ALEPPO, Syria — As they try to resolve the widespread shortage of drinkable water in the developing world, the United Nations is faced with a new, rapidly growing problem: the use of water as a weapon of war in ongoing conflicts.
Recent examples include the violence in India, Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Botswana. In Israel, all access to supplies in the occupied territories has been cut off. Syrian cities have had their water deliberately cut off for eight days, depriving 2.5 million people of access to safe drinking water.
“Preventing people’s access to safe water is a denial of a fundamental human right,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
This isn’t the first time water has been used as a weapon of war. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Mesopotamian Marshes were drained. They were drained even further in the 1990s, when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein drained them in retribution against Shias who hid there and the Mash Arabs who protected them.
Maude Barlow, a representative of both the Council of Canadians and the Food and Water Watch, stated that the privatization of water in Egypt, along with its diversion to the wealthy, was a major factor in the ‘Arab Spring’ uprising, as thousands who suddenly had no access to drinkable water rose up in protest.
Barlow added that over four decades of Israeli occupation make it nearly impossible to develop or maintain water infrastructure in Gaza, causing the water to become contaminated and resulting in many deaths.
Anand Grover and Catarina de Albuquerque, two U.N. experts on water and sanitation, say that this interference is unacceptable. Since May 2014, the city of Aleppo has had occasional water access at best, cutting off clean water and sanitation services to as many as one million people. “This has affected homes, hospitals and medical centers,” say Grover and de Albuquerque.
Barlow added that the al-Assad government’s denial of clean water is consistent with water warfare tactics, using water to punish enemies and reward its friends in the past. In 2000, the Syrian government deregulated land use and gave vast amounts of land and water to its wealthy allies, driving almost 1 million small farmers and herders off the land.
“Water as a weapon of war is a strong argument to governments and the U.N. that they must make real the human right to water and sanitation, regardless of other conflicts taking place,” said Barlow.
According to a joint report by the U.N. Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization, more than half the global population lives in cities. These urban areas, though often lacking in water infrastructure, are still better supplied with improved water and sanitation services than rural people.
However, the gap is closing in a positive way. In 1990, more than 76 percent of people living in urban areas had access to improved sanitation compared to the 28 percent of people living in rural areas. In 2012, 80 percent of people in urban environments and 47 percent of rural inhabitants had access to better sanitation.
Yet, this progress isn’t enough. Geographic, social, cultural and economic barriers still prevent water from reaching hundreds of millions of people who need it.
– Monica Newell