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Symposium "water in armed conflicts"

16-11-1994 News Release

 Montreux, 21-23 November 1994  

ICRC steps in to combat water-borne disease in war zones


The conflicts fought in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Zaire, Yemen, Afghanistan and quite a few other parts of the world in 1994 have one point in common: thousands of civilians are suffering from a lack of drinking water and often dying from its consequences - cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and dysentry. " Improving the water supply and public health in general in conflict zones must become a top priority if we are to save the lives of innocent civilians. The suffering and deaths caused by the disruption of water supplies in times of armed conflict have reached a critical level. This problem requires urgent attention " , said Giorgio Nembrini, ICRC water and sanitary engineer.

Today the ICRC is trying in fifteen conflicts to restore water supplies. But the effects of hostilities on the supply and and quality of water are immense and the means of solving the problem are clearly still far too small.

 Much time is lost before drinking water can be provided  

In times of conflict not only are water installations and piping often attacked, but damage to power stations also can disrupt water distribution. Spare parts are looted, fuel becomes scarce and supplies of di sinfecting chemicals run out. Skilled personnel to operate and maintain the water installations disappear. " In many such situations we have to start from scratch and provide all the necessary material and knw-how ourselves. Therfore much time is lost before drinking water can be provided in sufficient quantity for the civilian population " , Nembrini pointed out.

 Camps for displaced people affected today - perhaps cities tomorrow?  

Today the problem occurs mainly in camps for displaced people and refugees: up to 50 per cent of deaths among people there can be caused by water-borne disease. The construction of latrines and the installation of water purification systems often take too long. Tomorrow the problem may arise just as dramatically in cities that come under fire, where water supplies are particularly vulnerable.

 Improve matters - but how?  

To addrss the practical and legal problems and draw attention to this crucial issue, the ICRC is holding a symposium on " Water in Armed Conflicts " in Montreux, Switzerland, from 21 to 23 November. Nembrini hopes that it will provide some answers: " Experts in all humanitarian organizations want to improve the situation for civilians suffering from water deprivation in times of conflict, and to do so better and more efficiently " , he acknowledged, " but the question is how? " .

 Raise awareness among the public and combatants  

Scientists, sanitary engineers, representatives of water companies and experts in international law will try to find answers in Montreux to many unresolved questions. " The first step will certainly be to encourage greater respect for water installations, to i mprove coordination and the exchange of information and to increase general awareness of the problem " , concluded the ICRC water engineer.

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