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Water for peace, or water for war?

Notes on weaponisation of water for World Water Day 2024

By Barbara Schreiner, Executive Director, Water Integrity Network

The theme of World Water Day 2024 is ‘Leveraging Water for Peace’ – a critical and important issue. But it would be a mistake if we don’t also face up to the ongoing use of water as a weapon of war.

Water has been used as a weapon of war across human history. The ratification of the Geneva conventions and the recognition of the human right to water brought some hope that this would end. It is not the case.

In 2017, media reported that the Syrian government bombed water resources and cut off 5.5 million people from water supplies. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State used their control of dams, canals, and reservoirs to deny water to certain regions and to flood the path of approaching enemies. After the annexing of Crimea by Russia, Ukraine cut off water supply to the region. And, one of the first acts in the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 was to destroy the dam on the Dnipro river to restore this water supply. In October 2023 Israel cut water supplies to Gaza, leaving residents surviving on only a few litres of water per person per day.

Access to water is a human right. Access to water is a key to peace. Water integrity requires that we do what is right, stand by our mission to realise the human rights to water and sanitation, and uphold international law. We cannot let weaponisation of water continue.


When water becomes a tool of conflict, entire communities and ecosystems are at risk

Weaponisation of water can be military or political. The above cases are all military in nature: the control of water is used to coerce, intimidate or weaken opposing parties and/or civilian populations. In situations of political weaponisation, water is used to reinforce political legitimacy, not only during active conflict, but before and after.

At the heart of the issue lies the recognition of water as a fundamental human right. Access to clean water is not merely a matter of convenience; it is a prerequisite for health, dignity, and survival. Whether through the deliberate contamination of water sources or the destruction of infrastructure, the weaponisation of water undermines the most basic rights of individuals and perpetuates cycles of suffering and deprivation.

Moreover, the environmental consequences of weaponising water are profound and far-reaching. Water is not a static resource; it is part of a complex ecosystem that sustains life on earth. Disrupting natural water cycles, polluting waterways, and depleting aquifers can have devastating effects on biodiversity, ecosystem health, and the livelihoods of countless species. In regions already facing water scarcity and environmental degradation, the weaponisation of water exacerbates existing challenges.


Illegal and intolerable

Humanitarian concerns underscore the urgency of preventing the weaponisation of water. In conflict zones, access to clean water is often already compromised, leaving civilians at heightened risk of disease, malnutrition, and death. Obstruction of humanitarian aid and deliberate targeting of water infrastructure makes everything worse. As custodians of human rights and dignity, we cannot remain silent in the face of such injustices.

From a legal standpoint, the weaponisation of water violates established principles of international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions prohibit the use of methods and means of warfare that cause indiscriminate harm to civilians or fail to distinguish between military targets and civilian objects. Deliberately targeting water sources clearly contravenes these Conventions.

The weaponisation of water also has long-term implications for peace and stability. Water-related conflicts can quickly escalate into larger disputes and destabilise fragile states. In a world already grappling with the impacts of climate change, resource scarcity, and political instability, the weaponisation of water only serves to further strain relations between nations and perpetuate cycles of violence.


Staying firm in our committment to human rights: accountability and no impunity for weaponisation of water

Preventing the weaponisation of water requires a multifaceted approach. We must address both the root causes of conflict and the underlying drivers of water insecurity. Diplomatic efforts to promote dialogue, cooperation, and conflict resolution are essential for defusing tensions and fostering peaceful relations between states. We must also invest in water infrastructure, management, and conservation to build resilience and limit risk.

At the same time, it is imperative that we hold perpetrators of water-related atrocities accountable for their actions. The international community must condemn the use of water as a weapon. It must support efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for such crimes. By upholding the principles of justice and accountability, we send a clear message that the weaponisation of water will not be tolerated in any form.

The weaponisation of water in any form is a threat to human security, environmental stability, and peace, at all levels. As stewards of water it is imperative that we recognise the dangers inherent in such actions and continue the fight to prevent its occurrence.


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