Water is becoming an increasingly important element of internal and international conflicts.Thirst can be a lethal weapon
Many television viewers associate conflict with long queues for water. The siege of Sarajevo will always be remembered by the images of people pushing their wheelbarrows with jerry cans of drinking water. Disruption of water supplies during war is an ancient military tactic. Water is used as a weapon in besieged cities, where water supply is either cut off or deliberately polluted to weaken the enemy population.
As a reaction to the suffering and death caused by the disruption of water supplies in times of armed conflicts, the International committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) organized a symposium in Montreux, Switzerland in November 1994 highlighting the human sufferings and technical complexity of destroyed water supply systems. The symposium emphasized the need for clarifying international humanitarian law concerning the use of water for offensive military purposes.
The armed conflicts of the last 10 years have to a large extent taken place in urban areas. Urban areas today have complex infrastructures for both supplying water and for removing waste water
Destruction of these systems leads to contamination and disruption of supply. During periods of conflict, repair of the systems becomes increasingly complicated and the supply of chemicals like chlorine and spare parts is impossible.
For instance, when the civil war in Lebanon led to the disruption of the water supply, residents of individual block of houses in west Beirut drilled 300 m into the ground to tap freshwater. After a while, however, the groundwater level was lowered to such an extend that saltwater was sucked into the wells and all boreholes were useless for freshwater supply. Similarly, when the Kurdish people were fleeing Iraqi troops, their only means of water supply were mountain springs. However, these mountain springs were frequently mined to prevent access to lifesaving water. Emergency agencies like ICRC installed Oxfam water racks along the main roads to provide water for the millions of fleeing refugees.
Disrupting water supply can be a direct weapon in armed conflict. However, it can also be an indirect consequence of the conflict. For example, in Iraq, during the Gulf War, the allied troops bombed all important electrical power stations. As a consequence, both water treatment and sewage pumping were disrupted. Due to the embargo, diesel and spare parts were very scarce. As an indirect consequence, thousands of infants have died due to poor hygiene.
The increasing vulnerability of larger urban populations, particularly to the disruption of water supply in times of conflict, poses a great challenge to water engineers to provide emergency repairs or emergency supplies. International humanitarian bodies should also ensure that international humanitarian laws relating specifically to water are applied in conflict situations. The Geneva Convention article 54.2 Additional Protocol 1, 1977 already states that: "It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as drinking water installations and supplies.
Engineers do not enjoy the same degree of protection as medical personnel under international humanitarian law. Although the work of engineers can restore a lifeline supply of water to thousands of people, they often find themselves working in extremely dangerous situations. Provision of drinking water should receive the same respect and protection as the provision of medicine and food in armed conflicts and should also be part of any cease-fire agreement also in internal conflicts.
Water can also be a CAUSE of conflicts. Malin Falkenmark, the eminent Swedish professor, calls these conflicts "environmentally-based conflicts". They are often the result of population-driven scarcity of fresh water with its implications in terms of livelihood-related threats such as failing food supply due to crop failures and polluted water sources.
Many urban areas today are already facing a serious water supply crisis that is either due to the unavailability of water or the pollution of freshwater resources. The rapid growth of cities often leads to a degraded environment that increases the risk of competition for resources. Social unrest in urban areas due to lack of water will no doubt emerge as a leading cause of both regional and national conflicts. Supplying water to urban areas in a sustainable manner may avert serious social crises and even wars in the future.(by Jes Clauson -Kaas; an environmental engineer based in Denmark. )`From Countdown to Istanbul. World Water Day Issue`.