World Water Day 2024 is here!

Our OA Ambassadors raise awareness in their local communities about global OA movements as well as related opportunities through IWA Publishing. To tie in with the 'Water for Peace' theme of World Water Day 2024, in this Spotlight Blog, Kator Jethro Ifyalem looks at how armed conflicts and wars impact water security.

Kator Jethro Ifyalem is a civil engineer and MSc student from Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, committed to environmental sustainability. Connect with Kator on LinkedIn!

In the contemporary world, armed conflicts and wars have evolved to encompass multifaceted dimensions, with consequences extending far beyond conventional battlefields. Among the most critical collateral damages of modern warfare is the profound impact on water security. It is imperative to delve into the intricate relationship between armed conflicts and water resources, understanding the cascading effects on communities, ecosystems, and global stability.

Direct and Indirect Impacts on Water Infrastructure 

Armed conflicts often involve the deliberate or incidental destruction of water infrastructure like treatment plants, pipes, canals, and pumping stations. Population displacement during conflicts can overwhelm infrastructure in host communities. Lack of operation and maintenance due to conflict can also cause breakdowns. Damaged infrastructure means sanitation services like wastewater treatment are also compromised, further spreading disease.

Contamination of Water Sources

Modern weapons containing heavy metals and other toxins can contaminate surface and groundwater sources. High levels of metal contaminants like mercury and lead accumulate in rivers, lakes, and wells in conflict-stricken areas. These toxins can persist in the environment and food chain for decades, creating long-term health hazards. Clean-up is costly and technically challenging.

Humanitarian and Environmental Impacts 

The destruction of water infrastructure and contamination of water sources severely disrupts civilian access to clean water amid violence, displacement, and instability. This spawns public health crises, as people resort to untreated surface water for drinking and hygiene, propagating cholera, and other infectious diseases in conflict zones.

Beyond the humanitarian impacts, armed conflicts also degrade natural environments by hindering conservation efforts that protect watersheds, habitats, and biodiversity. Violence also drives adverse coping behaviours like illegal logging, poaching, or artisanal mining that can pollute rivers with heavy metals and erode landscapes.

Psychosocial Distress and Social Upheaval

The loss of reliable water access and sanitation services also causes significant psychosocial distress for conflict-afflicted communities. Without water security, the social fabric unravels further as displaced groups compete for scarce resources. Cooperation across factions becomes more difficult, prolonging possibilities for peace. Women and children greatly bear these conflict-exacerbated burdens.

Policy and Practical Challenges

Water professionals face formidable policy and practical challenges regarding water security in modern war contexts:

  • Securing infrastructure and ensuring worker safety under violent conditions
  • Avoiding the over-exploitation and contamination of alternative water sources
  • Delivering treatment chemicals, clean drinking water and sanitation to displaced populations
  • Detecting and limiting heavy metal contamination of water and soil 
  • Promoting cooperation on shared water resources despite regional conflicts
  • Planning for post-conflict, post-damage rehabilitation of entire water systems

Overcoming these challenges requires concerted efforts across engineering, health, environment, governance, and social domains.

Promoting Water Truces and International Law

One important policy approach is promoting “water truces” - ceasefires aimed at allowing engineers to repair essential water infrastructure amid conflicts. Such truces require strong international diplomatic and humanitarian backing. We must also continue strengthening legal frameworks defending water security globally. The more nations back and abide by stated conventions, the greater the deterrent effects on those who weaponize water scarcity.

Adapting Technologies and Practices 

Updates in technology and practice can also help secure water amidst modern conflicts:

  • Decentralized modular water treatment systems with renewable backup power can sustain supply despite damage.
  • Dual use protected water points balance access needs with reduction of explosive risks.
  • Mobile water testing kits help swiftly detect contamination from weapons, chemicals, or diseases.
  • GIS, satellite imagery and data science reveal vulnerable water infrastructure for preventive protection.
  • Game theory models and hydro-diplomacy can equip negotiators to equitably share contested water assets.

By adapting both hard and soft technologies, we can enhance resilience against the growing intersection of conflict, environmental and public health threats to water security worldwide.

A Call for Cross-Domain Cooperation 

As violence afflicts growing numbers of communities worldwide, protecting access to clean water is crucial - yet incipient - within relief strategies of conflict-ridden regions. We must spur greater consensus and leadership around managing water security risks from modern armed conflicts.

Through cross-domain cooperation that bridges conflict mediation, environmental protection, and public health domains, we can positively impact millions lacking reliable access to sufficient clean water and sanitation. Our unified voice and actions across engineering, sciences, governance, and social domains are vital to prevent humanitarian disasters and ecological harms from the unprecedented scale of armed conflicts.

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