On the 22nd and 23rd of November a workshop was held in Geneva to discuss the call for a global alliance to spare water from armed conflicts. The overarching objective of the envisaged alliance is to support policy level and practical actions to protect civilians during armed conflicts through the safeguarding of freshwater, water-related infrastructure, and essential services. The alliance also aims at better protecting people involved in the maintenance and repair of water services damaged or misused by parties to armed conflicts.
At a public presentation of the workshop’s findings on the 23rd of November, Professor Marc Zeitoun, Director General of the Geneva Water Hub stated that this is an important time to gather around this topic: urban warfare is becoming more common, but wars are becoming longer, sometimes decades in length in the case of permanent emergencies, and the wars are becoming more complex with overlapping layers of economic sanctions and generations of families who have adapted to a ‘biosphere of war’ in which every decision is informed by an atmosphere permeated with violence and injustice. Children, he stated, have learned to normalise the brutality and older people are denied the dignity of the rest of their lives because someone somewhere decides to keep pressing the buttons to keep launching the missiles. The impacts of damaged hospitals and schools are extreme and with our eyes wide open on the Tigray region, Yemen, Libya, Aleppo, Kharkiv and Gaza we have to concede that the impact is on water systems too. Water is not just something to fight over, it is something to use in the fight, and this has happened throughout history. In the view of Prof Zeitoun, we have reached the lowest expressions of humanity, and it is clear that the weaponisation of water is becoming more common and is keeping us in the depths of our inhumanity. Therefore, he stated, the call for the alliance was organised with a view to reduce the suffering of civilians. The weaponization of water leads to the destruction of water systems, suffering of civilians, breakdown of society, and more war. It is in this sense that the question of how we fight has become as an important a question to answer as why we fight.
There are a few things that has come to the attention of the Geneva Water Hub, which call for a coordinated response. First of all, the rules of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions are perfectly clear on health centres and educational facilities, but they are not as clear on water and water facilities. Secondly, maybe the rules of war do not matter anymore: it is not just that there are gaps in the law, it is that they are so subjected to implementation that they may lose a lot of their value. Third, the knowledge base of the impact of destruction of water systems is growing all the time, notably in terms of reverberating effects – thanks to the research of amongst others UNICEF and the ICRC. It might be more effective if the knowledge were pooled and helped to push in one direction. Fourth, there is a growing interest in the impact of war on water systems for combatants, notably in training manuals. Furthermore, a lot of non-state actors are not in the dialogue at all and it would be good to have a safe space for them. Fifth, political will seems to be increasing around the world, suggesting that this is a good moment to push forward. The idea to have a platform where action is driven by objective information rather than by politics is a key motivation behind the alliance.
Presenting at the workshop, UNICEF’s Global WASH Cluster coordinator Monica Ramos concurred that this is a critical moment to initiative the Global Alliance to Spare Water from Armed Conflicts. The Global WASH Cluster, she explained, is a global multistakeholder platform established in 2006 with over 90 members working in over 30 humanitarian crisis contexts globally alongside up to 4,000 local and national organisations. The objective of the cluster is to strengthen system wide preparedness, enhance coordination capacity for operational response and provide clear leadership on humanitarian action. As part of its work, the Global Wash Cluster has championed the topic of attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure in armed conflicts for years and given the current state of the humanitarian crises, evidence-based policy on this topic is more crucial than ever. Amongst others the Global WASH Cluster launched the Water Under Fire Campaign in March 2019 to bring attention to areas where change is urgently needed to secure access to safe and stable water and sanitation in fragile contexts.
The misuse of water and sanitation services during armed conflicts as well as the obstruction of humanitarian access, she said, create risks that lead to public health outbreaks which gravely affect children under five, notably diarrheal diseases, which is a prominent cause of infant mortality. These impacts have been witnessed repeatedly across multiple conflicts and crisis settings over recent years in locations like Iraq, the State of Palestine, Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine. Water is used as a weapon in conflict, whether explicit or indirect. The damage inflicted takes years to address, as well as a high level of investment and to address this it is crucial that the international legal framework that safeguards water and infrastructure - including those that provide the services - are implemented and upheld. This requires compliance with international humanitarian law by parties to the conflict as well as systematic and verifiable documentation of these violations. Also, those who engage in conflict need to be made aware of the impact of military operations and understand the feasible precautions to be taken to protect water and sanitation infrastructure. Collaboration by development and peace actors is important to undertake risk analysis, complementary planning and implementation – as well as promoting the recalibration of financing systems to achieve stability and peace. There is a pivotal role to be played by a global alliance to raise awareness and provide leadership on policy and practical measures to safeguard access to water and sanitation in armed conflicts.