What does war do to water and how can we respond?

Diffa, Garin Wazam displaced person site. The ICRC, in cooperation with the Red Cross Society of Niger, provides thousands of litres of water to displaced persons from Yébi and Bosso. (Copyright: ICRC)

Violence, displacement, damaged infrastructure – the threats conflict poses to water access are multifaceted and severe, particularly in regions already bearing the brunt of temperature increases and extreme weather events worsened by climate change. Patrick Youssef is the regional director for Africa of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Ahead of Geneva Solutions’ event on water security on 21 September, on the occasion of World Peace Day, he discusses some of the challenges he’s witnessed in the region, the ICRC’s response, and whether water can help build peace in communities wracked by war.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Geneva Solutions: How has water access been impacted by armed conflict in Africa?

Patrick Youssef: When we have major violence or a war, the first thing we see is communities become quite disintegrated. Some people remain there with probably nothing and very low incomes, others move within the country, and a third category moves outside of the country as refugees. These numbers are growing in volume in Africa as a result of war and conflict, and this displacement is adding enormous pressure on infrastructure and weighing on communities that already have scarce resources.

Take Maiduguri in north-eastern Nigeria, where we have over five million displaced people within a city that can only provide for one million or even less. Or take a small town I visited last week in the north of Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the population has increased from 50,000 to 112,000 following the volcano eruption near Goma in May. The town has only so much water, food and natural resources to offer.

We've broken the record with 55 million internally displaced people in 2021, and we see that the numbers are only increasing. In places like Tigray and throughout Ethiopia, Mozambique and Burkina Faso, we have a problem with getting water resources to those who need it. On top of the displacement, we see a lack of investment in the infrastructure, which means a large number of people are just not getting access to water. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 400 million people have difficulties accessing fresh, clean water.

When war or violence takes over large swathes of land, be it under non-state armed groups or government authorities, those who really need water lose access. In Africa, the three main economic communities – herders, farmers and fishers – have the land they use to grow their crops, for fishing, or transhumance [moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle] taken over. In the Sahel, for example, people are not only changing course but are also trying to adapt their transient activities, often extending them as the land they have access to changes. That will also have a social price for families, communities and traditions. So we can see that even the social fabric is being affected by the lack of clean water resources in these areas.

What are some of the repercussions?

PY: There's one element that often goes unnoticed, and that's the direct link between a lack of water access and protection issues for the most vulnerable categories of populations, for example, women and children. They are typically the ones tasked with fetching water, and they are forced to go into dangerous spaces where they are sometimes subjected to rape or sexual violence. That is probably because they don't have access within their own communities and are forced to travel long and dangerous distances just to get water. In September 2021, there are still people who walk up to 10 km to get two barrels of water.

Central African Republic: Kaga-Bandoro, hospital. A young girl fetches water (Credit: ICRC)
GS: Have you witnessed conflict caused or driven by water?

We know that water does not directly cause armed conflicts – or at least we don't have enough critical mass of cases. But armed conflict does weaken traditional justice in communities, leaving an absence of mediation measures between communities. Usually, traditional leaders mediate between communities that have difficulties equally distributing water resources according to people’s needs. The breakdown of this further fuels local tensions and instability, which contributes to further violence and dynamics of violence that are often unfortunately irreversible.

And again, because of the massive displacement in countries such as the DRC and Burkina Faso, pressure is mounting on communities, some of which are rejecting displaced people, leading to local violence and irreversible grievances. You can imagine the huge impact on social cohesion within a community that lived together peacefully for hundreds of years and is now being faced with scarce water resources.

GS: Is climate change making things worse?

PY: Climate hazards and environmental degradation adds another layer of complexity to water access because of the scarcity caused by rising temperatures. The places where we see this the most are the Sahel, the Sahara region because of the desertification, and the Horn of Africa, where the massive locust infestation has deeply affected every aspect of agriculture. That is another huge concern because these impacts only exacerbate existing fragilities and difficulties for people.

There isn’t a direct link of casualty, but with the environment degrading more and more, some of the cattle that people used to live off are disappearing or are unable to sustain the harsh weather conditions. In some areas in Africa, tensions between farmers and herders are probably generating more wounds and deaths than actual armed conflicts, but they go unnoticed because they’re within communities. In Burkina Faso and Mali, there have been staggering numbers of people killed in this way.

GS: And conversely, how can water help build peace?

PY: Water is a human right and has to be afforded whether we’re fighting or not fighting, in conflict and in peace. It’s not conditional. But I think water can be a tool of peace if it has the space to cater for the needs of not only the population but also its future. And having a sustainable future goes with protecting the environment and having enough water and resources. The simple protection of water resources and access to basic social services can only help social cohesion in the communities that are shattered by war.

North Kivu province, Goma. The eruption of Nyiaragongo volcano in May caused severe damages to the water distribution network in the northern part of the city. The ICRC used trucks to ensure that people and hospitals in affected areas have access to water (copyright ICRC).
GS: How does the ICRC intervene to safeguard access to water in conflict settings?

PY: First and foremost by being there, by acting, by being a witness. On the structural side, the ICRC is always very busy every day on building and rehabilitating and treating the root causes of crises. We operate in emergencies, in water trucking to internally displaced camps or many other places. We also work with local authorities, namely water directorates, to train them so that they can take care of their own structures.

Working with water infrastructure means we have to think very long-term, which is now becoming part of our DNA at the ICRC. It’s moving from simply repairing a hand pump to acknowledging that, because of the protracted nature of crises today, with an average war lasting between 25 to 30 years, we have to think about how we can enhance access to basic services such as water long-term. Some examples include projects on the water network in Goma in the DRC, which was recently affected by the volcano eruption, or a similar upcoming project in Gao in the north of Mali.

GS: We have international humanitarian law to protect water during conflict – is it sufficient?

PY: I wouldn't ask you if you think water is a human right – it's so obvious. But it's not obvious in conflict settings. It’s one of those aspects of life that people start underestimating. We have international humanitarian law that applies in situations of armed conflict and indeed prohibits attacks against objects of civil use like water infrastructure, sanitation stations, water treatment plants and so on. But unfortunately, these are often the first targets. It seems like today, weakening the environment around armed groups is becoming a priority for their opponents, meaning they attack hospitals, they attack water resources, they attack civilians. They may eventually attack an armed force on the other side, but, as I’ve witnessed in the DRC, whenever there is a major attack people start to flee because they know they will be targeted.

So on the legal side of things, we have more than enough, but it’s about the implementation. That's why we put so much emphasis on policy and advocacy, on working with local and regional organisations and states. We try to amplify our voice. But at the end of the day, nothing beats going face to face with weapon bearers. Talking to everyone on the ground is part of our mandate. We put our finger where it hurts, but try to change the behaviour of these armed actors, so proximity with them and the communities is essential.

GS: Do we need new tools to protect water?

PY: On the policy side, we need to work with local actors to bring the organic assessments from those who live through the misery and don’t consider our western-packed solutions as the only options.

New tools can also be developed in the framework of certain forums and think tanks – for example, next year’s World Water Forum in Dakar, or the African Union Summit on Water. We also now have the resolution endorsed by the Security Council on the protection of water resources during conflict.

But in most of the international forums that we attend, water is not the headline. And I believe a colossal effort should be put in at a very senior level to improve the quality of water and water access.

This article was realised with the support of the city of Geneva as part of its media support program.