"Access to water is a means of survival that must never be used as a tactic of war ... Attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure are attacks on children."
UNICEF director of emergency programmes Manuel Fontaine made this unequivocal statement as UNICEF published volume 3 of its "Water Under Fire" series of reports that examine the effects on children when access to water and sanitation is compromised as a result of conflict.
"When the flow of water stops, diseases like cholera and diarrhoea can spread like wildfire, often with fatal consequences," said Fontaine, adding: "Hospitals cannot function, and rates of malnutrition and wasting increase. Children and families are often forced out in search of water, exposing them, particularly girls, to an increased risk of harm and violence.”
Subtitled "Attacks on water and sanitation services in armed conflict and the impacts on children", the latest of the trilogy focuses on the frameworks necessary to end such attacks, and proposes a "change agenda" with a call to action for each of five distinct groups: the parties to a conflict, humanitarian actors, states, the United Nations Security Council and donors.
Laying out the stark short and long-term impacts that direct and incidental attacks on WASH infrastructure have on the most vulnerable civilian groups, the report highlights that, "in protracted conflicts, children under 5 are 20 times more likely to die from diarrhoeal disease linked to unsafe water and sanitation than violence in conflict".
It also stresses that the disruption of access to essential WASH services can have lifelong impacts, citing serious health effects such as malnutrition, delayed physical and mental development, reduced levels of education, and diminished household and community prosperity.
To illustrate the points made throughout the 64-page report, the authors cite examples from 5 armed conflicts where attacks on WASH are frequent occurrences: Syria, Yemen, Ukraine. Palestine and Iraq.
For example, Eastern Ukraine has experienced 4 attacks on water infrastructure since the start of this year, with 380 attacks recorded since 2017. Around 3.2 million people need water and sanitation services there.
And in the State of Palestine there had been 95 attacks against 142 water and sanitation infrastructures at the time the report was compiled. This figure increased substantially during the recent bombardment of the Gaza Strip as Israeli forces exchanged fire with Hamas.
In its change agenda, UNICEF urges all parties to a conflict to adhere to their responsibilities under international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL), both of which set out clear requirements in respect of critical civilian infrastructure such as WASH. However, conflicts in recent years have seen an increase in attacks intended to hinder access to water. The report cites an marked increase in conflict in urban centres as one reason for this.
In April, the UN Security Council reiterated demands for parties involved in conflict to adhere to obligations not to attack "indispensable civilian objects".
In its wish list for the other 4 groups, UNICEF urges the establishment of better monitoring and reporting of attacks and improved advocacy to end violations. It also urges states to avoid legislation criminalising certain organisations for delivering aid in certain areas or engaging with non-state militia.
Photo credits: UNICEF Alessio Romenzi / Ashley Gilbertson VII Photo