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International Symposium on Water in Armed Conflicts

24-11-1994 News Release

 Montreux, November 21-23, 1994  


In armed conflicts a lack of clean water often kills as many people as bullets and bombs, an international symposium organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) heard this week. 

Attacks on water installations are increasing. Access to water sources is often deliberately denied, distribution is cut, power and pumping stations are shelled and water contaminated. Civilians are exposed to thirst, dehydration, and to potentially life-threatening diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and dysentery. This is in contravention of international humanitarian law.

Another effect of hostilities on water is the displacement of populations. Experts estimate that up to half of the deaths of displaced persons are caused by water-borne diseases. Children suffer the most. For example, three-quarters of the deaths among children under five in camps on the Turkey-Iraq border in 1991 were a consequence of dehydration, diarrhoeal diseases and malnutrition.

In emergency situations, quick action to supply clean water prevents disease and saves lives. For example, this has been demonstrated in parts of the former Yugoslavia and Yemen, where prompt action to restore supplies has helped to prevent epidemics. However, the shift of conflicts into urban areas where water systems are highly complex is a severe challenge to humanitarian agencies.

The symposium was the first step in an effort by the ICRC to draw the attention of the international community to the problems and to seek solutions. The initiative's main objective is to help achieve more effective protection of the victims of war, especially where water installations and supplies are affected by hostilities.

 At the closing of the symposium, experts agreed to:  

1. Aim for absolute protection of water supplies and systems, and to extend legal protection to include engineers attempting to restore water supplies in times of armed conflict.

2. Improve the capacity to respond by strengthening the co-operation and co-ordination between the ICRC, the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their Federation, United Nations agencies, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and the private sector.

3. Establish an international network to centralise, provide and share essential operational information such as plans, expertise and equipment details between relevant companies, aid agencies and field personnel.

4. Explore ways to involve the private sector in helping, on a humanitarian basis, to restore complex water systems during armed conflict.

5. Raise awareness of the devastating effects of war on water supplies as well as on public health, at the international and national levels.

6. Prepare, in peacetime, for the predicted problems of water shortages and environmental degradation during armed conflict.

7. Strive to broaden the scope of medical operations, to include public health activities in emergency relief.

8. Call for measures to be taken to disseminate the rules governing the protection of water supplies and installations, as well as to inform and to educate the public on water issues, in peacetime as well as in wartime.

Experts concluded that the symposium would be the gateway to further thinking and action on matters such as the question of the balance between military necessity and humanitarian needs.

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