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Water for peace? First, stop it becoming a weapon of war

What we really need this World Water Day is the international multilateral system to take a stand against weaponising water.

This is a low angle shot showing a man pouring water into water bottles from a water canister that is placed in the back of a truck. Dmytro Smolienko/Ukrinform/Sipa USA
A volunteer pours drinking water into bottles after the Kakhovka Dam was destroyed on 6 June 2023 affecting water supplies and food production for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.

As conflicts continue to rage in Ukraine and parts of the Middle East and Africa, the impact has not been limited to millions of people displaced and thousands killed. Among the massive material costs, water infrastructure has become fair game.

The highest number of attacks on water supplies ever reported was in 2022, according to the Pacific Institute’s open-source database: the Water Conflict Chronology. Along with the breakdown of social and economic systems in war, the destruction of water systems is exacerbating water and food insecurity. 

In the face of these crises, the clamour for peace is understandably loud today on UN World Water Day. This year’s chosen theme is ‘Water for Peace’. But can water really bring about peace? In reality, many of today’s conflicts suggest that the denial of water is being used as a weapon of war. This must not continue.

What we really need this World Water Day is the international multilateral system to take a stand against weaponising water. But paralysis – from the UN to the African Union and other regional institutions – is becoming the geopolitical norm. As we have seen in the case of Gaza, structural imbalances, including the arbitrary use of veto power, mean the UN Security Council has been unable to force the humanitarian action urgently needed for a much-needed ceasefire. There seems to be no moral compass, nor common sense of humanity and humanitarian law, to stop such wars, including how water becomes a weapon of war. 

Paralysis – from the UN to the African Union and other regional institutions – is becoming the geopolitical norm.

The appalling weaponisation of water includes Israel cutting off clean water supplies to Gaza from October 2023 onwards, contributing to the looming famine. More than half of Gaza’s water and wastewater infrastructure has been damaged through the war, leaving civilians dehydrated and at risk of severe disease, with children forced to drink highly polluted or salinated water. The depletion of fuel supplies to Gaza has further led to a collapse in desalinated water production, reducing water supplies for drinking, washing, and sanitation, with residents having access to only about one to three litres for all their needs. The minimum humanitarian daily standard is 15 litres per person, according to the World Health Organization.

In Tigray, northern Ethiopia where half of the water sources have been knocked out, a recent study found a very high rate of water-borne disease amongst children. This was down to households relying on poor drinking water and sanitation facilities after key water infrastructure – domestic and industrial water supply lines and irrigation schemes – had been damaged or not maintained due to the conflict. Degradation of this key infrastructure also contributed to acute levels of malnutrition amongst children.

Despite the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (CoHA) signed in Pretoria on 2 November 2022, there is still a lot of ongoing violence in Tigray, with conflict spreading in other parts of Ethiopia and famine looming due to the breakdown of the water and food systems. Furthermore, 1.2 million internally displaced people are moving to urban areas, such as Tigray’s capital, Mekelle, placing a strain on existing water supplies.

Despite the prevalence of attacks on water, the international legal position is quite clear. Water is a basic human right, and denying this right in times of conflict violates international humanitarian law and the Geneva conventions. According to UN human rights experts, it constitutes a war crime. Yet no single entity from the international system or regional institutions has been willing to call out these acts or even to impose basic humanitarian principles in conflicts – and this extends to water.

This doesn’t mean there are no precedents of water-based peace. The Indus Water Treaty of 1960, which enabled cooperation between uneasy neighbours India and Pakistan to share the waters of the Indus basin, remains a model of negotiated cooperation for water.

More recently, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), the African multi-country endeavour to create ever-increasing cooperation on water has led to multiple benefits for the region. But it faces an unclear future. The lynchpin state – Sudan – has fallen apart with the confluence of the two Niles at Khartoum now a battlefield. 

But there is still room for hope. The Arava Institute, located at the border between Israel and Jordan, trains future leaders in the Middle East to facilitate regional cooperation on environmental and water management issues. Despite the ongoing brutal war, its staff and students – including Israeli Jews and Arabs, Palestinians, and Jordanians – have affirmed the intertwined fates of all the peoples in the region and embarked on a mission to eliminate conflict over natural resources such as water – this can serve as a model for constructive peacemaking for wider areas of conflict. And with four billion people living in river basins that cross political boundaries, there are many instances from around the world where rivers unite humanity, with communities coming together to protect rivers and celebrate biodiversity. 

A cynic may claim that the examples mentioned above cannot translate into large-scale impacts when the political levers of control are increasingly authoritarian in many countries and regions. Yet examples from recent history of cooperation and action around water, including by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over the North Aral Sea, can help to remind us of what was, and still could be, achievable. In times of darkness, and when two billion people globally still don’t have access to safe drinking water, that is important.

The international community cannot claim that water is for peace on international water day, yet, at the same time, not do enough to call out certain countries and actors perpetuating wars that drag water onto the battlefield and, in the process, claim thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians.

We must first stop the wars. Then water can become a means to sustainable future peace.

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