Red Cross: Middle East conflicts 'pushing water shortages to breaking point'

ICRC recommends improved coordination with local authorities to rehabilitate urban services.

March 26, 2015 17:04
3 minute read.
Tap water

Tap water [illustrative]. (photo credit: INIMAGE)

The ongoing warfare devastating much of Syria and Iraq, and other prolonged conflicts that endure throughout the Middle East, are “pushing water shortages to a breaking point,” argues a new report by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Due to naturally occurring droughts, record-low rainfalls, and resource overexploitation in recent years, aquifers have diminished and many Middle Eastern and Gulf countries are struggling to meet basic water demands, the report says. The region’s conflicts have only exacerbated the situation, which has become increasingly critical due to the displacement of some 7.6 million people within Syria, nearly 4 million Syrians seeking safety in neighboring countries, and about 2.5 million in Iraq, the authors argue.

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“Water systems in the region are under great stress,” said Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC. “Water sources are being rapidly depleted and water infrastructure is being badly damaged in areas where local authorities were already hard pressed to meet the needs of growing populations.

Massive displacement due to conflict is only amplifying the problem. If urgent efforts are not made, we will reach a breaking point. This is why we must act now to protect and preserve this most essential, life-giving resource.”

As a result of the ongoing wars plaguing Syria and Iraq, not only have the aging water and sanitation infrastructure in these countries been impacted, but the movement of displaced people to neighboring countries has taken a toll on resources in these states as well. For example, nearly 4 million displaced Syrians have ended up relocating to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the report says.

Heavy fighting that employs high-intensity explosives has caused serious damage to water, sanitation, and electricity systems, reducing access to water in areas of conflict, the authors write. Meanwhile, the cost of water is rising in such areas, due to the need to run electricity generators or purchase or water from private tankers, they continue.

“The ICRC has also observed a disturbing trend in which water supply, sanitation, and electrical infrastructure are being directly targeted by warring parties,” the report says. “In other instances, parties to a conflict that have control over essential service infrastructure are using access to water and electricity supply as tactical weapons or as bargaining chips in negotiations.”

When such attacks occur, humanitarian responders lack “the capacity to meet the populations’ needs by continually substituting services or by offering quick-fixes,” said Robert Mardini, ICRC’s head of operations for the Middle East.

Particularly problematic for Syrian refugees is the fact that many have little choice but to gather in camps or host communities where water resources are already of low quality or scarce, the authors write. In Syria alone, about 60 percent of pumped water was lost in 2014 as a result of damages caused by the conflict, they add.

While much of the report focuses on the water crisis that has evolved as a result of ongoing warfare in Syria and Iraq, the report also mentions prolonged conflicts in Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian territories and Yemen as responsible for the depletion of resources.

Not only does the region require more water for drinking, but also for agriculture and food production, the report adds.

Overall in 2014, the Red Cross and Red Crescent provided 9.5 million people with water through emergency repairs of supply systems, 600,000 people through tanker trucks or bottles and 1.1 million people through improvements to water-shortage or distribution facilities, according to the ICRC.

Going forward, the ICRC writers recommend several positive courses of action, including improved coordination with local authorities to rehabilitate urban services. The authors note that while not always true, in many cases, warring parties have respected civilian infrastructure.

Productive engagement on this front as well as working with local partners to address the most serious needs could help curb the current crises, the report says.

“There are reasons to be hopeful,” Mardini said. “This is largely a problem caused by humans and it can be solved by humans. But it depends on the support and concerted efforts of everyone, from the international community to local communities. The problem and the solutions belong to everyone, and we must make sure the water flows for everyone.”

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