• Send page
  • Print page

Ensuring water supply for civilians in war zones

16-03-2009 Interview

In many conflicts, disease kills more civilians than bullets. Reason enough for the ICRC to call on governments to ensure safe water and decent sanitation for civilians in conflict zones. An interview with Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC’s water and habitat unit, on the occasion of the Fifth World Water Forum in Istanbul, Turkey.

  • News release
  • TV news footage

      ICRC publication Water and war  

    Download full-size map - pdf format
    extract from "Water and war"

    Map of beneficiaries of ICRC water and habitat work in 2008.    

        The ICRC is taking part this week in the World Water Forum.  


      © ICRC / O. Saad / v-p-iq-e-00699    
    Baghdad, Iraq. An ICRC technician working in Al Wethba pumping station. November 2008.    
      © Norwegian Red Cross / O. Saltbones /v-p-ge-e-00315    
    Tbilisi, Georgia. Two boys fill their bottle at an ICRC water point after taking refuge in an abandoned building. August 2008.    
      © ICRC / P. Yazdi / v-p-so-e-00435    
    West of Dusamareb, Galgadud region, Somalia. Displaced persons fetch water from an ICRC distribution point. February 2009.    
  Robert Mardini, head of the ICRC’s water and habitat unit    
     Why is water so important?  

People need water to drink and to cook. They need water to keep themselves clean. They need water to produce food and to raise livestock. Hospitals consume huge amounts of water. There can be no life without water and it is intolerable for people not to have access to water during a conflict. That is why the ICRC is calling on governments to do more to ensure that people in conflict zones have access to safe water and decent sanitation.


 Why are water and sanitation such an issue in conflict zones?  


Water, sewage and electricity systems are often among the first elements of a country’s infrastructure to be put out of service. This may be due to war damage, but systems may fail simply because technicians cannot get to installations in order to operate and maintain them.


  In 2008:
  • 15 million people benefited from the ICRC’s water, sanitation and construction projects.
  • 400 ICRC engineers and technicians were operating in 43 contexts around the world.
  • The ICRC's budget for water and sanitation projects was 132 million Swiss francs.

Conflict almost always forces civilians to flee, when they can. This can result in thousands of internally displaced persons arriving in an area where the water and sanitation installations were designed for a few hundred. And then those installations are shelled. And no-one can repair the damage because of the fighting. So people have no clean water and no sanitation. They drink dirty water, so they pick up water-borne diseases. They can’t wash, so they get hygiene-related diseases. Epidemics break out. People die. In many conflicts, more civilians are killed by disease than by bullets.


The ICRC makes restoring access to water and sanitation one of its top priorities in a conflict situation.


 The ICRC often talks about “access to water and sanitation.” What does this actually mean?  


There are two sides to access. The first is that civilians need safe water and decent environmental health conditions. In an urban context, this hinges largely on the continued functioning of water distribution networks, drains, sewage works and other infrastructure. In the countryside, “access” may mean being able to get to the nearest water point without being attacked on the way.

The second aspect is that professionals need access to installations. They must be able to enter pumping stations, sewage works and so forth to repair war damage, make normal “technical” repairs, carry out routine maintenance and operate equipment. It may be that all is needed is for one button to be pressed to restart a water pump. But if the technician cannot drive to the pumping station without getting shot at, he can’t press that button. So the pump doesn’t start. So people don’t get mains water. So they drink dirty water. If they drink dirty water they may get cholera. If they get cholera they may die. All because one technician couldn’t press one button.

But often, restoring water and sanitation involves more than hitting a button. Repairing war damage can be a lengthy undertaking. A few hours’ truce is welcome, but it’s often too little. Parties must suspend hostilities for long enough to allow humanitarian action, and that includes basic water and sanitation work.

When fighting makes it too dangerous for technicians to go to water supply installations, the ICRC will speak to the parties to the conflict to arrange safe passage, and then accompany the technicians to and from the installation. We did this on a number of occasions in the recent Gaza conflict, for instance.

 In a conflict situation, who is responsible for making sure people have access to water and sanitation?  

 Responsibility rests squarely with the authorities. International humanitarian law prohibits attacks on what are termed “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population,” and these include water installations, water supplies and irrigation works.

The ICRC will do all it can to assist, but that doesn’t relieve the authorities of their fundamental responsibility to provide essential services.


 Many of the countries where the ICRC operates are suffering both natural disaster and conflict. What effect does this have on the population?  

Extreme weather events hit people in war zones especially hard. Somalia is a prime example. For decades, people there have been trying to cope with both a conflict and an increasingly severe drought. Either would be bad. Together, they’re catastrophic.

The drought forces herders to travel further to find water for their livestock. Not only does this place an additional strain on these communities, it also renders them vulnerable to attack along the way.

Drought is an insidious killer. It doesn’t grab the headlines in the same way as an earthquake, a hurricane or a volcanic eruption. But worldwide, drought accounts for half of all deaths due to natural disaster.

These issues have obliged the ICRC to ramp up its water and sanitation activities in Somalia.


 How would you describe the ICRC’s way of working?  

The ICRC’s response is based purely on the needs of the people affected. To meet those needs, we have to establish good working relationships with all concerned.

First off, that means talking to arms bearers, to ensure they grant civilians safe access to water and technicians safe access to installations. Second, it means talking to all the professionals involved to see how we can best support their efforts to maintain water and sanitation services. We talk to the people in charge of water systems, sewage systems, hospitals, primary health care centres, displaced persons camps and places of detention, to ensure that our activities make a real difference t o people in need, regardless of which side they’re associated with.

Indeed, ICRC personnel talk to everyone they need to in order to do their job. That’s part of what we mean when we say we’re “neutral and independent”. We don’t take sides and we don’t get involved in politics – we just go in and help those most in need.