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Hana Abu Awda and the 40 people with whom she shares a home in Rafah, at the southern end of the Gaza strip, have been unable to shower for more than a week.

They are crammed into one house after hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee to the south of the territory by Israeli bombardments and orders to leave the heavily populated north of the besieged strip.

“Whatever water we manage to get is barely enough for drinking,” said Abu Awda. “We prioritise the children and we just wipe our bodies with a wet cloth. It is still very hot here, and this is giving us skin problems.”

Securing water has become a huge challenge for Palestinian families in the territory, home to 2.3mn people, where the temperature on Sunday was 31 degrees. People are being forced to drink dirty water, according to UN agencies, which have reported cases of diseases spread by contaminated water being drunk and poor sanitary conditions.

Juliette Touma, spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN’s agency for Palestinian relief, said that across Gaza “people have either no water at all or limited supplies”. Even in UNRWA shelters, drinking water was scarce, she added.

Israel has laid siege to Gaza, cutting off power, water and fuel supplies, since Hamas, which controls the strip, killed more than 1,400 people in their October 7 attack, according to Israeli officials. More than 4,650 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza from land, air and sea since then, Palestinian health officials said on Sunday.

Israel has linked the siege to the more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas into Gaza, two of whom were freed this week. “No electrical switch will be turned on, no water hydrant will be opened and no fuel truck will enter until the Israeli hostages are returned home,” Israel’s energy minister Israel Katz said on social media on October 12.

A young man carries jerrycans of water on a bicycle in Rafah, southern Gaza, on Sunday © Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images

The strip normally receives fresh water from a mixture of wells, a pipeline from Israel and desalination plants on the Mediterranean. However, fuel and power shortages have hit the plants and water pumping facilities, aid agencies say.

Israel is allowing only a restricted and insufficient water supply through its pipeline to southern Gaza, UN officials say, for about three hours a day.

UNRWA has warned that worse is to come. In three days the organisation “will run out of fuel, critical for our humanitarian response across the Gaza Strip,” it said on Sunday.

“Without fuel, there will be no water, no functioning hospitals and bakeries. No fuel will further strangle the children, women and people of Gaza.”

The price of water has more than doubled since the siege began. Some 20 trucks carrying emergency supplies entered Gaza on Saturday from Egypt after prolonged negotiations, but it was unclear whether they carried water — and in any case, the UN described the supplies as “a drop” compared with the needs of the population. UN officials say the aid so far is only 4 per cent of the daily average sent in before the latest conflict.

In Khan Younis, also in southern Gaza, Mohamed al-Najjar, 45, stood in a long line in front of a water distribution point. He had brought a donkey cart carrying a 500-litre tank which he hoped to be able to fill with water.

“There is no water or electricity,” he said. “Even when we get some piped water from the municipality, there is no power to operate the pumps to lift it to the tanks on the roof.”

He added that 30 displaced people had taken refuge in his house. “Sometimes it takes hours to get water. We use it for drinking, cooking, washing hands and ablutions only.”

Residents said the price of fuel used for private generators to compensate for the absence of mains electricity had risen threefold. They rely on donkey carts to fetch water and for other errands, since little petrol is left.

In the water queue, Mohamed al-Shanty, 39, who was displaced with his family of nine from Gaza City, carried two 20-litre containers which he planned to take back to an UNRWA school being used as a shelter.

“UNRWA sometimes offers us a half-a-litre bottle of mineral water per person,” he said. “How is that going to be enough?”

At the Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, where displaced families have taken refuge, Om Mohammed Abu Jarad, 44, washed clothes in a plastic bowl using a small amount of water. “I sent my son to buy a gallon of water for laundry,” she said. “We have no clean clothes left.”

She pointed to one of her sons playing with other children and said he had “developed a rash that he kept on scratching until it bled” so she had to buy him medication.

“Water is life,” said UNRWA’s Touma. “And Gaza is running out of water.”

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