of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip ‘on scarce water resources shared and largely controlled by Israel.’

It also underlined that ‘the joint governance rules and water allocations established under the 1995 Oslo interim agreement, still in effect today, fall short of the needs of the Palestinian people.’

Since the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, ‘the Israeli-imposed movement and access restrictions, consisting of physical impediments, but also of permitting and decision-making practices, have further impaired Palestinian access to water resources, infrastructure development and utility operations.’

The existing problems effect not just daily supply but the development of water resources, water uses and wastewater management.

The report states that Palestinians have access to only one-fifth of the mountain aquifer supply, while Israel pumps out the rest, reaching its allocated quota without due authorisation from the joint water committee (JWC) set up under Article 40 of the Oslo accords.

In addition: ‘A high proportion of Palestinian projects has been rejected or long delayed in the JWC.

‘Records show that 106 water projects and 12 large scale wastewater projects are awaiting JWC approval, some of them since 1999.

‘According to the records, the pending water projects would have benefited 1.1 million beneficiaries, and the pending sanitation projects almost 800,000.

‘Out of the $121 million of projects presented to JWC in the 2001-2008 period, 50 per cent by value ($60.4 million) have been approved, and one third have been implemented or begun implementation.

‘By contrast, records suggest that all Israeli-proposed projects for development in the West Bank except one have been approved by the JWC.

‘Israeli projects drawing on the shared aquifers on Israel’s side of the Green Line, are not presented to the JWC.’

According to the authors of the report, Israel doesn’t just stop at usurping ‘shared’ aquifers.

They note: ‘A further concern is that some water-related actions and decisions are taken unilaterally by Israel, without consultation in the JWC: for example, where sewage runs untreated towards Israel, Israel has – in some instances – treated it and charged respective costs to the PA (Palestinian Authority).’

Palestinians not only suffer from the shortage of water but also the quality.

In Gaza the ‘water quality is very poor and small scale desalination – largely private – has emerged as a stop-gap solution’.

This water has ‘high concentrations of salts and nitrates, compounds that are difficult and costly to remove from drinking water supplies’.

Quoting comments from the PWA, the report says: ‘Importantly, this water lacks the basic minerals since the majority of minerals are removed . . .

‘Unfortunately, this approach of reducing minerals became the competitive criterion among the private sector desalination plants.’

The report notes: ‘With such poor water supply and sanitation conditions, health and environmental impacts are predictably severe.

‘Contaminants in water, including high levels of nitrates, are having health impacts on the Gaza population, including reported incidence of “blue baby syndrome”.

‘Terrestrial and marine environments are choked with untreated sewage, threatening health and life.

‘Five people died at Beit Lahia in 2007 in a flood of sewage upon failure of the embankment of an emergency lagoon of partially treated wastewater.’

‘The lack and quality of water, its increasing price, privatisation, the Separation Barrier (Wall), and the December 2008/January 2009 military offensive, amongst other things, have compounded the suffering of the Palestinians, the report suggests.

The study was carried out by international and local experts at the request of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas between September 2008 and February 2009.