On October 20th, the Water Integrity Network initiated a petition to the United Nations through change.org to stop the weaponization of water in all forms of conflict. The ‘weaponisation’ of water is referred to by the authors Mihir and Emin as the use of water to gain leverage over an adversary : this can be achieved through the contamination of water, through flooding, through the restriction of access or through the destruction of water infrastructure.
The petition mentions that we have witnessed water being increasingly weaponised in conflict situations, including, most recently, in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the siege of Gaza by Israel. It notes however that these events are not the only situations in which water infrastructure, or the electricity infrastructure that is critical to the supply of water, has been deliberately attacked or abused by parties in a conflict. Iraq, Syria, Yemen and others have also seen attacks on water infrastructure.
“Water is a human right and should be protected at all costs, whether in situations of conflict or peace. To be without water is a brutal undermining of people’s rights to life, health and dignity,” says Barbara Schreiner, Executive Director of WIN.
The petition makes reference to international law, commencing with the human rights to water and sanitation which are derived from international human rights law and are based on the right to life and the right to health. It makes reference to principles of non-discrimination and the right to continuous access to water, stating “we believe that every individual, regardless of their location, religion, ethnicity, gender, or other difference, deserves access to clean and safe water at all times, in accordance with the human right to water. As signatories to this statement, we express our commitment to the principles of justice, equality, non-discrimination and respect for human rights”.
The petition then turns to the Geneva Convention, pointing out that destruction of infrastructure or stopping of water supplies results in significant harm and is a form of collective punishment, illegal under the Geneva Convention. As the petition mentions, international law, including the Geneva Convention, stipulates the obligations of all parties involved in conflicts to ensure the well-being of civilians and protect their access to basic needs, including water. However, although civilian infrastructure is protected in the sense that attacks on objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population are prohibited under international humanitarian law, there is no specific reference to the protection of water infrastructure.
This is where the importance of the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure lies: it is the first systematic summary of the main rules applicable to the protection of water infrastructure during armed conflicts. Principle 6 makes it clear that infrastructure related to water is assumed to be a civilian object and as such cannot be attacked or damaged unless it is being used for military purposes. While all UN member states are signatories to the Geneva Convention, a much smaller number of states are signatories to the ‘The Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure’.
The petition calls on the United Nations to develop a process for economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation to be imposed on any country that uses water as a weapon of war and the establishment of an international body to monitor and investigate cases of water weaponisation.
You can sign the petition here, either as an individual or as an organization.