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No one-size-fits-all solution to world's water woes

12-03-2012 News Release 12/51

Geneva (ICRC) – The suffering of tens of millions of people worldwide who face a desperate, daily struggle to find clean drinking water and who live in unsanitary conditions is being severely compounded by armed conflict and other situations of violence.

As experts gather at the Sixth World Water Forum in the French port city of Marseille to try to come up with solutions to the world's water woes, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is calling attention to the water-related challenges faced by civilians caught up in fighting.

"For those of us who are lucky enough to turn on the tap and take a hot shower every morning, it's almost impossible to imagine what it's like to be displaced by fighting and living under a tree in the drought-stricken Sahel or to be trapped in an embattled city like Homs, unable to move about in search of food or water," said the head of the ICRC's water and habitat unit, Jean-Philippe Dross. "It's bad enough to be thirsty and hungry. It's another thing altogether to be thirsty, hungry and living with the threat of violence and bloodshed."

Worldwide, it's estimated that more than 780 million people – 40 per cent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa – don't have access to clean water while around 2.5 billion don't have a toilet or latrine. At the Sixth World Water Forum, the ICRC will lead discussions on the importance of ground-level cooperation and communication in coming up with practical solutions, especially in conflict-affected areas, where protracted or intense fighting, political wrangling and embargoes can leave communities without decent access to water and sanitation for weeks, years or even decades.

"We're seeing some worrying 'cause and effect' trends leading to increased vulnerability and violence," said the ICRC’s regional water and habitat adviser for the Middle East, Michael Talhami. "The highly inequitable distribution of resources, widespread environmental and natural resource sustainability issues, a lack of cooperation between authorities, rapid population growth, and climate change are all factors that contribute to greater competition for scarce resources, hindered economic growth, a rise in forced migration and increased tensions."

The ICRC, which carries out water, sanitation and construction projects for more than 20 million people in 48 conflict-affected countries worldwide, firmly believes that local cooperation, dialogue and innovation hold the keys to addressing some of these complex humanitarian challenges.

A new ICRC pilot project in Ethiopia, carried out jointly with the regional water authorities, offers an example of how simple technology can be leveraged to help rural villages improve access to water. The project will link 32 local water boards to a central database. Information uploaded by mobile phone users will be used to map and chart the status of 7,000 individual pumps and stations, offering real-time updates on where repairs and overhauls are needed. It's hoped the project can be expanded regionally and replicated elsewhere.

Another example of local ingenuity in action can be found in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, where restrictions on imports of building materials, chronic water shortages and a dilapidated sewage system made it necessary to come up with simplified and environmentally friendly construction plans for wastewater treatment. Using recycled materials and innovative technology, a plant was built that serves 180,000 people and has the potential to transform wastewater into a resource clean enough to irrigate fruit trees. Projects like this one also protect the Strip's groundwater and prevent the Mediterranean from becoming a dumping place for harmful sewage.

"When communities recognize water as an issue of common interest and concern, and decide to work together, rather than fight about it, they can come up with shared and sustainable solutions that build resilience and spur innovation," said Mr Dross. "Water can be an incredibly divisive issue, but it can also be a tremendous source of collaboration, creativity and capacity-building."

For further information, please contact:
Anna Nelson, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 79 217 3264



"Volcano" district, Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A young boy walks between newly laid water pipes. The district was completely destroyed by an eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano in 2002.
© ICRC / P. Moore / v-p-cd-e-01390

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