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Pumps, pipes, water and war

21-03-2002 News Release 02/12

Water will increasingly be a source of conflict in the years to come. This warning was given by ICRC water and habitat engineers on the eve of International Water Day (22 March). Providing safe drinking water and treating waste in areas wrecked by conflict has been a main area of endeavour for the ICRC since 1985, when it first engaged in such work as a means of easing pressure on Eritrean health-care facilities overwhelmed by the numbers of victims of water-borne disease. It was found that providing clean water meant that fewer people fell ill, and preventing disease in the first place is always better than having to treat it.

Today the ICRC's " water and habitat " unit is active in over 30 countries. Situated somewhere between emergency operations and development projects, its work meets the water needs of nearly seven million people worldwide. The unit's budget last year was 55 million US dollars. Its activities mainly involve ensuring safe methods of waste disposal, setting up pumping units and water purification. In some cases, such work is carried out with utmost discretion. In Bosnia for instance, the fact that key water pipes ran under the front line was scrupulously withheld from combatants in a particular area. As a result, nobody thought of interfering with them, and hundreds of thousands of civilians continued to have access to drinking water.

Protecting water supplies from contamination is a key aspect of water and habitat work. The ICRC's position as a neutral intermediary often makes it the only organization able to provide vital chemicals and spare parts (for example to Baghdad's 15 pumping stations) or to ship water-transport equipment from government- held to rebel-held areas (for example in Sri Lanka). Kabul is a city totally devastated by ceaseless conflict, yet local ICRC staff were able to quickly repair damage done to its water-supply system following bombing raids last October. In the same month they repaired individual house latrines for 50,000 families.