Water is a pre-requisite for human survival and for the livelihoods of billions of people. However, WHO and UNICEF estimations show that we are still facing mayor challenges: two billion people lack access to water, and 3.6 billion lack access to sanitation services. More than 700 children under 5 die every day due to preventable diseases such as diarrheal and a lack of clean water. Additionally, population growth and climate change create new vulnerabilities and pose risks to the access to potable drinking water.
Even more difficult is the situation in armed conflicts, where water infrastructures may be deliberately targeted in three ways: 1) by direct attack, 2) by misuse, e.g. their use as a weapon to provoke floods and 3) by denying civilians access to water resources. In addition, water infrastructures may suffer from accidental contamination or destruction, and their maintenance in conflict zones may be difficult due to the lack of means and personnel. The situation is aggravated by the changing nature of attacks in recent years, including within protracted conflicts or through cyberattacks. The advancement in technology and the digitalisation of the water sector have increased its vulnerability to cyberattacks which could contaminate water, disrupt its treatment and supply systems, or release dam waters.
The objective of the panel discussion was to find practical ways to strengthen the respect for and implementation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) provisions protecting access to water for the civilian population. In the case of water protection, IHL could for example be interpreted from a two-fold perspective: protecting the environment as well as civilians. It is also necessary to adapt IHL to the before mentioned new challenges, especially to cyberattacks. Geneva being a hub of several dimensions affecting the protection of water infrastructures, including humanitarian, human rights and environment offers the potential for cooperation and further development of this aspects. Panelists included:
Strengthening IHL in the context of access to water, including to Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), remains a priority for the EU, which was recently confirmed in the Commission Communication and EU Council Conclusions on EU Humanitarian Action. We are further developing the EU water diplomacy framework, as the basis for a collaborative, sustainable and rule-based solution on water security challenges.