Saving lives, safeguarding the future

Wherever conflicts occur, the ICRC acts to preserve people’s lives and livelihoods. We meet their immediate material needs and seek to ensure that some common consequences of conflict – disease, injury, hunger, loss of income and exposure to the elements – do not jeopardize their survival or their future.

Wide-ranging help

Our help takes a variety of forms, depending on the region and the nature of the crisis. It may mean providing material relief (such as food, cash, seeds, tools and medicine), repairing water-supply and -treatment systems, or building medical facilities. We also furnish training for primary-care staff, surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses and prosthetic/orthotic technicians. In all our efforts, we aim to enhance the capacity of local institutions to provide essential services such as water, sanitation and health care.

Providing for themselves

While emergency aid saves lives and mitigates the most immediate effects of conflict, we always try to keep sight of our ultimate aim: restoring people’s ability to provide for themselves. In some cases, aid takes the form of small cash grants so that the families themselves can choose how to meet their needs; local markets and producers also benefit indirectly from this aid. In other cases, we help people start a small business or produce their own food.

A girl carrying water in a refugee camp in South Sudan.

Economic Security

Where armed conflict or other violence breaks out, the ICRC helps people meet their essential needs by providing food, cooking utensils, shelter, clothing and hygiene items, etc. When we do this, we take into account all the household’s basic economic requirements.

Longer-term needs

But we don’t stop there. We also consider how families and entire communities can once again become self-sufficient and economically secure. Our goal is to ensure people are able to take care of themselves and make ends meet over the long term.

Because our mandate covers people deprived of their liberty in connection with conflict, we also strive to meet the nutritional and sanitation needs of detainees wherever necessary.

The ICRC’s economic security work includes distributing food, giving livestock vaccinations, repairing irrigation systems, providing seed and tools to help people resume farming, organizing cash-for-work programmes, and giving cash grants to start up a small business (such as a hair salon or an automotive or bicycle repair shop).

Maung Htun’s family have been living in a camp for displaced people with 25 other families since 2011. They fled fighting near their village in Myanmar. “We didn’t have rice, cooking oil or salt. We had to eat what people gave us.”

Today their circumstances are slowly improving, in part because of a decision by the families to try and earn income by polishing amber, found in northern Myanmar, into semi-precious gems. Along with the Myanmar Red Cross Society, the ICRC is supporting the project and plans to supply more grinders and safety materials so that more camp residents can become self-sufficient and use the income to feed their families over the long term.

  • This man in Thailand’s Pattani province received a small boat and fishing equipment to help him rebuild his life as a fisherman after being held in detention.

  • Casamance, Senegal, is just one area where the ICRC has supported projects and provided seed and tools to help people start small farms and livestock businesses.

  • Access to clean water is vital, especially during times of crisis. After Typhoon Haiyan wiped out the local watersupply network, the ICRC provided drinking water to people in Samar province, the Philippines.

  • War is increasingly waged in urban areas. As a result, our water-and-habitat engineers repair and maintain large and complex water, power and waste-treatment systems in cities, such as this one in Baghdad, Iraq.

Water and habitat

A public health approach

Our water-and-habitat programmes are all about public health amid conflicts – aiming to ensure a healthy living environment. We strive to guarantee that essential public services (clean water, shelter, proper sanitation, etc.) function properly.

The impact of armed conflict can be direct or indirect, and the consequences can be brief or long-lasting. Urban areas, where the population density is high and the systems complex, are particularly vulnerable.

Poor services, poor health

When water, power and sanitation systems do not function properly, the health of the people dependent on them suffers and living conditions deteriorate. Those services may be overwhelmed by an influx of displaced people, or maintenance may be impossible because fighting has blocked access to infrastructure.

Interconnected services

Many of the ICRC’s activities depend on each other. Providing water to a population requires electricity as well as a waste-water treatment system, and caring for the sick and wounded requires water, electricity, and waste disposal at the hospitals. Nor does our involvement end when the conflict does – we maintain those services until the government is able to step back in.

Health Care

There are few times when health care is more badly needed than in times of war. While combatants and civilians are suffering and dying, entire communities may be forced to flee for safety. In such cases, the infrastructure and supply systems needed to provide health care to communities may be disrupted, damaged or destroyed.

These situations are extremely challenging – and dangerous – for anyone seeking, or trying to provide, health care. Facilities that manage to remain operational are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who are wounded, stricken by infectious disease, or suffering from malnutrition. Meanwhile, mass violence can easily make access to health care extremely difficult, dangerous or simply impossible.

A comprehensive approach

As a result of these challenges, many essential, everyday needs (vaccinations, maternal care, treatment of chronic diseases, etc.) go unattended. Basic sanitation systems, clean water sources and food supplies are often affected as well, leaving communities even more vulnerable to infectious disease and malnutrition.

In responding to these complex, interconnected needs, we take a comprehensive approach, placing the individual at the centre of our action and striving for a continuum of care from the moment a person becomes injured or sick, through that person’s treatment at a health post or hospital, and ending with the person’s recovery and rehabilitation. Every step of the way, we work closely with local communities and health agencies in assessing needs and then meeting them.

In armed conflict, the ICRC provides surgeons, equipment and supplies for local hospitals. Here, at Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, surgeons operate on a young man suffering from severe burns.

War makes it harder for people to get medical treatment, just when they need it most. Here, an ICRC doctor examines a boy at a hospital in South Sudan.

A broad range of health services

First-aid training and support

Care starts with those who are closest to the people in need. To this end, the ICRC trains community members, Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, local health-care workers and others in first aid so that they can stabilize patients until they reach more expert care.

Primary health care

We adapt our support to local needs, and our work usually comprises both preventive action (promotion of good health practices for instance) and treatment. Our priorities are vaccination, reproductive health and clinical and psychosocial care for the victims of sexual violence.

Hospitals and beyond

Because conflict affects all aspects of community health, we take a comprehensive approach to hospital care. We address such issues as hospital management, surgery, internal medicine, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, and in-patient care for people with infectious diseases.

Mental health and psychosocial support

The mental well-being of people traumatized by violence is also a major concern for the ICRC. We include psychological and psychosocial support for victims as part of our efforts to help communities heal from the scars left by war and other violence.

Health in detention

To ensure that detainees benefit from basic health care, we address their individual needs while also working to improve the prison’s water, sanitation, nutrition, health-care and hygiene systems. In addition, we address the mental health needs of people deprived of their liberty, especially those who have suffered from torture or other forms of ill-treatment or who have a psychiatric condition.

Contamination by explosive devices

Mines and unexploded ordnance can dramatically boost danger levels for people living in war zones and those who come to their aid. Our munitions experts therefore work as part of ICRC operations to ensure the safety of our staff and others. They also contribute their findings to our reports on the conduct of hostilities.

We carry out a wide range of activities, including risk education, clearing mines and unexploded ordnance, and taking care of victims. This begins during the conflict and may continue long after hostilities have ended.

Physical rehabilitation and social inclusion

Our physical rehabilitation programme provides physiotherapy and mobility devices (prosthetics, orthotics, walking aids and wheelchairs). We help local organizations develop their own ability to deliver such services. This reduces the barriers that people with disabilities face in their path towards social inclusion.

Forensic science and humanitarian action

The bodies of people who die during war, natural disaster or migration must be handled with respect. They need to be located, recovered, recorded and identified. Humanitarian work has come to include these tasks, which our forensic unit carries out using the latest tools and methods. Our forensic specialists help local agencies manage human remains both during and immediately after conflict, as well as in subsequent efforts to recover and identify remains – sometimes long after the fighting has ended.

  • Children keep their distance from a pile of unexploded bombs left near a football field in Basra, Iraq. We work to prevent mines and unexploded devices such as these from causing harm.

  • Families who lost loved ones during the years of fighting in Peru finally found out what happened to them thanks to the combined efforts of the country’s forensic service and the ICRC.

  • We set up the Special Fund for the Disabled in 1983 to ensure the continuity of ICRC-sponsored projects. The Fund also supports physical rehabilitation centres in low-income countries. At the Artificial Limbs and Polio Centre in Gaza, a technician teaches a young boy to walk using his new custom-made boots.

  • These framed pictures are of three boys who died in an explosion in Laos in 2014. Long after a conflict ends, the unexploded weapons that remain continue to take lives.

  • Mines and other unexploded ordnance not only kill, they also leave people with permanent life-changing injuries. Here, a man who lost his legs in two separate mine explosions puts his prostheses back on after spending the day looking for gold in a river in northern Nicaragua.

  • Here, at the ICRC’s physical rehabilitation centre in Kabul, Afghanistan, a father corrects his daughter’s posture as she learns to walk with her orthopaedic support. A central part of the ICRC’s work is to help people disabled in armed conflict to live full, productive and dignified lives.

  • A disposal expert inspects an unexploded bomb near a military checkpoint in Iraq. The ICRC works with local authorities and experts to find and destroy unexploded ordnance.

  • Mines and other unexploded ordnance can be a serious threat to food security and economic recovery. The ICRC helped clear this field in Gaza, making it safe and arable once again.

  • The ICRC saves lives by teaching people what they can do to reduce the risks associated with landmines and other unexploded ordnance. Here an ICRC delegate addresses residents of a village near the front line of fighting in eastern Ukraine.

  • Recovery is about more than just being able to work; it is about enjoying a full and active life. At the ICRC’s physical rehabilitation centres in Battambang, Cambodia, wheelchair basketball is one of several ways that disabled people can put sport back into their lives.

  • Holmes Fabian Ordonez’s courage and strength, along with support from the ICRC and local organizations, has helped him rebuild his life.

Story of discovery

Holmes gets back on his feet

In October 2010, Holmes Fabian Ordonez was on his way to a course in environmental management not far from his home in Caquetá department in southern Colombia when he stepped on a mine and lost a foot. This could have shattered his dreams. But Holmes went on to study at university thanks to his own perseverance and to support from the ICRC, the Colombian Red Cross and other local organizations.

When a conflict ends or moves from one area to another, explosive devices – mines, unexploded bombs, shells and cluster-munition bomblets – continue to kill and maim. Those who survive can lose their livelihood and their ability to perform even basic tasks. They often lose hope. And with wars increasingly being fought in densely populated cities, contamination by explosive devices is a growing concern.

“There is the explosion itself, which wounds and mutilates, and there are the lesser-known consequences – the psychological ones,” says Luis Arturo Rojas, a surgeon in Caquetá who was trained by the ICRC to help survivors of such explosions. “When you lose a limb, the biggest loss can be the desire to go on living.”

The ICRC’s response draws on expertise gained in numerous disciplines – including mine clearance and ordnance disposal, health care, physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support and international humanitarian law – to help individuals and entire communities cope with the effects and prevent future injuries.

“The ICRC has been everything to me,” says Holmes. “They were the first to approach me after the accident. Thanks to their support I’ve learned to walk again. Having lived through this, I believe that there are no limits in life.”

Stories of discovery

This is just one example of how people around the world come to discover the ICRC. And it shows how staff members such as Khaled work with local communities to discover new ways to meet our basic goal – alleviate the suffering caused by war. In this booklet, you will discover the ICRC through stories about people such as Khaled and through short explanations of exactly what the ICRC is, what we do, and how, when, where and why we take action.

Our integrated approach


To put an end to the devastating impact on civilians of anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions, we call upon States to ratify and incorporate into domestic law the treaties that prohibit production, transfer and use of these weapons. We also remind the States that have adopted these treaties of their obligations to clean up areas under their control that have been contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance.


As conflicts unfold, the ICRC is in constant dialogue with weapon-bearers in an effort to ensure they do not use weapons banned by international law. We also remind them of their obligation to clear areas of explosive devices once the conflict has ended.

Direct help

Around the world, the ICRC offers physical rehabilitation, artificial limbs and orthotics, crutches and wheelchairs to people injured by explosive devices. At the same time, we provide operational expertise to help clear civilian areas of such devices. All this prompts us to redouble our efforts to promote compliance with rules – and where necessary to advocate new rules – that ban or limit the use of such weapons.