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Water under fire, the role of water in conflicts around the world

  • Water under fire, the role of water in conflicts around the world
    Photo: UNICEF/UN067453/Souleiman

About the entity

UNICEF works in 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives, to defend their rights, and to help them fulfil their potential, from early childhood through adolescence. And we never give up.

When you think of conflict, water likely wouldn’t be the first thing that comes to mind. But in times of crisis, access to safe water is often compromised; infrastructure is damaged, pipelines are in disrepair, and water collection is dangerous. Without access to safe water, children fall ill, schools and hospitals do not function, disease and malnutrition spread.

In many conflicts around the world, more children die from diseases linked to unsafe water and sanitation than from direct violence

UNICEF’s water under fire change agenda

The right to safe drinking water and sanitation is rooted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, United Nations resolutions and the Geneva conventions. It is a right that is as critical to the survival of children as food, medical care, and protection from attack. But from Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to Ukraine to Yemen, it is clear that crises have become increasingly protracted and conflict threatens interconnected urban service systems.

To improve children’s access to clean drinking water, and to save lives in conflicts and crises, UNICEF calls for three major changes:

Stop attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure and personnel.
Deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on water and sanitation – and power supplies required for them to function – can be a violation of international humanitarian law. So, too, is the intentional denial of services.

Build a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector capable of consistently providing high-quality water and sanitation services in emergencies.
The WASH sector needs to build technical, operational and personnel capacity to address increasingly complex and protracted crises.

Link life-saving humanitarian responses to the development of sustainable water and sanitation systems for all.
This requires building systems that can ensure the right to safe water and sanitation and prevent outbreaks of disease. And it demands that humanitarian and development organizations collaborate from the start to establish systems that will remain resilient.

Read the water under fire report. 

Attacks on water are attacks on children

In many conflicts, restricting or controlling the access to water can be used as a weapon. It has happened throughout history, across the globe.

When a community’s water supply is cut off, children and families are forced to rely on unsafe water, or leave their homes in search of a new source. At times this may mean families have to reduce or ration their water supplies, other times it means drinking water that is clearly contaminated and dangerous.

For children, the consequences can be deadly, as water and sanitation related diseases remain among the leading causes of death in children under five.

There are different ways that water can be used as a weapon, which include attacking water infrastructure and workers, or denying access.

For example:

  • Attacks on water and sanitation infrastructure: this includes both intentional attacks, such as targeting pipelines or pouring concrete into wells, and inadvertent attacks, where reckless bombardment with no attempt to avoid critical civilian infrastructure results in damaged or destroyed water and sanitation systems.
  • Stopping the flow of water: this can include turning off water pumping stations so pipes run dry, or even shutting down electrical systems so that water pumping station cannot operate.
  • Contaminating water: when water sources are poisoned, the water has been turned into a weapon. This includes throwing dead human or animal bodies in a well to contaminate the water supply as a tactic to deny a community safe water.
  • Attacks on water and sanitation workers: humanitarians and local workers around the world are often at risk when working in conflicts. Many have come under attack, been injured or killed while repairing critical civilian infrastructure. Even the threat of attack can deter maintenance or repair, leaving a community without safe water.
  • Denial of humanitarian access: often in conflicts, humanitarian workers and supplies are denied access to reach communities or areas that need assistance.

But attacks on infrastructure and personnel are just two of the numerous threats affecting children’s access to water and sanitation. In many protracted conflicts, water and sanitation systems aren’t just targeted, but are left either undeveloped or in a state of disrepair. In some cases, there was not an adequate water or sanitation system to begin with, and the onset of conflict simply exacerbates  the problem.

It is not always the case that water is used for harm. It is worth noting that in many countries, and indeed across borders of countries, water can also be an instrument of peace and collaboration.

However, when water systems are attacked and access to safe water is denied, the impact on children is huge. Without water, children cannot survive. When forced to rely on unsafe or contaminated water, they are at risk of deadly diseases. In times of crises, when hospitals are overcrowded and medical supplies are low, a lack of safe water can be just as deadly as a bullet or bomb.

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