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Source: United Nations Country Team (UNCT)
27 August 2012

GAZA IN 2020

A liveable place?

A report by the United Nations Country Team in the occupied Palestinian territory
August 2012


The United Nations Country Team (UNCT) in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), at its annual retreat in November 2011, discussed critical development and humanitarian challenges facing Palestinians in the oPt. As part of its programme of work, the UN initiated a study to see what the Gaza Strip might look like by the year 2020 as a place in which to live. Building on what is known now, the resulting study seeks to highlight the formidable developmental, humanitarian and social imperatives which need to be addressed and resolved, irrespective of the political context.

The document which follows thus provides an overview of current challenges and trends in Gaza, and through the lens of the UN family working in the oPt presents an extrapolation eight years forward to 2020. It is based on a wealth of existing literature both from within the UN and outside, and the wide range of sources used is reflected as Endnotes at Annex One. The reader who seeks more in-depth information and analysis is encouraged to explore the literature under References at Annex Two.

The broad objectives of this study are to: highlight the longer-term effects and implications of current developmental and social trends and challenges affecting the Gaza Strip; raise awareness of these both locally and internationally; and, inform the strategic programming of the United Nations in support of the Palestinian people of the oPt.

The document does not venture any opinion or forecast of the evolution of political events, nor does it offer prescriptive advice based on different political scenarios. The document does implicitly assume a peace process which leads ultimately to a solution of two sovereign states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and harmony.


By the year 2020 the population of Gaza will increase to around 2.1 million, from an estimated 1.6 million people today. The substantial population growth rate will thus add some 500,000 people to a living area which is restricted and already heavily urbanized. Fundamental infrastructure in electricity, water and sanitation, municipal and social services, is struggling to keep pace with the needs of the growing population. By 2020, electricity provision will need to double to meet demand, damage to the coastal aquifer will be irreversible without immediate remedial action, and hundreds of new schools and expanded health services will be needed for an overwhelmingly young population. Tens of thousands of housing units are needed today.

Gaza is an urban economy, heavily reliant on intensive trade, communication and movement of people. The area has been essentially isolated since 2005, meaning that, in the longer term, its economy is fundamentally unviable under present circumstances. Gaza is currently kept alive through external funding and the illegal tunnel economy.

The people of Gaza remain worse off than they were in the 1990s, despite increases in real gross domestic product (GDP) per capita over the past three years. Unemployment is high and affects women and youth in particular. Gaza’s GDP per capita is expected to grow only modestly in the coming years, making it ever more difficult for Gazans to secure a decent living.1 The challenges will only become more acute, particularly if the current political status quo continues. Even if the political situation were to improve dramatically over the next years, the issues identified in this study would still need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

While recognizing recent progress, demographic pressure and the deterioration of Gazan infrastructure demand durable and broad-based economic growth based on trade of goods and services. It will be essential to ensure the provision of basic infrastructure (particularly water/sanitation and electricity) and improved social services (particularly health and education). As a heavily urbanized environment with little room for further growth, Gaza needs to be open and accessible to the world. The viability of a future Palestinian state depends on a proper connection between the West Bank and Gaza, providing access to the Mediterranean for the entire occupied Palestinian territory.

This document focuses on a range of the most important issues affecting the daily lives of the people in Gaza, which will only intensify in the
coming years – even more so should the political situation (the divide between Gaza and the West Bank, the occupation and closure, and continued violent conflict) not improve. These challenges are described in the six-monthly UN report to the Ad hoc Liaison Committee, and more routinely in the UN’s monthly briefing to the Security Council. In short, an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip in the context of Security Council resolution 1860,2 and Gaza’s recovery and long-term economic development remain fundamental objectives of the United Nations.

What the future holds for Gaza3

1. Economy

Despite recent economic growth, Gazans are now, on average, worse off than they were in the 1990s.9 The economy expanded substantially in 2011 with real GDP per capita increasing by 19% and GDP by 23%.10 This growth resulted primarily from an increase in construction (by 119% in 2011),11 and not from growth in more productive sectors of the economy. Yet, in 2011, real GDP per capita (in 2004 US dollars) stood at US$ 1,165,12 only 88% of the level of 1994 and 61% of the GDP per capita of the West Bank.13 The low level of investment in the economy (only 9% of GDP, much of it in residential construction) cannot serve as a basis for future sustained economic growth.14 The expansion of the productive sectors, increased productive investment, and enabling exports to third countries, including Israel, and transfers to the West Bank will therefore be essential to secure longer-term economic growth.

In line with the decline in GDP per capita, unemployment is higher than in the late 1990s,15 despite improvements in recent years. Unemployment in Gaza stood at 29% in 2011 and has increased since.16 Women and youth are particularly affected: The unemployment rate for women was 47% during the first quarter of 2012,17 and it was 58% for people between 20 and 24 years of age.18

One of the main reasons for the economy’s inability to recover to pre-2000 levels has been and is the blockade of the Gaza Strip.19 The Palestinian Ministry of National Economy estimates that this led to costs or unrealized growth worth US$ 1.9 billion in 2010.20

During Israel’s Operation ‘Cast Lead’ in the Gaza Strip in December 2008 to January 2009, 6,268 homes were destroyed or severely damaged;21 186 greenhouses were destroyed; 931 impact craters in roads and fields were counted;22 universities faced US$ 25 million in damages;23 35,750 cattle, sheep and goats, and more than one million chicken and other birds were killed;24 and 17% of the cultivated area was destroyed.25 ‘Cast Lead’ caused a total of US$ 181 million in direct and US$ 88 million in longer-term costs for Gaza’s agriculture;26 generated
about 600,000 tonnes of rubble and US$ 44 million in environmental costs;27 and water and sanitation infrastructure suffered almost US$ 6 million in damages.28

Imports have fallen since the start of the second intifada in 2000. Exports have nearly been brought to a halt due to restrictions.29 Transfer of goods to the West Bank and exports to Israel, traditional markets for Gazan goods, remain banned, with a few exceptions, such as a transfer of date bars from Gaza to the West Bank in early 2012 as part of a UN project. Import and export restrictions increase uncertainty as well as production and transaction costs, eroding the competitiveness of Gazan products for transfers to the West Bank or exports to other countries,30 thus making investment less attractive. Moreover, the longer occupation and closure are maintained, the harder it will be for businesses to restart.31

As a largely urban area, Gaza is dependent on trading goods and services, as it can hardly be self-sufficient. Due to the restrictions, Gaza’s economy is largely dependent on external aid, the tunnel economy (discussed below) and remittances.32 Recent economic growth does not seem to be sustainable.

Agriculture plays an important but limited role in Gaza. Exports of small amounts of strawberries, flowers and cherry tomatoes, mostly to Europe, are too minor to have a substantial impact on the overall economic situation. The future of agriculture is intimately linked with access to water in sufficient quantity and quality.33 It is equally linked with land access that is not only limited by the buffer zone and access-restricted areas but also by urban development. In this context, urban agriculture can help to grow crops and produce animals while saving water. To gain a clearer picture of the contribution that cash crops and urban agriculture could play in the medium term for the Gazan economy, a proper assessment is needed.

While the official economy continues to recover from a deep contraction, the shadow economy has blossomed.34 Circumventing the closure of the Gaza Strip, goods are illegally smuggled from Egypt into Gaza through hundreds of tunnels. Estimates of the number of tunnels, the number of tunnel workers, and the amount of goods smuggled through the tunnels vary and no reliable data are available.35 The tunnel economy benefits the de facto authorities in Gaza who, according to an ILO report, “receive a considerable share of the benefits” from it.36

Goods are illegally smuggled
into Gaza through hundreds
of tunnels

Many Gazans are food insecure, due primarily to a lack of economic means, rather than a shortage of food. More than half of the households in Gaza are either food insecure (44%) or vulnerable to food insecurity (16%)37 even when taking into account UN food distributions to almost 1.1 million people. This is an improvement over previous years.38 Households on average spend close to 50% of their cash on food.39 Eighty per cent of households receive some form of assistance40 and 39% of people live below the poverty line.41 This results from low levels of income per capita. As importantly, in a densely populated, largely urban territory, food self-sufficiency is not an option. Such a territory will always depend on trade, services and worker movement, all of which remain limited as a result of the closure.42 For as long as the closure continues, levels of food insecurity will remain high.

Restrictions on access to agricultural land and the fishing limit of three miles from the coast remain challenges. Gazans cannot, or only with difficulty, access 17% of the enclave’s land, including 35% of its agricultural land, because it is located in the ‘buffer zone’ or in the high-risk, access-restricted area near the fence separating it from Israel.43 More than 3,000 fishermen do not have access to 85% of the maritime areas agreed in the 1995 Oslo Accords.44 As a result, the fish catch has decreased dramatically over the years of closure.45 Overall, land and sea restrictions affect 178,000 people, 12% of Gazans,46 and result in annual estimated losses of US$ 76.7 million from agricultural production and fishing.47

Should the three-mile limit on fishing be lifted, the fishing industry would likely grow in size. Inland fish farming could provide employment and a cheap source of protein in the medium term and would complement sea fishing. While ultimately large-scale growth will be based on sectors other than agriculture, in the short term and under continued closure, fishing has the potential to bring a ready source of protein to the diets of Gazans.48

Food assistance:
Gazans helping

Gaza’s economy is expected to grow only modestly in the coming years. The graph below shows the development of GDP per capita in Gaza in constant 2004 US dollars (it is adjusted for inflation), based on data from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, and high and low-growth scenarios from the International Monetary Fund for 2012-2015. The low-growth scenario assumes an annual growth rate of real GDP of 4% to 5%, the high-growth scenario, which is based on a “significant easing… of trade and other restrictions”, 9% to 10%.49 Given the high annual population growth rate of 3.37%, real GDP per capita would only grow at between 0.6% and 1.5% annually in the low-growth scenario, and by 5.7% to 6.6% in the high-growth scenario.50 Forecasts for up to 2020 are currently not available. While the relative level of food insecurity may
decline, overall increases in the population will likely mean an increase in the absolute number of people requiring assistance.

Fishing is restricted to an area
reaching three miles from the

2. Population Growth and Urbanisation
Indicator Value

71,000 housing
units are needed
in Gaza

The Gaza Strip has a high population density, at 4,505 people per km2, with 1.6 million people – half of them children and two-thirds of them refugees52 – living in an area of 365 km2.53

Gaza has become heavily urbanised and is facing a current shortfall of 71,000 housing units.54 Already in 2000, the urbanisation rate was 94.6% with a projected increase to 95.5% by 2015.55 This makes the Gaza Strip largely dependent on the world outside, while its own economy has to have a strong urban basis. It is also putting high demands on public infrastructure and services. The lack of land for expansion inflates land and housing prices, making houses less affordable and making it increasingly difficult, without strong public regulation, to extract land for public infrastructure and services. A proper connection with the West Bank will be essential for a viable Palestinian State so that people can move between the two areas. Scarcity of land, intensified by access restrictions, requires strong planning and regulations to ensure that despite the population density, Gaza will be a liveable place, avoiding unhealthy overcrowding, social tension and insecurity.

Based on current growth, the population (according to different projections) is expected to increase to 2.13 million by 202056 and 2.76 million by 2028,57 which would result in a population density of 7,562 people per km2. The annual population growth rate for Gaza in 2011 stood at a high 3.37%, resulting from a fertility rate of 4.9 children per woman in 2010, compared to 3.8 in the West Bank.58 The population growth rate in Gaza is forecast to decline moderately to 2.99% by 2020.59

The inevitable increase in the population will pose further strains on access to affordable housing and services including electricity, water and waste water treatment. Population growth and the high number of adolescents who will enter the labour force in coming years also mean that the economy will have to grow in line, just to keep pace with the expanding labour force.

In addition to overall population growth, the fact that the Gaza Strip has one of the youngest populations worldwide will pose particular challenges. Some 51% of the population are younger than 18 years, projected to decrease only slightly to 48% by 2020.60 The Gaza Strip has the second-highest share of people aged 0 to 14 years worldwide.61 Moreover, the ‘youth bulge’ – the ratio of youth (15-29) to the total over-15 population – is exceptionally high, at 53% (projected to decrease to 50% in 2020).62

This has several implications: First, the dependency ratio in the Gaza Strip is very high,63 further aggravated by the unemployment and low labour force participation rates (especially for women). Second, a youth bulge can have positive and negative consequences. When these young people reach working age, the economy can benefit from an increased supply of labour, yielding a demographic dividend. For this, skills training that is relevant and of good quality is needed. On the contrary, if the economy does not provide opportunities and emigration is blocked, the consequences can be negative: social tension, violence and extremism as possible outlets for lack of meaningful prospects. This is the scenario in Gaza, unless the political and economic situation changes substantially.

3. Basic Infrastructure

Palestinians in Gaza face regular power cuts as provision of electricity remains well below demand. The cuts affect private businesses and homes, health services, waste water treatment plants, and schools. Many of these rely on back-up generators. The Gaza Strip receives most of its power, 120MW, from Israel, while up to 100MW are produced at the only power plant in Gaza,64 and 22MW are imported from Egypt.65 Under ideal circumstances, this adds up to 242MW versus a peak demand of up to 350MW.66

Between 1999 and 2005, electricity demand increased on average by 10% a year although the increase has been lower in recent years.67 The
Gaza Electricity Distribution Company (GEDCo) expects electricity demand to increase to 550MW by 2020, more than twice as much as is currently
being provided.68 Still, both short-term solutions to increase the amount of imported fuel and electricity, and longer-term solutions to increase
power supply, improving the power distribution system to avoid loss, increasing collection rates for electricity fees, and building capacity for renewable energy, are required to supply Gaza with sufficient power. The Gaza Marine offshore gas field has the potential to supply all the energy needs of Gaza, as well as to provide substantial resources for development though the sale of surplus gas.69 It is therefore essential that this resource be developed.
By 2020 electricity
provision will need to
double to meet demand

As highlighted by reports of the World Bank and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the situation in relation to water and sanitation for the Palestinians of Gaza is critical. With no perennial streams and low rainfall, Gaza relies almost completely on the underlying coastal aquifer,70 which is partly replenished by rainfall and runoff from the Hebron hills to the east, with the recharge estimated at 50 to 60 million cubic metres (MCM) annually. 71

Current abstraction of water from the aquifer, at an estimated 160 MCM per year to meet current overall demand, is well beyond that.72 As groundwater levels subsequently decline, sea water infiltrates from the nearby Mediterranean Sea.73 Salinity levels have thus risen well beyond guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO) for safe drinking water. This pollution is compounded by contamination of the aquifer by nitrates from uncontrolled sewage, and fertilizers from irrigation of farmlands. 74

Today 90% of water from the aquifer is not safe for drinking without treatment.75 Availability of clean water is thus limited for most Gazans with average consumption of 70 to 90 litres per person per day (depending on the season), below the global WHO standard of 100 litres per person per day.76

The aquifer could become unusable as early as 2016,77 with the damage irreversible by 2020.78 UNEP recommends ceasing abstraction immediately as it would otherwise take centuries for the aquifer to recover.79 Even with remedial action now to cease abstraction, the aquifer will take decades to recover. Meanwhile the Palestinian Water Authority (PWA) expects demand for fresh water to grow to 260 MCM per year by 2020,80 an increase of some 60% over current levels of abstraction from the aquifer.

90,000 cubic metres of
sewage are dumped
into the sea each day

The situation with regard to treatment of waste water or sewage is no less problematic, with huge investment in treatment facilities and associated infrastructure desperately needed to cope with the existing demand, let alone for the future. At present, only 25% of waste water, or 30,000 CM per day, is able to be treated and re-infiltrated for use in green areas and some forms of agriculture. Some 90,000 CM of raw or partly treated sewage has to be released daily into the nearby Mediterranean Sea and environs (almost 33 MCM per year),81 creating pollution, public health hazards, and problems for the fishing industry.

Work is on-going on the construction of new and refurbished waste water treatment plants to cope with both present and future demand, but these efforts will need to be accelerated. Some 44 MCM of waste water is generated annually at present,82 a figure which could rise to 57 MCM annually by 2020.83

In the short term, the Palestinian Water Authority recommends low-volume desalination of seawater and the reuse of treated wastewater, especially for agricultural use.84 Longer-term solutions to the challenges of clean water and sanitation for the people of Gaza include large-scale seawater desalination plant(s),85 completion of strategically placed treatment facilities,86 construction and rehabilitation of water87 and sewerage networks, the wholesale availability in homes, schools and health centres of water and sanitation systems, and a regime for the management of solid and medical waste that is able to cater for the needs of an urban population.88

Huge investment in water
and sanitation infrastructure
is needed

4. Social Services

While some health indicators in Gaza are comparable to middle and high-income countries, quality needs to be improved. In 2010, there were 25 hospitals in the Gaza Strip with 2,047 beds, or 1.3 beds per 1,000 people.89 In addition, health clinics provide primary medical care. With 3,530 doctors in 2010 the rate of doctors per 1,000 people was 2.3 (similar to Cyprus),90 and with 5,910 nurses, the rate was 3.991 (similar to Georgia).92 Most health facilities are unable to provide safe and adequate services and need to be rehabilitated or upgraded.93 The infant mortality rate stands at 23 per 1,000 live births94 (similar to Nicaragua).95 While Israeli authorities permit the access of medical supplies into Gaza, there are frequent breakdowns of medical equipment resulting from power interruptions and water impurities, among other factors. For this and other reasons, many patients are forced to seek treatment outside Gaza for a wide range of medical problems, which is difficult due to the closure.96

Micronutrient deficiencies, especially iron deficiency anemia in pregnant women and children, remain at high levels in Gaza. A comprehensive causality study is currently being conducted, which will inform future action to reduce nutritional deficiencies.

Additional hospital beds, doctors and nurses will be needed in the coming years to serve a growing population. Based on population projections, maintaining the current ratio of 1.3 hospital beds per 1,000 people in the Gaza Strip would require almost 800 additional beds by 2020, for a total of about 2,800. Similarly, to maintain the current ratios of doctors and nurses per 1,000 people, the number of doctors would have to increase by more than 1,000 to 4,900, and the number of nurses by more than 2,000 to 8,200.

People in Gaza are comparatively well educated, with a literacy rate of 96% in 2011 (93% for women and 98% for men), according to official figures.99 Yet, functional literacy may be lower, and further assessments are needed to identify gaps. Some 450,000 children, half of them girls, were attending schools during the 2010/2011 academic year.101 The enrolment rate declines to 79% in secondary schools (84% for girls, 74% for boys who appear to be more likely to leave school for work).102

Despite these high rates of attendance, maintaining the quality of education remains a major challenge, partly due to a shortage of schools: 85% of 677 schools run double shifts.103 In consequence, school hours are often shorter than scheduled and an average of 36 students share a classroom. Only 30% of younger children attend licensed kindergartens.104

Technical and Vocational Training

Currently, the technical and vocational education and training system has a low status in Gaza.105 The system is fragmented and uncoordinated with little involvement of the private sector. Young people in Gaza should be trained and educated to international standards so that they can, in turn, raise standards in the local market. Access to technical and vocational training, as well as to universities, is also limited by restrictions on Gazan students traveling to the West Bank and further afield.

440 schools need to be
built by 2020


Additional schools are needed now to respond to an increasing number of children at school age in the coming years. The number of school-age children is projected to increase to 673,000 by 2020,106 by an average of 14,000 per year. Currently, there is a shortage of up to 250 schools in Gaza.107 Based on the number of schools needed now (677 existing plus 250 needed) and population projections for the number of children of school-age, a further 190 schools would be needed by 2020, for a total of 440 schools that need to be built.108

In the longer term, the quality of education and the learning environment need to respond to the shortage of classrooms and make the curricula
(including textbooks) responsive to the needs of children in Gaza, providing them with life-skills based education. This requires a greater investment in teacher training and supervision. University education needs to be expanded and its quality improved.

Culture and Cultural Heritage

Recognizing the importance of the preservation and promotion of Palestinian cultural heritage, both to present and future generations, the Palestinian Authority has prepared an inventory of 20 cultural and natural heritage sites, recently submitted to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre as a tentative list. Four sites are in the Gaza Strip: Tell Umm Amer/Monastery of Saint Hilarion, the Anthedon Harbour, ancient trade routes, and the Wadi Gaza coastal wetlands.109

’Social protection’ can be defined as public actions, including financial and other support, with the goal of increasing access to services such as health, education or nutrition for people that are often not only poor but also socially marginalized.112

To respond to high levels of vulnerability, poverty and food insecurity in Gaza, a large number of social protection initiatives have been put in place. As efforts continue to improve the targeting of social programmes, social transfers (both cash and inkind) have become an important source of income for the majority of households, accounting for approximately 16% of total household consumption overall and 31% among the poorest households.113

The number of people who will require social assistance in 2020 will remain high if the economic situation does not improve. Simple extrapolation using a growth elasticity of poverty114 of 3% suggests that with the low growth scenario with a per capita GDP growth rate of 0.6% to 1.5% per
year, the proportion of Gazans living in poverty is projected to decline only moderately in the coming years.115 This suggests that unless the current trade and other restrictions are eased,116 the proportion of Gazans in need of social protection will remain high over the coming decade.


In the absence of sustained and effective remedial action and an enabling political environment, the challenges which confront the people of Gaza now will only intensify over the coming years to 2020, a period in which another half a million people will be added to the present estimated population of 1.6 million.

Without such action, the daily lives of Gazans in 2020 will be worse than they are now. There will be virtually no reliable access to sources of safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and education will have continued to decline, and the vision of affordable and reliable electricity for all will have become a distant memory for most. The already high number of poor, marginalized and food-insecure people depending on assistance will not have changed, and in all likelihood will have increased.

To ensure that Gaza in 2020 will be “a liveable place,” on-going herculean efforts by Palestinians and partners in such sectors as energy, education, health, water and sanitation, need to be accelerated and intensified in the face of all difficulties.

It is essential that the inhabitants of Gaza are able to exercise and enjoy the full range of fundamental human rights to which they are entitled. They must be able to live safe and secure lives free of the various forms of violence which afflict them at present; benefit from proper health care, education and housing; elect and hold accountable representatives of government; be subject to fair and impartial justice; and have ready access to the world beyond Gaza for religious, educational, medical, cultural, commercial and other purposes.

In short the Palestinian people of Gaza must be enabled to live dignified, healthy and productive lives in peace and security, both now and in the future.


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