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The importance of water in mitigating armed conflicts

The water distribution on our planet is really unequal and climate change has made things worse. Water shocks not only have severe environmental effects but also lead to exacerbating violent conflicts, mass displacement as well as humanitarian crises. The strain on obsolete infrastructures - unable to meet existing demands for water, sanitation as well as electricity - leads to heighten tensions within communities and, in some cases, to armed violence. Access to water and washing facilities along with water fair distribution and efficient management are challenges of paramount importance in order to fight against hunger, social injustice, and food scarcity. We can survive without food for more than one month but we cannot survive without water for more than two days. Water is the most basic and fundamental right of all human beings.

Wars for water, due to their vital importance, are a constant all over history, but they never knew in the past such an incredible escalation as in this century. Water infrastructure is of strategic importance - especially during wars - therefore most of the time they are damaged or destroyed by the enemy forces. Furthermore, countries enduring armed conflict are some of the most vulnerable to climate crises. Their capacity to adapt to a changing climate is drastically limited by the disruptive impact that wars have on societies. The International Humanitarian Law provisions, enshrined in the Four Geneva Conventions, foresee special protection for water installations indispensable for the survival of the civil population. Access to safe drinking water, to prevent diseases and epidemics, not only is crucial in peacetime but a fortiori in times of conflict.

Evidence for this is provided by article 54, paragraph 2, of the Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Convention which states: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as foodstuffs, agricultural areas for the production of foodstuffs, crops, livestock, drinking water installations and supplies and irrigation works, for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population or to the adverse Party, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive”. This means that parties to conflicts should avoid using exploding weapons with wide impacts in populated areas. The collateral damage of such weapons can, sure enough, severely disrupt the services that civilians depend on for their survival. In the same way, article 20 of the III Geneva Convention specifies that “[…] the detaining power shall supply prisoners of war who are being evacuated with sufficient food and potable water, and with the necessary clothing and medical attention[…]”.

It is no surprise to observe how a lot of people, in these situations, suffer from water-borne diseases with the dramatic consequence of placing even more pressure on under-equipped hospitals. Unfortunately, however, keeping the water systems working, during conflicts, is a heavy burden that is left - too often - on the shoulders of international organizations. The United Nations General Assembly, in Resolution A/RES/64/292, pointed out that the right to safe and clean drinking water along with sanitation is a human right, which is essential for the full enjoyment of life as well as all human rights. Hence, no one ought to be left behind, above all during a war.


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