Water, peace and security: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2016

22 November 2016

Open Debate on "Maintenance of international peace and security: water, peace and security". Statement given by Mme Christine Beerli, Vice-President of the ICRC, United Nations Security Council 22 November 2016.

None of us can live without water. We need water to drink. We need water to grow food. We need water to cook, and we need water to stay clean.

Water is a basic human need and the most fundamental humanitarian requirement.

Water is a symbol of life in the poetry of every nation. In the great musical culture of Senegal, the stringed kora of the griot is made from the same gourd that people use to carry water. The griot knows that water is for the body what song is for the soul.

In the ICRC's experience, the vital importance of water often makes it a highly contested resource in armed conflicts. Water points become strategic – whether they are rural wells in arid lands or pumping stations in sophisticated cities. In many wars, water systems are also caught up in fighting - becoming damaged, degraded or destroyed.

Even when supply exists, accessing water can become extremely dangerous – especially for women and girls who have responsibility for water collection in many societies. Children can spend hours queuing and collecting water when they should be at school.

Water is directly linked to public health. Polluted drinking water or insufficient water for washing causes people to get ill. This puts additional strain on health facilities and medical personnel already struggling to cope with high demand and limited capacity.

Water supply is also clearly linked to forced displacement and migration. When water supply fails, a civilian population has no option but to move. People are forced to leave their homes, leading to large movements of populations.

The provision of safe, sufficient, regular and clean water supply is a humanitarian priority for the ICRC. In over 80 countries our water teams work daily to provide water for populations affected by conflict and violence. We work with local authorities, commercial partners, local communities and national Red Cross or Red Crescent societies to ensure our water programmes are sustainable.

Last year we covered the urgent water needs of 28 million people. The rise in protracted urban warfare in the Middle East and increasing concentrations of IDPs in urban areas in the Lake Chad Basin have caused an exponential increase in the scale and technical complexity of our water operations.

Our water operations often see us working across conflict lines as we repair pumps and pipes that are essential to all sides. Encouragingly, in several conflicts, opponents will cooperate on water when they will not cooperate on anything else - giving us the access and supply chains we need to keep the water flowing.

Armed conflict has direct and indirect impacts on people's access to water – and both have a degrading cumulative impact on water supply over the many years of a protracted conflict.

The direct impacts of armed conflict are immediately obvious. Damaging attacks on electricity sub-stations, water storage installations and piping can render them unusable, cutting off tens of thousands of people in a single strike. Skilled personnel may also be killed, injured or displaced.

Indirect impact is less obvious but equally significant. The lack of skilled personnel and shortage of critical supplies means no maintenance for essential infrastructure, which soon deteriorates to the point where water is unsafe or entire populations are cut off.

In protracted armed conflict this cumulative impact on services is hard to reverse. We have seen this recently in Syria, Iraq, DRC and CAR where water services are severely reduced and we have resorted to water trucking.

International humanitarian law (IHL) is clear on the humanitarian significance of water and places various obligations on parties to conflict to protect water installations.

IHL provides special protection for objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population – like drinking water installations and irrigation works. Objects containing dangerous forces, such as dams, are also protected from attack.

IHL also provides important general protection against attacks on civilian objects and attacks which affect the civilian population. Parties to conflict must take precautions in attack, and refrain from attacks expected to cause excessive incidental damage, and also consider the reverberating effects of their actions on the civilian population.

Despite these clear rules for the protection of essential services like water, the ICRC continues to see populations suffer the consequences of a lack of respect for IHL.

This risk of reverberating effects from damage to water installations is one reason why the ICRC urges parties to conflict to avoid using explosive weapons with wide areas impact in densely populated areas. Even when aimed at a military objective, the use of these weapons can incidentally damage vital infrastructure located in the vicinity of the target, severely disrupting the provision of services on which civilians depend for their survival.

Parties to conflict have an obligation to ensure that the basic needs of the civilian population are met and that their dignity is protected. Water is essential for a life with dignity and parties to conflict, government donors and humanitarian organizations must work together to support resilient urban services during armed conflict.

The ICRC welcomes the initiative of the Government of Senegal to discuss this important topic here today, and we urge Members of the Council to take the following measures on water and armed conflict:

  • Respect international humanitarian law and take into account the interdependence of essential services, such as water, health and electricity, and the cumulative impact of protracted armed conflict on essential water supplies for civilian populations
  • Recognise that dialogue on water needs between warring parties is critical, and help to facilitate it.
  • Prioritize and support effective partnerships between local authorities, service providers and humanitarian organizations to ensure resilient water services.
  • Ensure the Council remains seized on this issue.

Mr President, thank you for giving the ICRC the opportunity to speak to the Council today on this important topic.