News.Feb 01, 2024

Water: A platform for peace in the tides of war

Sabotaging civilians' access to water during an armed conflict is a war crime that violates international humanitarian law. Yet, many belligerent forces resort to using water as a weapon, further endangering lives in the process. But beyond access, what role does water play in conflicts? And how can good governance transform water into a platform for cooperation and peace?

Ellen Pokorny
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Ellen Boyer Pokorny
Communications Manager,
Cecile Hue Pillon
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Cécile Pillon Hue
Communications Manager,
Katie Goldie Ryder photo
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Katie Goldie-Ryder
Programme Manager (on leave),
Transboundary Water Cooperation

Access to clean water is a basic human right. While endorsed by the United Nations (UN) and countless other organizations, including and stoutly argued for by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), this right is not fully recognized. On the contrary, a recent study by the Pacific institute shows a surge in attacks of water supplies. When water is used as a weapon in armed conflict, it exacerbates hostile strife, and jeopardizes many lives. However, steps are being taken that are moving in the right direction for protecting water access and creating peaceful cooperation over water.

Since 2010, when safe and affordable drinking water was formally recognized by the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council as a human right, the protection of water resources has continued to be a part of international, regional, and domestic laws across the globe. However, these international and human rights laws are often overlooked, or deliberately disregarded, during armed conflicts. Water can be a cause of conflict, used as a critical tool or weapon in conflicts, or a casualty of conflict placing water in the combat zone.

This is a devastating violation of human rights laws that puts people in vulnerable situations, particularly in areas that are already considered water scarce. Women and girls ultimately pay the steepest price for this exploitation, where water collection is necessary, as they are most often the water gatherers for their communities and will therefore be even more exposed to violence and warring skirmishes. As they also have specific needs related to menstruation, pregnancy and child care, access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) is fundamental to improving health outcomes of women and girls, and for prosperous and sustainable communities.

Climate change and water threats

The impacts of climate change are first and foremost experienced through water: droughts, floods, storms, and extreme weather events are much more likely to occur, inducing higher levels of water insecurity, particularly, in already water scarce regions.

In fragile and conflict affected areas, climate insecurities can be felt more severely by the population; if provisions of water are strategically sabotaged in an already water-scarce area, vulnerable populations only become more vulnerable. This leads to further economic, political, and social issues, complicating an already complex situation.

This can look like:

  • Access to resources might become more difficult, if infrastructure is destroyed or becomes unavailable, directly threatening people’s livelihoods.
  • Extreme climate conditions can force people to migrate, increasing the demand for resources in the place of destination. In regions where supply is already scarce, the added pressure can make an already fragile system collapse.
  • Dire climate impacts can make it easier for armed groups to assert their influence, by facilitating recruitment of members and by allowing them to step into contexts with instability and weak governance.

Long term impacts of water in armed conflicts

While the short term consequences of weaponizing water during an armed conflict may seem obvious, the long term effects are often overlooked, yet can be just as damaging.

When water supply or infrastructure is targeted during conflicts, in the short term, people’s livelihoods are at risk, the environment is destroyed, and infectious diseases spread. However, in the long term, the environmental damage can be extensive, including the durable contamination of soils, particularly groundwater, the long-lasting imbalance of fragile ecosystems, and insidious effects on people’s health and longevity. Further, repairing damaged infrastructure has exorbitant economic costs, which can prevent local governments from investing in other essential areas like health, education or public services, which increases vulnerabilities in the long term.

Town of Wadi Halfa, Sudan (Photo: Martchan / Shutterstock) Border town of Wadi Halfa by the Lake Aswan in Sudan
Town of Wadi Halfa, Sudan (Photo: Martchan / Shutterstock)

Shared water and conflicts

Water resources often cross boundaries of more than one country. More than three billion people depend on shared water that crosses borders. When these shared waters happen to be in conflict-laden areas, this can create a tense situation in accessing clean water for neighbouring countries, and can lead to an increasingly hostile environment, triggering violence and exacerbating conflict.

At present, in regions experiencing armed conflict, such as in Ukraine, Gaza, and Sudan, water is being actively utilized as part of a strategy for oppression. Since 2022, in Ukraine, Russia has attacked dams, wells, and pipelines, contaminating water, and withholding water access for more than 20 days at a time. In Gaza, Israeli forces responded to attacks by denying and restricting access to freshwater, water-treatment plants, and other locally produced water systems, preventing populations from accessing basic amounts of safe drinking water according to World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines. Sea water has also been used to flood Hamas tunnels, which will result in the salinization of soils, making the entire area unfit for farming for decades to come. In Sudan, several water treatment plants and pumping stations have been destroyed, resulting in frequent water outages, and leaving people without access to basic sanitation services.

As more data is compiled and analyzed, it seems that there is an increase in water-related conflicts; when water serves as a trigger, weapon, or is a casualty of war. The increase in this strategic use of water during attacks is troubling, as more conflicts are sure to continue in the coming years, while water resources continue to dwindle.

As the impacts of climate change intensify, it is even more important that countries cooperate to build and maintain peace as they prepare for the inevitable uncertainties surrounding water and resources.

Peaceful water cooperation

How then, can water be used as a tool for peace and support conflict prevention and cooperation?

Water can be a tool to bridge the disrupted gaps between countries, actors, and parties. Through preventive diplomacy, crisis management, conflict resolution, and peace building processes, water can be an entry point for cooperative dialogues.

Strengthen cooperation

  • Conflicts over freshwater resources are often embedded in or have grown from historical grievances. This often reflects much broader geopolitical issues between countries than water usage alone. Strengthening networks and opening lines of formal and informal communication amongst countries related to water resources remains a key challenge around the world.

Increase cooperative treaties

However, there is still a long way to go, as water cooperation agreements continue to be underutilized; for example, of 310, only one third of transboundary river basins have formalized agreements. And this number only lessens when you broaden the water scope to include aquifers, where limited freshwater is most readily stored.

Improve preparedness

  • The International Centre for Water Cooperation (ICWC) recently concluded a water cooperation assessment of 32 basins in Africa, outlining next steps for better cooperation in their Water Cooperation Global Outlook Initiative. These types of assessments must continue, as they include insights on country preparedness and policy opportunities for water cooperation solutions.
  • Further, the World Resources Institute has recently developed an artificial intelligence algorithm called the “Global Early Warning Tool” that analyses data while considering many factors before flagging potential water related issues. This analysis can help prepare countries before an armed conflict arises, and put into place appropriate, sustainable, climate-prepared solutions.

Implement international protection laws

  • In 2016, the Geneva Water Hub created a guiding list of principles that could be used as a starting point for protecting water sources during conflicts and elucidates how to apply international laws during these situations. The principles focus on water sources that are weaponized during conflicts and discuss how to safeguard them in post-conflict scenarios. Following the workshop in 2016, a policy briefing from the Geneva Water Hub was prepared, which recommended safeguarding freshwater and water-related infrastructure to protect water from conflicts.
  • Various petitions and initiatives continue to sprout, asking the UN to implement international protection laws for water sources.
  • In 2021, the Council of the European Union (EU) made specific mention of the mismanagement of water resources as part of their “10 priority crime threats for EU countries”, under environmental crime. In 2023, the EU Parliament and Council outlined specifics regarding environmental crimes that included water, including “illegal depletion of water resources”, and proposed sanctions to better protect the environment.
  • In 2021, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council approved water diplomacy conclusions that reaffirmed their commitment to SDG6, and increased water’s emphasis in their external action. This also demonstrated the importance of strong multilateral and bilateral cooperation, underlining the EU’s intention to enhance water as a tool for peace, security, and stability.

Ensure inclusive decision making processes

These are all steps in the right direction for proper protection of water resources. However, many more international, regional, and domestic laws must continue to follow these trends to make serious headway in peaceful water resource recognition.


SIWI’s approach and contributions to peacebuilding

Raising awareness

  • To increase cooperation over water resources, SIWI is a leader in raising awareness of the complexities of the issue and the inefficiency of maintaining the current siloed approach to water governance. Through our networks and events, SIWI advocates for interlinked, multi-sectoral, solutions to water protection.
  • SIWI focuses on facilitating dialogue amongst actors and encourages information sharing for more fruitful cooperation. Up to 60% of global freshwaters flows are not covered by formal agreements or treaties. Many agreements that are in place are not being implemented due to changing climate and water conditions and growing uncertainty. SIWI responds to these challenges by creating a safe dialogue space where a broad range of actors sharing a water resource can advance knowledge on shared climate-related risks and discuss solutions.
  • The ICWC and its work is backed by SIWI, focusing on capacity building, and advancing knowledge on water cooperation.

Improving water diplomacy and governance

  • A key water diplomacy expert, SIWI contributes knowledge to peaceful, stable governance, connecting water to social, environmental, economic, and political factors, and helping to establish and enhance technical and political cooperation over water.
  • SIWI leads the “Shared Water Partnership” programme. This programme facilitates transboundary water cooperation within fragile and conflict-affected regions of the globe.

Including women in decision making

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