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Water under attack - and how to protect it

A Yemeni boy carrying a jerrycan of water, 10 September 2021. Yemen’s crippling water shortage, the ongoing conflict, climate change impacts, and the country’s complex humanitarian crisis are all interlinked. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Yahya Arhab)

Conflicts involving water are as old as civilization.  Alexander the Great tore down Persian dams, Assyrian kings poisoned enemy wells, and Julius Caesar was fond of cutting off water supplies during sieges.

In present-day Syria, ​​water has been turned into a weapon of war with catastrophic repercussions for civilians, as Geneva Solutions’ reported in an earlier chapter of the series. Dwindling freshwater supplies are also fanning tensions and triggering conflicts in increasing parts of the world from India to the Sahel region of Africa.

Whether as a weapon, target, or as a casualty of war, figures show that violence associated with water has surged in the past decade, sparking calls for new rules or mechanisms to protect its vital infrastructure.

A Geneva approach

Two years ago, a team of legal experts in Geneva took up the challenge and created a document that laid out ground rules for shielding water systems during armed conflict, drawing on international humanitarian and human rights law.

The Geneva Water Hub and its International Water Law Platform, in collaboration with other academic partners and international organisations, developed the Geneva List of Principles on the Protection of Water Infrastructure.

The document followed up on recommendations made by the Global High-Level Panel on Water and Peace in its 2017 report, A Matter of Survival, which included calls to strengthen respect for international humanitarian law and human rights law during armed conflicts.

Mara Tignino, a legal specialist at the Geneva Water Hub and one of the lead authors of the list, said its aim is to serve as a reference tool for state and non-state actors.

A one-stop-shop for rules on the protection of water infrastructure, “it can help identify the challenges, what are the existing norms, and what are good practices for actors in the field”, she told Geneva Solutions.

This includes how to address key threats like the use of poison or poisoned weapons against water, which is prohibited under the Hague Convention II, and attacks on water and water-related infrastructure. These are considered civilian objects under the additional protocols of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and attacks are therefore banned.

“The principles are a restatement of existing international laws but also expand beyond international humanitarian law to include human rights law such as the right to have access to safe drinking water. It also takes into account international water law,” Tignino explained.

Monitoring water attacks

Defining a set of principles was the first step in protecting water systems but there is still more to do, Tignino said.  The next step is to identify ways to better monitor and take action again water-related crimes, using mechanisms already in force.

This includes looking at how the UN’s Security Council, the International Criminal Court, and the International Court of Justice could play a bigger role and also leveraging investigation mechanisms set up by the Human Rights Council.

"The Security Council has an agenda on the protection of civilians so the protection of water goes under this umbrella. This could also be a way of bringing up the issue of water security at the council," she said.

“We would also like to explore the practice of the International Criminal Court, for example, if there are some decisions that could be used indirectly to protect water infrastructure.”

So far, there have only been a few prosecutions concerning attacks on water, one of the most notable examples being the ICC’s indictment against the former ruler of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, for contaminating wells in villages attacked by his forces.

The Geneva Water Hub is looking to work with several institutions in 2022 on this next stage of the project, including UNICEF and ICRC as well as academic institutions such as the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.

The authors are also adding a new principle on cyber operations to the list, amid increasing attacks as water systems in certain countries become increasingly sophisticated and digitalised.

"We have to take into account the same principles of international humanitarian law for the normal conduct of hostilities and apply them to cyber attacks,” Tignino added.

The water we share